Structural Labor Rights

Hiba Hafiz*

American labor law was designed to ensure equal bargaining power between workers and employers. But workers’ collective power against increasingly dominant employers has disintegrated. With union density at an abysmal 6.2 percent in the private sector—a level unequaled since the Great Depression— the vast majority of workers depend only on individual negotiations with employers to lift stagnant wages and ensure upward economic mobility. But decentralized, individual bargaining is not enough. Economists and legal scholars increasingly agree that, absent regulation to protect workers’ collective rights, labor markets naturally strengthen employers’ bargaining power over workers. Existing labor and antitrust law have failed to step in, leaving employers free to coordinate and consolidate labor-market power while constraining workers’ ability to do the same. The dissolution of workers’ collective rights has resulted in spiking income inequality: workers have suffered economy-wide wage stagnation and a declining share of the national income for decades. To resolve this crisis, some scholars have advocated for ambitious labor law reforms, like sector-wide bargaining, while others have turned to antitrust law to tackle employer power. While these proposals are vital, they overlook an existing opportunity already contained in the labor law that would avoid the political and doctrinal obstacles to such large-scale reforms.

This Article argues for a “structural” approach to the labor law that revives and modernizes its equal bargaining power purpose through deploying innovative social scientific analysis. A “structural” approach is one that takes into account workers’ bargaining power relative to employers in determining the scope of substantive labor rights and in resolving disputes. Because employers’ current buyer power strengthens their ability to indefinitely hold out on worker demands in the employment bargain, the “structural” approach seeks to deploy social scientific tools to tailor the labor law’s provisions so that they resituate workers to a bargaining position from which they could equally hold out.

This Article makes three key contributions. First, it documents the dispersion and misalignment of workers’ collective rights under current labor law, detailing the historical narrowing of workers’ collective rights to limited tactics by a small set of workers against highly protected individual enterprises and the concomitant rise of employer power (Part I). Second, it introduces and schematizes the wealth of social scientific literature relevant for evaluating the relative bargaining power of employers and employees (Part II). And finally, it offers concrete proposals for how to apply these social scientific tools and insights to three areas of the National Labor Relation Board’s adjudication and regulatory authority: the determination of “employer”/”employee” status, the determination of employees’ substantive rights under section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), and the determination of what counts as sanctionable unfair labor practices under section 8 of the NLRA (Part III).

* Assistant Professor of Law at Boston College Law School. The author is grateful for comments from Kate Andrias, Molly Brady, Brian Callaci, Dan Farbman, Catherine Fisk, William Gould IV, Kate Griffith, Claudia Haupt, Karl Klare, Benjamin Levin, Frank Lovett, Pat McCoy, Luke Norris, Shuyi Oei, David Olson, Diane Ring, Brishen Rogers, Natalya Shnitser, Laura Weinrib, and faculty workshop participants at Boston College Law School, the Boston Junior Faculty Roundtable, and Northeastern University School of Law. Finally, my sincere thanks to Alexandros Ehrlich, Emily Harris, and the editors of the Michigan Law Review.