Labor History Essay

Summary and Critique of Labor History


The article is a review of how the history of American labor laws evolved since 1985 with reference to Christopher Tomlins’ The State and the Unions and other historians. According to the author, the publication of Tomlins’ article is to be viewed as a paradigm, one that should have been given the name “critical synthesis” because of what it accomplished. It is a theory of how labor relations were modernized and the fall of unionism. It also examines the effectiveness of the New Deal liberalism. He particularly stress Tomlins’ view that the New Deal only gave workers “counterfeit liberty”. He also expresses Tomlins’ observation that since the New Deal had failed to address the workplace inequalities, the unions were pushing for Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). However, the law was never enacted despite their persistence. After in-depth analysis by scholars of critical legal studies (CLS), labor laws were seen to have been influenced by politics, something that favored only the rich and powerful.


According to the article, the Critical Synthesis was initially opposed only by a few scholars in the 1980s. However, come the mid-1990s, many historians like Melvyn Dubofsky publicly attacked it publication such as The State and Labor, in which he rejected the critical synthesis, stating that the State is not autonomous from the forces that stem from the society. According to Dubofsky, American workers had not been snared by the New Deal liberalism, but labor had suffered setbacks in terms of internal unity and alliances with reformers. This is evident from the post-war civil society in which workers regarded themselves as middle class and not working class.

The methodology and some conclusions of the critical synthesis were also opposed by some scholars. One of them, Daniel Clark, stated that workers had been able to improve their living conditions through strong unions and grassroots militancy. Local studies did not actually disprove the critical scholars’ conclusions; rather, they brought in new tensions, suggesting that workers had a more complex experience with state matters.

Moreover, the article shows that unions were sharply criticized and branded as tyrannical monopolies that were sponsored by the state. Those who criticized them, like Sylvester Petro, a legal scholar, stated that the unions hindered workers from exercising their right to make individual decisions on the marketplace. It also indicates that conservatives have been successful in reshaping what democracy at work means. According to them, democracy asserts one’s right to refuse to join a union and to defect from collective actions of labor.

Critiques and Issues

The authorial voice is confirmative and supportive of the Critical Synthesis. The language used has no grammar errors. However, there is a definite grammar or typing error in the question: “Are the commitments that must be made to achieve this are compatible with needs of unions once they are in place?” Moreover, the author’s argument is not very rigorous. He does not disagree with any claims made by historians, conservatives and critical reviewers. Moreover, the article uses questions to engage the reader in the argument. Meanwhile, the arguments presented by the other authors quoted by Vinel are very strong and vigorous, striving to disqualify entirely the objects of their rejection.

Lastly, Vinel outlines elaborate theoretical foundations for his arguments, making them credible. By quoting the various historians and authors in the same subject, he is able to make arguments that can be trusted. People who are familiar with the works of the different authors and historians also have a chance to dispute the arguments made in this article.

Questions to Address

  1. Do you think the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) could have addressed the workplace inequality issues had it been enacted?
  2. Why do you think the scholars of critical law studies associated law with politics?
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