Labor Federalism in the United States: Lessons for International Labor Rights

Mark Barenberg, Columbia Law School


Before the 1960s, United States regulatory institutions effectively enforced the principle that interstate commerce in goods produced in violation of workers' rights of association is an unfair trade practice. Thereafter, the same institutions facilitated the de facto non-enforcement of those core labor rights. This experience is best understood through regulatory models of "coordinated decentralization." The experience of United States labor federalism points to several institutional features that are likely to prove critical to the success or failure of any supranational architecture for enforcement of international labor rights, including: the regulatory endogeneity of interest groups; the structure of non-governmental institutions that span the tiers of federal public institutions; the mechanisms that mutually reinforce procedural and substantive rights of association; and the public-private networks that seek economic growth through agglomeration of human physical capital or, instead, through minimization of unit labor costs.