Document Type



Wisconsin Law Review




One of the most important statutes ever enacted, the National Labor Relations Act envisaged the right to strike as the centerpiece of a system of labor law whose central aims included dramatically diminishing the pervasive exploitation and steep inequality that are endemic to modern capitalism. These goals have never been more relevant. But they have proved difficult to realize via the labor law, in large part because an effective right to strike has long been elusive, undermined by courts, Congress, the NLRB, and powerful elements of the business community. Recognizing this, labor scholars have made the restoration of the right to strike a cornerstone of labor law scholarship. Authorities in the field have developed an impressive literature that stresses the importance of strikes and strongly criticizes the arguments that judges, legislators, and others have used to justify their degradation of the right to strike. But this literature has developed without its authors ever answering a fundamental question, which is whether an effective right to strike is a viable aspiration in the first place. This Article takes up this question. It documents the crucial role that strikes have played in building the labor movement, legitimating the labor law itself, and indeed validating the New Deal and, with this, the modern administrative state; and it confirms the integral role that strikes play in contesting the corrosive power capitalism accords employers over the workplace and the spoils of production. But this Article also shows how the strikes that were effective in these crucial ways were not conventional strikes, limited to the simple withholding of labor and the advertisement of workers’ grievances. Instead, they inevitably embraced disorderly, coercive tactics like mass picketing and sit-down strikes to a degree that suggests that tactics such as these are indeed essential if strikes are to be effective. Yet strikes that have featured these tactics have never enjoyed any legitimacy beyond the ranks of labor, radical activists, and academic sympathizers. Their inherent affronts to property and public order place them well beyond the purview of what could ever constitute a viable legal right in liberal society; and they have been treated accordingly by courts, Congress, and other elite authorities. From this vantage, it becomes clear that an effective right to strike is not only an impossible distraction but a dangerous fantasy that prevents labor’s champions from confronting the broader, sobering truths that this country’s legal and political system are, at root, anathema to a truly viable system of labor rights and that labor’s salvation must be sought elsewhere.