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Professor Sophia Lee discusses her new book, The Workplace Constitution

March 23, 2015

Sophia Z. Lee, a legal historian and Professor of Law and History at Penn Law, talks about her new book, The Workplace Constitution from the New Deal to the New Right.

In this video feature, Penn Law professor Sophia Z. Lee discusses her new book, The Workplace Constitution from the New Deal to the New Right.

The Workplace Constitution tells for the first time the story of anti-New Deal conservatives’ legal campaigns, overlooked civil rights and labor advocacy, and the constitutional history of little-explored venues such as administrative agencies. In the book, Lee recounts the civil rights and right-to-work movements’ surprising successes and explains their failures.

(See also: RegBlog examines Lee’s new book with a five-part series, “The Struggle Over the Constitution in the Workplace.”)




My name is Sophia Lee, and I am a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and I am here today to talk about my new book, The Workplace Constitution from the New Deal to the New Right

Work is a huge part of adults’ lives in the United States. Many Americans spend the majority of their waking hours at work. They depend on their jobs for their livelihoods and the security of their families, so I think it is important for them to understand the legal rules that govern this major part of their lives and to understand the history of workers before them.

The book is a history of what I call the workplace Constitution. It is an idea that workers would have constitutional rights on the job. Now today, most workers don’t have any constitutional rights at work. For example, the First Amendment doesn’t protect them from being fired for attending a gay rights or pro-life march on their own time.

The book takes readers back to the middle of the twentieth century when it seemed quite possible, and I think even likely, that today’s workers would have constitutional rights to things like free speech or privacy on the job. And the book uses stories of different workers and their efforts to win a workplace Constitution to show what are actually quite surprising and today forgotten successes, but also to explain how it is we still ended up with most workers lacking these rights.  

The core audience is academics and students. But, I did do a number of things to try to make the book accessible to a broader audience. So first, the chapters are all relatively short, blessedly short, and they are driven by a particular story with historical actors that I hope readers would find compelling, and while I have arguments obviously in the book, they are written so as to not bog down these stories. Second, the book tells really three interlocking stories, so one is about the Civil Rights Movement, one is about the Right to Work Movement, and then another is about this role that agencies played in the Constitutional interpretation. And so, obviously I hope everyone ends up wanting to read the entire book, but the chapters are labeled and structured in such a way that readers who want to just focus on one or two of these story lines can easily dip into the book and target the parts that are most relevant to their interests. And then the third thing that I did is, the book deals with some really technical legal doctrines that honestly might put off general readers, but I really tried to explain the law very clearly so anyone who is willing to dig in can get why it matters. That said, I think you can get a lot from the book even if you don’t fully engage these parts. 

I think this past helps us understand the complexities of changing the rules of the workplace today, but I also hope it will inspire new conversations about what the twenty-first century workplace should look like and add to those that are already underway. 


Transcript has been edited for length.