Rule of Law in Labor Relations, 1898-1940

65 Pages Posted: 4 Aug 2020 Last revised: 14 Jun 2021

See all articles by Price V. Fishback

Price V. Fishback

University of Arizona; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Date Written: July 2020


The paper examines changes in labor regulation between 1898 and 1940 in the context of issues related to rule of law in two areas. 1) Many see the 1905 Lochner Supreme Court decision on men’s hours laws as the beginning of 30 years in which labor regulation was stymied by the doctrine of “freedom of contract.” Seeing close votes and substantial turnover of judges on the Supreme Court, the de facto situation was more complex as some states maintained their laws or passed new ones. 2) Labor disputes led to some of the greatest threats to rule of law. To limit descents into violence, states passed arbitration laws, pro-union laws, and anti-union laws. Uncertainty about the rules led to a sharp rise in strikes and violence after World War I and again when Congress and the states sought to establish the rules for collective bargaining between 1932 and 1937. A panel analysis of the impact of state laws in bituminous coal mining from 1902 to 1941 shows that the arbitration and pro-union laws were associated with less violence during periods of uncertainty. During several periods state pro-union laws were associated with more strikes and state anti-union laws with fewer strikes.

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Suggested Citation

Fishback, Price V., Rule of Law in Labor Relations, 1898-1940 (July 2020). NBER Working Paper No. w27614, Available at SSRN:

Price V. Fishback (Contact Author)

University of Arizona ( email )

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