Home / General / Origins of Right to Work

Origins of Right to Work



At RI Future, I reviewed Cedric de Leon’s new book The Origins of Right to Work: Antilabor Democracy in Nineteenth-Century Chicago. An excerpt.

Scholars are beginning to rethink the Gilded Age through the framework of the New Gilded Age. Providence College sociologist Cedric de Leon is at the forefront of this movement in his new book The Origins of the Right to Work: Antilabor Democracy in Nineteenth-Century Chicago. He examines the origins of the “right to work” idea in the mid-nineteenth century, attempting to provide a historical background to formerly union states like Michigan and Wisconsin embracing a war on unions and implementing right to work legislation that allows public sector workers to opt out of union dues while forcing unions to continue representing them. Using Chicago as a case study, he explores how workers conceived of the challenges of the new capitalist economy as avoiding dependence on employers. Self-reliance and the shunning of dependence were central to the growth of American political culture and mythology in the first century after the Revolutionary War and this shaped working-class politics of the antebellum period.

As the nation moved toward the Civil War, fears over the expansion of slavery creating wide-scale dependence of the white working class to the planter class allowed the nascent Republican Party to initially recruit workers into the fight against the South, even as the party’s economic ideology rapidly developed into the pro-corporate mentality that would feed the Gilded Age upon the war’s conclusion. As Chicago workers felt betrayed that the war had spawned increasingly large corporate powers, they began organizing for workers’ rights, including an 8-hour day movement in 1867 and the famous strikes of 1886 that led to the Haymarket Riot, where an anarchist responded to police violence by throwing a bomb into a crowd of police.

The political parties responded harshly to this worker challenge through both ideological constructions and state violence, such as the execution of anarchist leaders after Haymarket. Elites twisted the ideas of freedom to fit an ideology revolving around the freedom of contract. In other words, unions were unnecessary and dangerous because they interfered with a worker’s right to sign a contract for a given wage he negotiated with his employer. Of course this ideology ignored the power relations between workers and employers, as well as the actual struggles of workers in Chicago to make a living but exploiting the working class was the point.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Linkedin
  • Pinterest
  • human

    Oooh. I think maybe I want to read that book.

    • LiveFreeOrShop

      Yeah, I’m gonna order it today.

      I’ve always been curious about the industrialist influence during that period–say, 1840 forward, how they chose to line up with the Republicans, and how they influenced events thereafter. It seems the Whig heritage inside the Republican party (e.g., Lincoln’s long-time support and enthusiasm for a modern market economy) is certainly an indication.

      Eric Foner’s “The Fiery Trial” has a very good overview of the politics leading up to and through to the end of the US Civil War. I’ve yet to read any of his work on Reconstruction.

      Other suggested reading welcome.

      • Rob in CT

        Foner’s Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men was pretty good, IMO, though possibly duplicative of The Fiery Trial since it’s about the ideological development of the GOP pre-civil war.

        • LiveFreeOrShop

          Thanks. I think “Free Soil” will probably be a bit redundant but worth a read. “Trial” is Foner’s attempt to trace Lincoln’s changing attitudes as much as possible through primary sources (rather than memories that are hazy, unreliable, or altered to fit the myth or a point of view). “Trial” gives the Free Labor movement considerable attention, but it’s not the whole book.

  • DrDick

    Thanks for posting this. I think that the radical individualism which characterizes modern industrialized societies is yet another way capital alienates labor and disembeds them from their social context. Contrary to all the conservative social scolds, it is capitalism, not intellectual secularism which has eroded shared values and community.

    • MAJeff

      Contrary to all the conservative social scolds, it is capitalism, not intellectual secularism which has eroded shared values and community.

      You trying to make David Brooks cry?

      • DrDick

        In my dreams!

    • Linnaeus

      yet another way capital alienates labor

      Funny you should mention this. I read this piece in the NYT about dissatisfaction in the workplace and, lo and behold, there was this paragraph:

      Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.

      I seem to recall some dude writing about this kind of thing – though not in those words, of course – about 150 years ago or so.

      • DrDick

        Indeed, comrade.

      • Linnaeus

        Oops, forgot the link to the article.

    • UserGoogol

      I kind of go in the opposite direction: melting all that is solid into air is a good thing. With “community” comes hierarchy, tradition, things that prevent people from being able to live happy lives. To the extent that people have values they acquired from their community we shouldn’t go out of our ways to crush them, but that dynamic breeds conservatism so we should actively encourage people to live rootless atomistic lives. It’s just that a social democratic safety net becomes even more important when you don’t have community to fall back on.

