In this article, the authors look at the supposed causal role of progressive labor legislation on union organizing. As an extension of the Wagner Act debates of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the authors argue—contrary to the accepted wisdom of virtually all established scholarship—that “progressive” labor legislation is not generally the impetus for worker organization, a necessary prerequisite without which mass unionization would be impossible. Rather, this legislation is often consciously cooptive, with the explicit goal of diffusing worker militancy, denuding and undermining radical leadership while simultaneously placating popular discontent. The theoretical and methodological shortcomings of the former position are analyzed in the context of the passage of Section 7(a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). The authors argue that if the unionization of coal miners—the supposed primary beneficiaries of the stimulus attributed to the legislation—occurred prior to the passage of the NIRA, Section 7(a) could not have acted as a catalyst to unionization in the coalfields. The authors show, using archival and secondary accounts, that nearly all the nation’s coal miners were organized before the passage of the NIRA. In light of this empirical data, the authors propose an alternative model of union growth that rejects the methodological individualist assumptions that tacitly undergird the existing literature.

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