by Kenneth M. Casebeer (ed.). Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2011. 486 pp. Paper $55.00. ISBN 9781594609305.

Reviewed by Richard A. Brisbin, Jr., Department of Political Science, West Virginia University. Email: Richard.Brisbin [at]

pp. 696-699

In this volume Kenneth Casebeer, a law professor, presents a collection of twenty-seven previously published historical articles and book chapters interspaced with eight historical documents and other snippets of original commentaries about collective struggles by American workers. The authors of the articles are either historians or law professors who write about labor history. In selecting these scholar’s articles, Casebeer asserts in his introduction that he is trying to correct the academic limitations of different kinds of studies of collective action by American workers while offering supplemental materials for courses about labor law and labor history. In so doing, he seeks to portray the “history of actual people” (p.xiv). His approach, he contends, rejects much scholarly writing about labor and legality. The rejected approaches include the focus on collective bargaining found in law school hornbooks, law and society studies he neither cites nor examines, and studies that employ what he refers to as “post-modern” methodologies or, apparently, since they are not referenced, studies that focus on the discourse of workers. Instead, he desires a historiography that acknowledges the “centrality of the struggle of workers to gain power otherwise denied them” (p.xi) and their efforts to establish economic democracy. Nearly all of the articles therefore examine collective action by unorganized or unionized workers against the legally secured power of employers and the state at different junctures in American history.

Does Casebeer’s focus on workers’ struggles influence the articles he has selected for inclusion in the book? His concern means that the articles most frequently examine strikes and related job actions as a form of resistance against the legally constituted and repressive powers of management and judges. Although many articles begin with a “bottom-up” account of a strike or other job action, the importance of litigation in the control of workers is often a central element in the final stages of these conflicts. Articles about the Philadelphia cordwainer’s strike of 1805, the Pullman strike of 1894, the steel strike of 1919, the Gastonia, North Carolina textile workers strike of 1929, the San Francisco general strike of 1934, [*697] sit-down strikes in various industries during the Great Depression, and the Pittston coal strike of 1989-1990 illustrate how collective action is domesticated by judicial or legislative intervention. Thematically related articles illustrate how employers or the state have deployed law and legalized uses of armed force to break collective movements, such as with the Homestead strike of 1892, the Pullman strike of 1895, the IWW strike at Bisbee, Arizona in 1917, and the Auto-Lite strike in Toledo, Ohio in 1934. Other articles show how management subverted pro-labor legislation, as with and judicial rulings in the Southern Steamship shipboard sit-in case, and established company towns to legalize the dependency of workers. In a final segment six articles address the post-1981 era of assaults on union power and union organizing initiated by business and the Reagan administration. These articles examine various unions’ corporate campaigns, business occupations, and efforts to contest plant closing and the contracting out policies of employers.

As far as it goes this collection provides stimulating reading about the linkage of employer and state power and law in the control of American workers. It is useful to have the studies bound in one volume rather than scattered across a range of publications not readily accessible outside of larger university libraries or schools with electronic collections of academic journals. Nonetheless, a bibliography would have further added to the utility of this volume as a resource for political scientists interested in the relations of labor, employers, and the state.

Given Casebeer’s focus on the centrality of laborers’ struggles to gain denied power, one problem appears with this collection. There is a failure to include articles on a number of topics to flesh out fully the scope of the political meaning of the resistance of American workers toward employers and the longer term political and legal ramifications of collective action. Most selections are case studies of a single set of events that do not link the events to the broader politics of the era. For example, the article about the Lowell mill girls’ strike of 1834 does not effectively connect it to the market revolution and the social role of women in Jacksonian America. Only selections about the Knights of Labor authored by Leon Fink, labor injunctions by William Forbath, and the Memphis sanitation workers strike of 1968 by Michael Honey link collective actions to broader political, legal, social, and ideological trends or to economic change in the regime.

Additional examples of the volume’s limited coverage of the scope of the politics of collective action by workers appear. First, because the majority of the articles focus on strikes and related acts of violence and disorder, except for a study of a slowdown action at Elk [*698] Lumber by James Atleson, the less visible, everyday tactics of workers to offset their legal subjection to employers are largely ignored (for examples of such tactics see Scott 1990). Second, the importance of both workers’ leaders and the presence of union leaders in guiding or challenging the turn to disorder could be sharpened in many of the selections to explore the spontaneity of bottom-up nature of incidents of collective action by workers. A leadership directed many of the collective actions, such as the Pittston strike, but their varying contribution to the resistance is not that apparent in many of the articles. Third, there is little information in any of the articles on the ability of collective action or litigation by workers to structure the political or judicial agenda and raise issues for public debate (for an example, see McCann 1994). Fourth there are no articles that address the successes of unions and their collective political action—including electoral participation—in shaping the legal status and power of contemporary workers. From workers’ compensation through New Deal legislation to post-World War II legislation unions played a central role in shaping American legislation (as recounted by Orren 1986). Also, especially in some states, unions have used legislative successes to insinuate themselves into regulatory and educational politics, which is a partial cause of attacks on union power by the contemporary Right recounted in Casebeer’s chapter about the recent Wisconsin public worker protests. Fifth, the volume contains selections about collective actions by racial, gendered, and immigrant workers, such as articles about a black tenant farmers union in Arkansas in 1919, black public service and home care workers during the 1960s and 1970s, and Latino workers at the University of Miami that suggest collective actions often take on a racial, gender, or immigrant cast. However, as in articles about the Pullman strike by David Montgomery, the litigation about the firing of black millhands to satisfy white mob action Martha Mahoney, and discrimination against black railway workers by Eric Arnesen, most selections illustrate only indirectly how collective action has often floundered because of deep racial differences among workers or employers’ exploitation of such differences. Finally none of the articles explore the sources and nature of the decrease in adversarial conflict in worker-employer relations that has arisen in union-management relations in industries, such as steel and auto manufacture, during the late twentieth century.

Despite these limitations in the portrayal of the politics of collective actions by workers, the collected articles will serve to inform the political scientist or law and society scholar interested in aspects of the politics of American labor or the effect of collective worker resistance in constituting the legal universe in which workers function. Scholars also will find these articles useful in various ways in classes that address issues about group and [*699] social movement politics, the empowering and disempowering constitution of legality, labor politics, and some specific constitutional controversies. From them the informed scholar might begin to propose an answer to the big question: Why has economic democracy not materialized in the United States?


McCann, Michael W. 1994. Rights at Work: Pay Equity Reform and the Politics of Legal Mobilization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Orren, Karen. 1986. “Union Politics and Post-War Liberalism in the United States,” 1946-1979,” Studies in American Political Development 1 (1986): 215-51.
Scott, James.1990. Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven: Yale University Press.

© Copyright by the author, Richard A. Brisbin, Jr.