The Autocrat’s Labor Dilemma: Elite-Mass Conflict, Labor Law, and the Value of Dependent Courts

My dissertation is a book-length monograph that examines the conditions under which autocrats enact pro-worker legislation and analyzes its political consequences for autocratic rule. The core argument and mixed-method evidence of my dissertation have been summarized in my paper titled “Appeasing Workers without Great Loss: Autocracy and Progressive Labor Legislation,” published in Comparative Politics.

In my dissertation, I argue that heightened mass threats create a key dilemma for autocrats: to do nothing would provoke mass unrest, but to enact pro-worker reforms would provoke elite resistance. I develop a theory of how autocratic governments are able to enact redistributive measures that balance the demands of both workers and employers. Pro-worker reforms are possible only with judicial balancing: limited independent judiciaries that provide autocrats with the flexibility to either (1) mitigate elites’ losses resulting from pro-worker legislation or (2) tilt the balance in favor of labor, particularly when social stability concerns loom large. I argue that this strategic flexibility in adjudication, facilitated by dependent courts, helps autocrats better manage the dual challenges in (re)distributive policy disputes. I illustrate the utility of this argument by employing qualitative evidence from China’s 2008 Labor Contract Law (LCL).

In the subsequent chapters of my dissertation, I employ a variety of quantitative data and causal methodology to substantiate the central components of my argument. I present three pieces of evidence. First, I provide compelling evidence for the adjudicative flexibility afforded by dependent courts through a difference-in-differences analysis of court rulings data on labor disputes. Second, I explore the mass political consequences of the LCL’s limited effectiveness through a pre-registered survey experiment. Third, I probe the generalizability of the argument by utilizing cross-country evidence including a novel latent measure of mass threats.

My dissertation makes two main scholarly contributions. First, my work expands our understanding of authoritarian institutions and survival strategies. By situating my argument in an elite-mass interaction framework, I illustrate a dilemma that autocrats may face when reforming labor law and provide new insights into how authoritarian judiciaries help maintain autocratic rule. While previous literature has identified various functions of the judiciary in authoritarian regimes, such as regime legitimation, administrative control, commitment making, and repression, my dissertation highlights the delicate balancing function of courts, particularly in managing distributive tensions.

Second, my dissertation extends the literature on institutions and redistribution. I bring attention to judicial institutions, which, through their decisions and interpretations of the law, determine winners and losers and can thus have significant distributional consequences. Building on this insight, my work further points out the inherent flexibility of autocratic judiciaries in influencing these distributional consequences, which autocrats can exploit to advance their own interests.