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Strikes and the Law in the U.S., 1881-1894: New Evidence on the Origins of American Exceptionalism


  • Janet Currie
  • Joseph Ferrie


The origins of American exceptionalism þ the apolitical nature of American labor unions compared to their European counterparts þ have puzzled labor historians. Recently, the hypothesis has been advanced that organized labor abandoned attempts to win reform through legislation because the reforms did not have the desired consequences. We evaluate this claim using information on each state's legal environment and unique strike-level data on over 12,000 labor disputes between 1881 and 1894. We find that the law affected strike costs and strike outcomes, though not always in the anticipated directions. For example, laws outlawing blacklisting were associated with the increased use of strike breakers, while the legalization of unions, one of the hardest won legislative changes, had little impact. Only maximum hours laws had clearly pro-labor effects. Our results are consistent with the view that the American labor movement abandoned political activism and embraced business unionism because unions found the law to be an inaccurate instrument for effecting change in labor markets.

Suggested Citation

  • Janet Currie & Joseph Ferrie, 1995. "Strikes and the Law in the U.S., 1881-1894: New Evidence on the Origins of American Exceptionalism," NBER Working Papers 5368, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:5368
    Note: DAE LS

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    Cited by:

    1. Joshua L. Rosenbloom, 1996. "Strikebreaking and the Labor Market in the United States, 1881-1874," NBER Historical Working Papers 0086, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • J52 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Labor-Management Relations, Trade Unions, and Collective Bargaining - - - Dispute Resolution: Strikes, Arbitration, and Mediation
    • K31 - Law and Economics - - Other Substantive Areas of Law - - - Labor Law


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