      That being said I’m starting to think that I am completely wrong in this aspect. I have certain personal reasons for being alienated from my social life and my own experiences on top of whatever socioeconomic factors there may be and that may bias me.

      • With “community” comes hierarchy, tradition, things that prevent people from being able to live happy lives.

        With community also comes anything that makes life livable, such as indoor plumbing, fire protection, organized food systems, etc.

        • Rob in CT

          I think you two are using different definitions of community here.

          You can have an individualistic society that has good public fire protection… I mean, we do! That’s not generally what people mean when they discuss community (or rather, when people push a narrative of decline with respect to community) though. They tend to mean fewer people going to church, or joining the local charitable club, and so on.

          • DrDick

            In my case, I mean a sense of fellowship and mutual support and assistance. A sense that you are all in it together and have an obligation to help and care for each other. Shared values is mutual respect and a sense that you should treat each other decently. Churches and clubs are mechanisms for creating that, but largely not necessary.

        • DrDick

          Hierarchy is also not inevitable and was absent for most of human existence. It is only in the last 20 thousand years or so that we started that nonsense.

          • LeeEsq

            I’m going to argue against this. I think that hierarchy was rather inevitable once humans started living in communities of a certain size and organizational complexity. If your living in a small hunter-gatherer band in the wilderness of some type than egalitarian social structures are possible. In a large society with complex organization needs and resource constraints than hierarchy because somewhat inevitable. You need a very primitive or the most wealthy and complex society possible for egalitarianism. Everything else in-between will be hierarchical.

            • Brett

              The hierarchy might have come first. At least from what I can see, more complex agrarian societies came out of conquest and reactions to conquest – societies forming warrior castes who then set themselves up as elites and conquered weaker societies, and other societies that organized warrior castes (or strengthened those that existed) in response to other expansionistic groups.

              • LeeEsq

                We will probably never really know how hierarchy came about. We can make some educated guesses based on archeology and whatever historical records might exist but in the end it all tends to be just so stories that favor the tellers way of looking at the world. Even if your theory is right, that hierarchy came before complexity because of conquest of one group by another, it still implies some sort of innate negative nature in humans to conquest. These negative features don’t come from nowhere but probably always existed in humans.

        • UserGoogol

          I’d call that infrastructure, not community. Community can help build infrastructure, but it just as easily hurt. (See NIMBYism, conservatism, etc.) Community divides the world into those inside and those outside and that sort of divisiveness can prevent collective action even as it encourages what can be done within it.

        • LeeEsq

          What Rob said. What your really referring to are the various types of body politics from the village to the nation-state and voluntary associations. What UserGoogol is writing about is something like the corporate communities of pre-modern or modern times, where you born into a certain group and that group had ways of making you conform.

      • Linnaeus

        With “community” comes hierarchy, tradition, things that prevent people from being able to live happy lives.

        Certainly, but communities can also be spaces for a sense of connection, belonging, fellowship, i.e., per DrDick’s comment. I agree that a social democratic safety net is desirable for a number of reasons, but that can’t substitute for certain intangible but real needs and desires that a sense of community may (or may not) provide.

        (As an aside, tradition is a double-edged sword, but that’s for another discussion).

        I’m not sure that rootless atomism (however we define the term) is an effective remedy for those living in a repressive community, nor am I sure that those who are in such a community would want rootless atomism anyway. Chances are, they don’t have a problem with the concept of a community, but rather don’t like how that concept is manifested where they live. So they try to change their own community or seek another one.

  • Rudolph Schnaubelt

    Gosh, an 8 hour day. A 40hour week. The right to organize. All because of a bunch of rowdy Germans fleeing militarism and empire.

    • DrDick

      All because of a bunch of rowdy German socialists fleeing militarism and empire monarchical suppression. The founders of the US labor movement were ’48ers. Those fleeing empire came 30 years later. I have ancestors from both groups.

      • Rudolph Schnaubelt

        Me too Doc. Obviously. The ’48ers fled the struggle between Prussia and Austro-Hungary. The incipient imperialism of Hohenzollern and Hapsburg. Yes, they were proto-socialists. Arguably, these German labor activists were anarcho-syndicalists.

        By the way, the Chicago P.D. planted that bomb. That’s all I’m sayin’.

It is main inner container footer text