An Interdisciplinary Conference at the University of California, Santa Barbara
January 16-17, 2009
University of California, Santa Barbara

Sponsored by the UCSB Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy; UCLA's Institute for Research on Labor and Employment; the UCSB Interdisciplinary Humanities Center, Department of History, College of Letters and Sciences, Hull Chair in Feminist Studies; and the University of Pennsylvania Press.

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Sponsored by: The University of Pennsylvania Press and the University of California, Santa Barbara's Department of History, College of Letters and Sciences, and Interdisciplinary Humanities Center.

Printable/Downloadable Conference Flyer

An intense and systematic hostility to trade unionism on the part of American conservatism is hardly news. It has been a notable feature of the nation’s political landscape for decades. But an understanding and deconstruction of this phenomenon requires something more than mere condemnation, especially during the next few years when a labor-liberal effort to reform of the American labor law, along with the rise of labor’s influence within the Democratic Party, is almost certain to generate a furious and determined counter attack from those who seek to limit the power and marginalize the legitimacy of U.S. trade unionism.

A dress rehearsal for the coming debate was on display during 2007 when organized labor and its Democratic allies sought Congressional passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, designed to advance unionism by institutionalizing “card check” and providing a mechanism for arbitration of first contracts. Anti-union conservatives – in Congress, the Chamber of Commerce, the Right-to-Work Legal Defense Foundation, within the world of the rightwing think tanks, and on the editorial pages of some leading newspapers – mobilized their money, their men, and their ideology to define this reform as corrupt, coercive, and hostile to the existing purposes of the labor law. One infamous advertisement filled an entire page of newsprint with three headshots: that of North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, and American trade union leader Bruce Raynor.  Above their pictures was the quote "There’s no reason to subject the workers to an election" and below the query, "Who said it?" It was Raynor, of course, now made to seem clearly in league with the Communist dictators.  The mysteriously funded Center for Union Facts, which paid for the ad, then asserted, "Find out how union leaders are forcing people to pay dues by trashing democracy."

Such claims have resonance. Indeed, the labor movement and its allies in Congress and in academe have had considerable difficulty in deciding upon the most efficacious counter to this anti-union propaganda. Should these pseudo-democratic claims be ignored and all emphasis placed upon the economic and moral benefits of a larger and more robust trade union movement and upon survey data that show that a majority of U.S. workers want to join a union? Or should the accusation, that "card check" was less democratic and more coercive than an NLRB election be directly confronted, perhaps with the counterclaim that unions are first and foremost voluntary associations protected by the constitution itself and an institution whose existence is solely determined by the will of those workers who seek to form it. 

This conference seeks to explore the character of those political institutions, ideological impulses, and journalistic/rhetorical tropes that have been deployed in this conservative effort to marginalize and delegitimize American trade unionism. We have thus far accepted papers from some 32 individuals, chiefly historians and legal scholars. Their work offers multiple, complementary insights into a heretofore unexplored world of right-wing ideas and praxis.

Several panelists and keynote speaker Fred Feinstein, the NLRB’s Clinton-era General Counsel, explore the contours of the fierce, contemporary debate over the Employee Free Choice Act, the first thoroughgoing effort to reform the American labor law in more than 60 years. Some of the commentators at our conference will be practitioners from the world of law, labor education, the labor movement, and contemporary politics. This mix should be beneficial to both groups, informing the academics of the issues and obstacles confronting those who seek a contemporary reform of the labor law, at the same time that the historians provide texture, depth, and a comparative institutional and ideological context that might aid those now engaged in legislative and political debate. 

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