Work Rights, Individual Rights: Balancing the Scales

Work Rights, Individual Rights: Balancing the Scales

As we near century’s end, Americans can see the entire middle third of this century, from the early 1930s to the end of the 1960s, as a unified whole. We might well call it “The Age of Social Reform,” a single generation in which a powerfully intrusive state, strengthened by depression, war, cold war, and domestic social conflict, sought to transform the traditional hierarchies governing the industrial, racial, and gender order. The two most radical pieces of U.S. social legislation passed during this era—perhaps during the entire twentieth century—were the Wagner Act of 1935 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Both of these laws were passed to resolve fundamental social problems, not entirely dissimilar in their nature; and both of these laws generated a whole new layer of the federal bureaucracy, years of political and ideological conflict, and an enormous body of case law designed to tease out the meaning of these statutes. Both transformed the world of work and the values and expectations held by workers, managers, and that loose assortment of politicians, academics, and editorial writers who shape the way we think about the world.

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