Workers’ Paradox: The Republican Origins of the New Deal Labor Policy, 1886-1935

Reinterpreting the roots of twentieth-century American labor law and politics, Ruth O’Brien argues that it was not New Deal Democrats but rather Republicans of an earlier era who developed the fundamental principles underlying modern labor policy. By examining a series of judicial rulings from the first three decades of the century, she demonstrates that the emphasis on establishing the procedural rights of workers that is usually associated with the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 actually emerged over a decade earlier, in the Republican-formulated labor legislation of the 1920s.

O’Brien’s findings underscore a paradox within the foundation of labor policy and the development of liberalism in the United States. The leaders of the liberal state created a strict regulatory framework for organized labor only after realizing that the mainstream labor movement’s capacity for collective power threatened to undermine individualism and classlessness in American society. In other words, O’Brien argues, the individualism that accounts for the overall weakness of the liberal state also produced America’s statist labor policy.

Editorial Reviews

O’Brien “advances the startling proposition that it was not the New Deal but the Republican Congress and Supreme Court of the 1920s who developed the fundamental principles underlying the Wagner Act and modern labor policy in the United States. … The book is must reading for historians of labor law . . . .” Robert Whaples, Journal of Economic History

“This is an interesting and important book that is bound to promote comment and controversy. . . . This is a book that deserves a wide readership.  Its engagement with a number of current debates means that it will work well I the classroom, and its radical reinterpretation of new Deal labor policy means that it is certain to prompt serious thought and reflection.”  Rich Halpern, American Studies

“The significance of O’Brien’s book transcends immediate subject …. [It is an important study of the contributions of Progressive Republicanism to the New Deal and the formation of the modern American state.”  American Historical Review

 “This is an intriguing and deftly argued book.”  Colin Gordon,  Law and History Review

 Workers’ Paradox’s “significant contribution is as a case study in the paradoxical expansion of the liberal state.” Dan Ernst, Labor History

“O’Brien has written and important and provocative book.” Ellis Hawley, The Annals of Iowa

Publishing Details (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1998)