May 3, 2023

Labor’s Past and Future: The New Deal Order, the Neoliberal Order, and Beyond

Luke P. Norris Associate Professor of Law at the University of Richmond School of Law

This piece is the first in a month-long blog series that celebrates Labor History Month and examines how the labor movement’s past struggles and victories can inform the present fight for workers’ rights.

Just after announcing his reelection campaign, President Biden’s first address was to the North America’s Building Trades Unions Legislative Conference. Biden called himself “the most pro-union president in American history,” telling the assembled crowd that he sees the country “through the eyes of the working people I grew up with … through the eyes of people like you.”

The announcement suggests the possibility that Biden might center labor in his reelection campaign. The labor movement and workers’ rights were once at the center of the American political and legal system. However, as the neoliberal order came into shape over the past half-century, labor issues have receded. Today, we are witnessing new and exciting forms of worker mobilization, and as progressives frame a strategy for moving beyond neoliberalism, a vision fusing work and care may be a promising path forward.

Labor Primacy in the New Deal

In the late nineteenth century, on the heels of the Civil War and with the Industrial Revolution roaring, the “labor question” was a core part of American political and legal discourse. The labor movement, intellectuals, and political leaders struggled with the implications of a society increasingly composed of workers in firms and this reality’s implications for democracy, republican values, and freedom.

Conflicts over labor and law’s role in labor relations evolved throughout the Progressive Era and into the New Deal. Then, labor issues came to the center of a broad constitutional discourse. Labor organizations and a host of other social movement actors worked successfully to put into place a “worker’s constitution,” composed of the National Labor Relations Act, Social Security Act, and Fair Labor Standards Act. These three statutes redefined economic freedom for workers around security and sought to entrench worker security in the constitutional fabric.

The New Deal was defined by its labor primacy—by its centering of labor in the efforts to build an “economic constitutional order.” Indeed, when envisioning building an economic constitutional order in 1932, FDR placed at its foundations the “right to make a comfortable living” and right to security when work dried up or injuries occurred on the job. Of course, the New Deal was about so much more; it involved, among other things, significant legislative achievements involving banking and securities, the environment, and public works. But the era’s fiercest social and political mobilizations were about work and workers. And those mobilizations helped to frame and personalize the problems of economic power that animated the New Deal transformation.

The New Deal also had significant limits. They include the ways its policies baked in patterns of exclusion along the lines of race and gender and failed to protect domestic and agricultural workers. New Deal policies brought stability and security for many workers, but also left many behind.

Labor’s Decline & the Neoliberalism of the Left

The New Deal order ultimately ceded to the neoliberal order, and the decline of labor primacy looms large in that transition. In the 1970s, neoliberalism—with its focus on reducing the power of government in society and shifting power (and government solicitude) to markets—began to take hold in the United States. Many factors made its rise possible, including currents in international affairs, the economic challenges of the 1970s, and the unraveling of the New Deal coalition around civil rights issues. But the rise of neoliberalism is also a story about labor, Democrats, and the left.

Gary Gerstle’s recent book, The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order: America and the World in the Free Market Era, outlines various ways—including surprising ones—that Democrats and the left contributed to the rise of neoliberalism. Gerstle argues that the neoliberal shift was facilitated by Ralph Nader and Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Nader, who had significant influence in the Carter presidency, shifted the terrain from workers to consumers, and framed as evils both corporate and governmental power, undermining New Deal faith in the affirmative power of government. President Carter, torn between New Dealers and deregulatory forces within his own ranks, began a path of deregulation that would continue strongly not only in the Reagan presidency but also the Clinton presidency.

For Gerstle, too, the fall of the Soviet Union features in the rise of neoliberalism and decline of labor. “The fear of communism,” he writes, “made possible the class compromise between capital and labor that underwrote the New Deal order,” and the “collapse of communism … cleared the way of capitalism’s most ardent opponent.” As a result, the need for compromise with working people dissipated.

Across these examples, a connecting thread is that a political order characterized by its labor primacy shifted to one where labor was decentered. Along the way, faith in government and its ability to reshape economic power relationships and provide for the security of workers was also shaken.

Towards the Future: Fusing Work and Care

The question of what will replace neoliberalism—if the neoliberal era is coming to an end or has ended—is on the minds of many progressives. The future of labor will surely center in that conversation. A new political order, however, would have in its sights so much more, including climate change, voter suppression and disenfranchisement, student debt, childcare and healthcare, the power of big tech, and mass incarceration.

Gerstle’s book, however, reminds us that a political order is much more than an arrangement of policies and electoral victories; it also grows from and is sustained by a vision that reaches people where they are, drawing from the stuff of their lives to demonstrate the pitfalls of the old order and the promise of a new one. Progressives and New Dealers spoke to the insecurity that people felt on the heels of the Industrial Revolution and Great Depression; they promised that government could tame markets and provide security for workers. Neoliberals, including forces such as Ronald Reagan and Ayn Rand, offered those facing a growing bureaucratic state an ecstatic vision of freedom—of being unbound, spontaneous, innovative, and unconstrained. The idea of freedom as throwing off restraint also resounded with the “new Left” and its critiques of “the system.” As with the rise of neoliberalism, its replacement—to the extent there is one—will likely arise from articulating what neoliberalism robs and what a new order can bring or restore.

Today, in charting such a path forward beyond neoliberalism, it would be a mistake to return to a strategy of pure labor primacy. As that strategy developed in the New Deal, it focused too much on the workplace as a unit of emphasis and linked too many goods—including healthcare—to that unit. But this does not mean that it would be wise to decenter labor, either. Instead, a promising path forward may be articulating a progressive vision fusing labor and care.

At the most basic level, these things hit home. So many of us spend our lives primarily engaged in work and care. A progressive vision centering these core life activities can meet people where they are and offer an opportunity to think about these activities and their relationship in broader and more inclusive ways. Such a vision might address the exclusion of housework and caregiving from how we understand the economy. And it might offer opportunities for the focus on labor to be expanded beyond its narrow historical lens. As an example, workers are increasingly “bargaining for the common good,” allying with other organizations to expand the sphere of bargaining to encompass broader policy and community issues, including healthcare, student nutrition, racial justice, and immigration issues. A progressive politics centering work and care thus provides an opportunity to think about how we define and support these endeavors and how we can engage in acts of solidarity and countervailing power to give people the security for which so many yearn.

Centering labor and care also holds the possibility of reaching and mobilizing people worn out by life under the neoliberal order. Neoliberalism affects people’s ability to work, care, and exist together securely. It takes the public spaces where people might gather, converting them for private gain. And it makes other spaces ones where people must bear sometimes maddening insecurity: where paying for childcare or elder care seems impossible; where family picnics go on the credit card; where job insecurity makes keeping the family afloat all the more difficult, while long hours take away time with loved ones; where an education brings with it debt that weighs heavily on young lives; where healthcare decisions pinch in painful ways; where the carceral state tears people apart; and so much more. As a society, we are impoverished by neoliberalism.

A progressive future might be sustained by a rejuvenated vision of security—of being together with a good measure of stability, being supported and healthy as we work and care, and doing so in a system that values human flourishing in engaging in these core life activities. A vision of labor and care is less ecstatic than the vision of freedom that neoliberals put forward, but potentially more cathartic, more attuned to present-day challenges and needs.


Luke Norris is an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Richmond School of Law.

Labor and Employment Law, Law and Political Economy, Workers’ Rights