Labor Law History Prior to 1935

History prior to 1935
The following is a brief overview of labor history prior to 1935.

In the early 1700’s workers began to create associations that would unite together to improve working conditions. When a labor dispute occurred between the employer and these associations the case was referred to State Court. The court system during this time period was pro business, which usually led to workers being greeted with hostility.

 In 1806 the Philadelphia Cordwainers decision determined that it was unlawful for workers to form an organization for the sole purpose of regulating wages and working conditions for a specific craft in the association. It was determined that the doctrines and contracts that were established by the associations constituted unlawful conspiracy. The employers would prove that unions were conspiracies in court by showing that they raised wages. These higher wages were an artificial means of raising the price of work beyond the normal standard for the public. The demands of the unions would eventually lead to higher prices to the consumer. This decision became the protocol for most states from 1806 until 1842. During this time period seventeen conspiracy trials occurred in which the unions were convicted.

In 1842 the Massachusetts Supreme Court in the Commonwealth vs. Hunt case issued a decision upholding the rights of workers to form associations. The decision was eventually recognized by all states. Although the states recognized the decision, they continued to restrict the methods by which workers could form associations or unions. The conspiracy trials began to diminish during this period, because of the lengthy process. In the place of the conspiracy charges employers began to seek relief through the injunction. The injunction is a charge that can be issued by a judge (no jury) and must be obeyed immediately. There are three types of injunctions: temporary restraining order, temporary injunction, and the permanent injunction. The advantage of the injunction for the employer is that the union must honor it immediately. During this era the employer learned to use the injunction as a tool against the union in order to stop an organizing campaign. The employer would claim that their property was at risk and gain immediate relief from the courts. This injunction would restrict the union organizers from entering the employer’s property. If the injunction were violated, it would lead to a fine or imprisonment for the union representatives. Several states issued injunctions prohibiting unions from picketing, in support of a strike. Their notion was that even peaceful picketing interfered with the right of the employer to operate their business. This practice undermined the effectiveness of a strike. During this period the judges were the sole creators, as well as interpreters of the labor laws.
In response to the monopolies that were developing in certain industries throughout the United States the Sherman Anti Trust Act was developed in 1890. This act was implemented to encourage free trade and cease any company from creating a monopoly in commerce. In contrast to the intent of the law, the brunt of its impact was felt by organized labor. In the Danbury Hatters case it was determined that the union was guilty of trying to monopolize the industry through its successful secondary boycotts during the organizing campaign. It was determined by the courts that the unions violated the Sherman Act and they had to pay the Danbury Hatters Industry over three times the amount of profits that they lost during the organizing campaign.
In 1917 labor felt the full impact of the injunction in regards to organizing and collective bargaining. In that year the Supreme Court handed down the Hitchman decision. This decision allowed employers to enforce the yellow dog contract. The employee had to guarantee the employer that they would not join a union as a condition of employment. This trend initiated in the coalmines of West Virginia but quickly spread to other industries. If an employee agreed to the yellow dog contract and participated in any form of union organizing they would immediately be imprisoned or fined.
In 1926 the Labor Railway Act was passed by congress. This was the federal government’s first attempt at regulation of labor and management issues. In 1936 this act was later extended to the airline industry. This act was important because it was the first attempt of federal legislation that recognized the right of employee’s to form unions and engage in collective bargaining.
The U.S. economy during the second half of the nineteenth and early 20th century was based on capitalism. The individual States handled the labor laws and dispute intervention. The climate during this period was pro business. The states determined if collective bargaining agreements were valid, but in many cases there were no agencies that were established to force an employer to bargain, unless they voluntarily did so. The policies adopted during this time period were based on the premise that businesses should operate under open competition, untouched by government intervention. This practice was often referred to as “laissez-faire.”