Over the last week the nation has seen a political upheaval in Wisconsin over balancing the state budget versus benefits for teachers. One of the main points of the Public Employee Bill supported by Wisconsin Republicans is to diminish collective bargaining rights for some federal employee unions. Without getting into a political debate over how much Governor Walker hates teachers and students or how Wisconsin teachers are actually paid about $3000 above the national average, I discovered an interesting tidbit about labor unions, guilds, and fledgling democracies. It seems that in 1791, shortly after the French Revolution, a law was passed by the National Assembly that banned the existence of guilds and workers' associations as part of the sweeping changes that were supposed to lift a financially struggling France from the brink of bankruptcy.
"Guided by laissez-faire doctrine and its
hostility to privileged corporations, the Assembly sought to open up economic
life to unimpeded individual initiative and competition. Besides proclaiming
the right of all citizens to enter any trade and conduct it as they saw fit,
the Assembly dismantled internal tariffs and chartered trading monopolies and
abolished the guilds of merchants and artisans. Insisting that workers must
bargain in the economic marketplace as individuals, the Le Chapelier Law of June 1791 (named after reformer Jean Le Chapelier) banned workers' associations
and strikes. The precepts of economic individualism extended to rural life as
well. In theory, peasants and landlords were now free to cultivate their fields
as they wished, regardless of traditional collective routines and constraints. In
practice, however, communal restraints proved to be deep-rooted and resistant
to legal abolition."
The Chapelier Law remained in effect until 1864 so Tocqueville would have been familiar with it. Of course Marx had much to say concerning laws that prevented the workers from uniting, and there are critics both of the Chapelier Law and of Monsieur Chapelier. But based upon thnkers like Locke, Rousseau, and Smith, the law did make a kind of sense. Questioning whether or not Le Chapelier Law had a positive effect in practice is a question above my pay-grade, but I wanted to bring to everyone's attention that history does repeat itself and perhaps (though not necessarily) this gives us another lens through which to view the current developments.