The Workplace Constitution from the New Deal to the New Right

Sophia Z. Lee.
October 2014. Order online through the Cambridge University Press or Amazon. ISBN: 9781107613218.

Read reviews for The Workplace Constitution from the New Deal to the New Right: 

Today, most Americans lack constitutional rights on the job. But as The Workplace Constitution shows, this outcome was far from inevitable. Beginning in the 1930s, civil rights advocates fought for constitutional protections against racial discrimination by employers and unions. At the same time, a right-to-work movement argued that the Constitution protected workers from having to join or support unions. These two movements created a contentious but potentially powerful combination. The workplace Constitution’s politically divergent uses, however, ultimately led to its collapse.

The Workplace Constitution newly examines anti-New Deal conservatives’ legal campaigns and moves constitutional history into little-explored venues such as administrative agencies. Recovering both movements’ surprising successes and explaining their ultimate failure offers a new take on postwar conservatism and liberalism, emphasizing how law intertwined their fates and how this entanglement in turn shaped the law. In the twenty-first century, the workplace Constitution has all but vanished. This book illuminates what has been gained and lost in its demise.


“The Workplace Constitution is both ambitious and important—it moves across time, among a variety of individuals, organizations, and government entities, and utilizes a wide range of archival material—all of keen interest to historians, legal scholars, and political scientists alike. Lee’s formidable intelligence gives us new insights, as well as historical and historiographical surprises.”
– Risa L. Goluboff, John Allan Love Professor of Law; Justice Thurgood Marshall Distinguished Professor of Law, University of Virginia

“Sophia Lee brilliantly pairs her analysis of the civil rights movement with the rise of the right-to-work movement and the ‘union-avoidance’ industry. She also matches her fine history of the state action theory with an equally persuasive argument that administrative agencies have been a fruitful source of constitutional visions and versions. This beautifully written book represents deep and broad research and entirely original analysis. I know of nothing like it.”
– Laura Kalman, University of California, Santa Barbara

“Sophia Lee’s The Workplace Constitution is one of the most insightful and provocative studies of the bifurcated matrix of laws and court rulings that govern the American work regime. Deploying a marvelous talent as narrative historian, she demonstrates that the attempt to construct a labor relations regime that simultaneously protects the rights of racial minorities proved an enormously vexing and contentious project, one standing close to the heart of American politics for more than half a century.”
– Nelson Lichtenstein, MacArthur Foundation Professor in History, University of California, Santa Barbara

“A superb and compelling account of the long-running quest for constitutional rights in the workplace since the 1930s. Relying on extensive archival research, Lee offers two intertwined legal stories that enrich but also complicate our vision of twentieth-century political history.”
– Jean-Christian Vinel, The American Historical Review

“A nuanced narrative history of 1930s–1980s campaigns to extend constitutional rights to private-sector workers both inside and outside labor unions, and to thereby create what Lee calls a ‘workplace constitution’ … provides a rich history of conservatives’ legal theories of government power over the workplace – from the open shop movement to opposition to affirmative action … her focus on administrative agencies reframes histories of court decisions and extends the history of fair employment litigation well past the 1940s era …”
– Trevor Griffey, The Journal of American History

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