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“A Vast Labor Bureau”: The Freedmen’s Bureau and the Administration of Countervailing Black Labor Power

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For a few short years starting in 1865, the Freedmen’s Bureau exercised regulatory power over labor markets in a fashion unprecedented in ambition, scope, and reach in U.S. history up to that point—and, arguably, since. The Bureau used its broad authority to construct, regulate, and coordinate labor in the post-slavery South according to a racial-egalitarian vision of “free labor.” Yet this vast federal agency’s innovative, multifaceted strategies for equalizing power relations between capital and labor rarely appear in scholarship or policy proposals on progressive labor-market governance today.

This Note begins to rectify that oversight. Primary and secondary historical sources on the Freedmen’s Bureau’s labor-market regulatory functions reveal a highly interventionist agency that transgressed many of the boundaries that limit today’s strategies for labor-market regulation. By breaking down boundaries between (a) the public and the private, (b) the political and the economic, and (c) the economic and the racial, the Bureau’s day-to-day operations, though imperfect, help chart the path toward more racially egalitarian and substantively democratic labor-market governance. Specifically, the Bureau’s labor-market activities raise critiques and opportunities for both theory and practice in labor, antitrust, and administrative law.

The Freedmen’s Bureau’s approach holds particular value today, as the United States once again faces a dangerous combination of racial wealth inequality, violent mass incarceration, political polarization, and a judiciary highly skeptical of administrative action, progressive economic policies, and racial redress. Indeed, in the face of a Supreme Court that increasingly demands historical precedent for government action, continued neglect of the Freedmen’s Bureau’s role as an economic regulator is costly. Reformers should embrace the best aspects of the precedent set by the Freedmen’s Bureau to build countervailing administrative power for today’s multiracial working class.

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