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Labor's Legacy: The Construction of Subnational Work Regulation (WP-19-01)

Daniel Galvin

In recent decades, much of the authority to regulate the workplace has shifted from the national to the subnational level as the primary institutional bases of workers’ rights have shifted from labor law to employment law. What contributions, if any, did labor unions make to this historic shift in workplace governance? Using an integrated multi-method research design, this study exploits the variation in employment laws across all fifty states and uses strategically selected case studies to facilitate discovery and probe for causal mechanisms. It finds that a strong statistical relationship between union density and the strength of state employment laws is not spurious and that even in the two deviant cases least-well explained by the statistical model (Pennsylvania and Maine), labor unions were consistently on the front lines pushing for stronger employment law rights and protections for all workers. In contrast to more ephemeral “union threat” effects that have vanished along with declining rates of union density (e.g., upward pressure on wages, benefits, and the moral economy), state employment laws constitute relatively durable labor market institutions. As such, they may be considered some of organized labor’s most enduring legacies.

Daniel Galvin, Associate Professor of Political Science and IPR Fellow, Northwestern University

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