Car Wars: Strikes, Arbitration, and Class Struggle in the Making of Labor Law


The origin of labor law is deeply rooted in the Progressive era, a social epoch in which individualism, manifested in the law as laissez-faire constitutionalism, gradually gave way to liberal demands that the law be used to ameliorate the high social costs wrought by industrial development. While only one small part of this larger picture, labor law is of critical importance because of its key role in regulating the class conflict of the period. Modem labor law emerged out of the labor unrest of the Progressive era.

In addition to its historic importance, labor law illustrates some of the most basic features of American law. It demonstrates the capacity of law to grow and change in response to new social needs and to restructure the social life of our society. Labor law also shows the legal change effected by militant political action on the part of the formerly powerless – a basic validation of the democratic character of American law.

Many legal historians and labor law experts view Progressivism as a middle and upper class reform movement. Hence, they look to these reformers for the sources of the substantial legal change that swept American labor during the period. This reform movement resulted in child labor legislation, laws regulating working conditions, wages and hours legislation, the beginnings of a labor arbitration system, and gave laborers the right to organize. These reform efforts, however, can also be understood as a strategy on the part of one sector of monopoly capitalism, (often called “corporate liberals”), to reduce the level of class struggle, stabilize the labor force, and promote broader social harmony that could permit rapid capital expansion with less violence and less human misery.

Although this view has evidence to support it, it fails to recognize the role of working class thought and action in structuring early labor law. The workers of the period organized themselves for a wide range of ends, some of them contradictory. But on a broad front they had clear legal objectives that were encouraged by democratic values.

Analysis of the legal goals and strategies of the Amalgamated Association of Street Car Workers lends insight into workers’ objectives during the Progressive era. This analysis will focus on the legal and illegal tactics of the union, including numerous and violent strikes to obtain arbitration contracts.Such a focus will clarify the union’s basic objectives and strategy. Further, it will reveal the social origins of labor law as having been rooted in the working class trade unions.

Suggested Reading

From the 2016 Symposium: Dishwashers, Domestic Workers, and Day Laborers: Can Alternative Organizing Revive the Labor Movement? Panel II: Friend or Foe: Labor Law and Non-Union Workers March 25, 2016 Wilma B. Liebman[1]             Is the Depression-era National Labor Relations