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Professor Alan Hyde – Influential Scholar and Teacher

Innovative. Highly sophisticated. Groundbreaking. Those are some of the adjectives used most frequently to describe both the labor and employment law scholarship and the jurisprudence and legal theory scholarship of Alan Hyde, Professor of Law and Sidney Reitman Scholar. What links his interest and notable accomplishments in the two unrelated fields is a problem-solving mentality.

“I get interested in writing something when I see a problem that I think I can solve,” he explains, “whether or not I already had a mental or political system in place that told me what to do about it.” Hyde’s books usually start from problems that he teaches in class but is unhappy with the way in which legal experts commonly think about them. “The idea for Bodies of Law began one day when I taught the ‘hairy hand’ case in Contracts – whether a contract for a surgical operation is ‘closely analogous’ to buying a machine – and then taught the cases on drug testing urine samples in Employment Law. It suddenly seemed there was a serious problem with the metaphors and images that lawyers use to represent the body.” Bodies of Law is regarded as an original and highly sophisticated account of the way in which law regards the human body in contexts as diverse as workplace injuries, drug testing, criminal rights, and invasions of privacy.

Alan Hyde 

Alan Hyde 

The book for which he is best known, Working in Silicon Valley: Economic and Legal Analysis of a High-Velocity Labor Market, has been widely praised as an innovative analysis of that high-tech labor market. Typically, Hyde chose to explore a question – How do workers and employers cope in labor markets where people change jobs every 18 months or so? – to which he didn’t know the answer. “Many law professors view their scholarship as an extension of their political commitments,” he says, “and write every year in defense of their political values. That’s OK for them but it’s not what I do. I get interested in questions that seem to me big and important but that nobody knows the answer to or really has a good idea how to research. I think as hard as I can about how to put the question into a form that can be researched.” Other questions that have produced insightful scholarship include: What was the lasting impact, if any, of all the new European labor laws after 1968? and What happened in those 1980s deals in which unions took stock in failing companies? 

More often than not Hyde concludes that there are good and bad aspects. “Many of my friends,” he reports, “wanted me to write that job-hopping in Silicon Valley exploited the workers and benefited only employers, but I found instead that this is a very valuable way of structuring work for a certain kind of worker.” The fact that nobody had figured out how to sell health insurance or retirement plans to the area’s mobile, highly-educated, highly-compensated workers surprised Hyde. “Plainly the U.S. will need even stronger social security and national health insurance if the workforce remains mobile,” he observes. Another unexpected finding was the lack of any successful age discrimination suits in Silicon Valley, “since most people think there is a lot of age discrimination in tech.”

Professor Hyde’s study of the Silicon Valley labor market also revealed few formal organizations to protect the rights and interests of workers who move among employers. Workers’ rights has been a major focus of his since law school, when summer jobs at the National Health Law Project and the Center for Constitutional Rights unexpectedly involved working closely with dissident caucuses inside the United Steelworkers union. “I liked the steelworkers, liked my professional relationship with them, and felt that I could make a difference working with labor groups.”

That idealism, admittedly tempered in the ensuing years, is why after receiving his J.D. from Yale Law School Hyde took a position with the National Labor Relations Board’s Division of Enforcement Litigation, why he serves as a director of the Association for Union Democracy (AUD), and why he frequently writes amicus briefs for AUD and other employee rights organizations. “Nothing is more exciting,” Hyde says, “than helping working people see that they can help take charge of their own working lives.”

And how are workers faring these days? “I think that globalization puts everything up for grabs,” Hyde says. “It offers economic growth to developing countries that trade, and puts new actors at the table who are willing to exert some muscle in protecting basic human rights of workers in the developing world if they can see effective institutions to support those rights.” Among those “new actors” are governments in the developed world that sign trade agreements, consumers who increasingly demand worker rights, and retailers who respond to those demands. “On the other hand,” he continues, “globalization puts pressure on the achievements of workers in the developed world. I think their incomes and security will increasingly be the responsibilities of the public, not their employers.”

Hyde is not convinced that trade unions are equipped to address such problems as human trafficking, child labor, and migrant workers. “Unions,” he states, “will have to become much more global, more willing to ally with worker organizations in other countries and with activist groups. There are many interesting initiatives along these lines but few dramatic successes.” It’s unclear whether U.S. unions will be able to make those changes. “There is a very realistic possibility,” he adds, “that they will shrink to five percent of the workforce and represent almost entirely public-sector workers.”

Starting to teach immigration law in 2008 unlocked a rich new area of inquiry for Hyde. “Literally everything I was researching in labor and employment law – including global labor rights, knowledge workers in U.S. high-tech jobs, and new worker organizations – was leading me straight to immigration. Global migration may be the most salient fact about the labor markets of our time, but so far as I know only two U.S. labor law professors were also teaching immigration law – David Abraham (Miami) and Jennifer Gordon (Fordham).”

Professor Hyde expects to present his first paper on immigration law, jointly written with Ray Mateo ’09 and Bridget Cusato ’10, in spring 2010. The students interviewed Dominicans who have never become U.S. citizens to try to learn why the U.S. has such a lower naturalization rate than Canada or Australia. “Is it something about the immigrants who come here?” Hyde wants to know. “The psychological process of becoming an American? The cost and general unfriendliness of the U.S. naturalization process? Whether the economic benefits to citizenship status provide incentive to naturalize?”

Asked what he enjoys most about teaching, Hyde cites “the wonderful maturity, diversity, and courage of Rutgers students.” His forthcoming article with Mateo and Cusato “could not have been written at many other law schools,” he declares. Hyde is also energized by the classroom, challenge of helping students “to be alert to the ways that our profession avoids thinking about difficult intellectual problems, and working together on confronting them.”

Other works in progress include a book tentatively titled Global Labor Law: Theory, Policy, Evidence. But the book idea that he really wants to develop “is a blueprint for turning the NAFTA countries into a free labor market on the model of the European Union, where any national of the U.S., Canada, or Mexico could live anywhere so long as they were working. Obviously, says Hyde, “this is not a politically feasible plan right now, but I think it would be good for all three countries and should be the direction in which policy is moving.”