The Changing Nature of Workers' Rights

Project Date:
Sep 2017
Award Amount:
$34,988

Co-funded with the W. K. Kellogg Foundation 

The formal structures of national labor law have changed little over the last 80 years and no amendments have been made in over 40 years. Despite attempts by labor unions and their allies to update the law to reflect contemporary labor market conditions, opponents have successfully blocked reforms. This “policy drift” is defined by Jacob Hacker and colleagues as a case “when institutions or policies are deliberately held in place while their context shifts in ways that alter their effects.” As a consequence, private sector labor unions have weakened, collective action in the workplace has declined, and the power imbalance between employers and employees has widened. Political scientist Daniel Galvin contends that new channels for collective action, self-organization, and political activism are available and he proposes to document and explain the emergence of a new politics of workers’ rights, discern its trajectory, and weigh its implications. He will collect data in Chicago, New York and Washington to investigate three hypothesized responses to the policy drift: 1) as labor law has drifted, workers’ advocates have shifted venue and sought to create new institutional forms to protect and advance workers’ interests (via state-level employment laws); 2) as labor unions have declined, they have adapted and embraced new strategies, often involving state and local employment laws; and 3) new organizations and movements representing and mobilizing workers have emerged. 

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