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Structured Conflict: Changes in Federal and State Labor Laws and Strike Activity, 1950 to 2017

Labor Laws, Strike Activity and the Rise of Inequality, 1950-2017

How have state and federal intervention in labor-management relations contributed to the relative level of inequality across regions and over time in the United States? Mark Stelzner, Eric Hoyt and Toushita Ramchurn address this question by looking at how a range of factors--the state's position on right-to-work laws, the state's social equity policies among employees of different racial, ethnic and gender groups, as well as federal adjudication of the National Labor Relations Act--have affected power dynamics within individual firms. They show that the embrace of employers' prerogatives in these policy areas has contributed substantially to the rise in U.S. inequality.  


By looking at state adoption of right-to-work laws, state embracement of social equity among employees of different racial and ethnic groups, and federal adjudication and administration of the National Labor Relations Act, we seek to better understand how state and federal intervention in labor-management relations has contributed to income inequality across regions and over time in the United States. As we will see, both state and federal support of employers’ prerogatives and of racially biased institutions is associated with weaker worker power. For example, the National Labor Relations Board's change in adjudication and administration to the benefit of the employer starting in the 1980s is associated with around a 90 percent decrease in strike activity across states. And state embracement of Jim Crow in the midcentury and the New Jim Crow since the 1980s explains a significant portion of the variation in worker power, and thus wages between states.


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