These essays demonstrate how the rise of a civil rights consciousness during the middle decades of the twentieth century was both organically linked to the rise of the New Deal–era trade unions while at the same time this new rights consciousness provided a set of legal and ideological structures that helped weaken those same institutions. When in the mid-1980s Robert Korstad and I began to formulate the essay “Opportunities Found and Lost: Labor, Radicals, and the Early Civil Rights Movement,” the idea of a long civil rights movement that had its origins in the upheavals of the late New Deal was but an obscure construction. It has gained a good deal of ground in subsequent years, as historians such as Jacqueline Hall, Patricia Sullivan, Eric Arnesen, and Glenda Gilmore have demonstrated. Indeed, the legal scholar Risa Goluboff, whose work I review in the second essay in this section, has demonstrated that in the 1940s the legal and political assault on the Jim Crow order was important not just in terms of its movement-building potential, which Korstad and I emphasized, but also as a way of conceptualizing a working-class-oriented definition of the very meaning of civil rights.
Whatever its character, the rights regime that did emerge in the second half of the twentieth century proved enormously liberating, not only in the United States but throughout the world as well, and especially in the less industrialized and democratic nations where the demand for human rights and civil liberties has sparked reform and revolution. But for both workers and citizens, an orientation that privileges individual rights above all else can also function as both a poor substitute for and a legal subversion of the institutions that once provided a collective voice for workers and other subaltern strata.
(p.108) I explore this trade-off in the essay “A New Era of Global Human Rights: Good for the Workers?” Just as the British Anti-Slavery Society and the Congo Association sought to abolish or reform unfree labor in the nineteenth century, so too does the contemporary proliferation of nongovernmental organizations attempt to ameliorate the sweated work that is so commonly found among those who are employed in the manufacture, distribution, and sale of consumer goods in China, India, Bangladesh, Central America, and elsewhere. And in the United States itself, this new reform order has its own parallel: while the unions struggle for their very existence, fighting to preserve a fragment of the power and dignity they had once won for their own members, the rights regime fought for by the civil rights movement has weathered the neoliberal storms of recent decades in far better shape, even if a conservative Supreme Court is determined to limit the scope of a rights-based remedy for millions of workers.