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May 1989, Vol. 112, No. 5
John R. Commons: pioneer of labor economics
John R. Commons has contributed in one way or another to practically every piece of social and labor legislation that has been enacted in the 20th century. Either directly or through students and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, Commons has made his mark on such diverse aspects of American labor as apprenticeship, vocational education, workers' compensation, job safety, factory inspection, social security, unemployment compensation, unionism, collective bargaining, civil service, and-not least-the administration of labor law.
Commons belongs in Labor's Hall of Fame because he was the first great American economistor perhaps better, social scientistto put his science in the service of improving the conditions of labor. "More than any other economist [Commons] was responsible for the conversion into public policy of reform proposals designed to alleviate defects in the industrial system."1 Indeed, Commons understood better than most not only that injustice hurt working people, but also that the alleviation of injustice was essential to the stability of the society as a whole.
1 Joseph Dorfman, The Economic Mind in America, 1918-1933, Vols. 4-5 (New York, Viking Press, 1959), P. 377.
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