History of labor law in the United States

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History of labor law in the United States refers to the development of United States labor law, or legal relations between workers, their employers and trade unions in the United States of America.


The history of labor disputes in America substantially precedes the Revolutionary period. In 1636, for instance, there was a fishermen's strike on an island off the coast of Maine and in 1677 twelve carmen were fined for going on strike in New York City.[1] However, most instances of labor unrest during the colonial period were temporary and isolated, and rarely resulted in the formation of permanent groups of laborers for negotiation purposes.[1] Little legal recourse was available to those injured by the unrest, because strikes were not typically considered illegal.[1] The only known case of criminal prosecution of workers in the colonial era occurred as a result of a carpenters' strike in Savannah, Georgia in 1746.[1]

By the beginning of 19th-century, after the revolution, little had changed. The career path for most artisans still involved apprenticeship under a master, followed by moving into independent production.[2] However, over the course of the Industrial Revolution, this model rapidly changed, particularly in the major metropolitan areas. For instance, in Boston in 1790, the vast majority of the 1,300 artisans in the city described themselves as "master workman". By 1815, journeymen workers without independent means of production had displaced these "masters" as the majority.[3] By that time journeymen also outnumbered masters in New York City and Philadelphia.[3] This shift occurred as a result of large-scale transatlantic and rural-urban migration. Migration into the coastal cities created a larger population of potential laborers, which in turn allowed controllers of capital to invest in labor-intensive enterprises on a larger scale.[2] Craft workers found that these changes launched them into competition with each other to a degree that they had not experienced previously, which limited their opportunities and created substantial risks of downward mobility that had not existed prior to that time.[2]

Nineteenth centuryEdit

Slavery and abolitionEdit

Illegality of unionsEdit

These conditions led to the first labor combination cases in America. Over the first half of the 19th century, there are twenty-three known cases of indictment and prosecution for criminal conspiracy, taking place in six states: Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, Louisiana, Massachusetts and Virginia.[4] The central question in these cases was invariably whether workmen in combination would be permitted to use their collective bargaining power to obtain benefits—increased wages, decreased hours, or improved conditions—which were beyond their ability to obtain as individuals. The cases overwhelmingly resulted in convictions. However, in most instances the plaintiffs' desire was to establish favorable precedent, not to impose harsh penalties, and the fines were typically modest.[5]

One of the central themes of the cases prior to the landmark decision in Commonwealth v. Hunt, which settled the legality of unions, was the applicability of the English common law in post-revolutionary America. Whether the English common law applied—and in particular whether the common law notion that a conspiracy to raise wages was illegal applied—was frequently the subject of debate between the defense and the prosecution.[6] For instance, in Commonwealth v. Pullis, a case in 1806 against a combination of journeymen cordwainers in Philadelphia for conspiracy to raise their wages, the defense attorneys referred to the common law as arbitrary and unknowable and instead praised the legislature as the embodiment of the democratic promise of the revolution.[7] In ruling that a combination to raise wages was per se illegal, Recorder Moses Levy strongly disagreed, writing that "[t]he acts of the legislature form but a small part of that code from which the citizen is to learn his duties . . . [i]t is in the volumes of the common law we are to seek for information in the far greater number, as well as the most important causes that come before our tribunals."[7]

As a result of the spate of convictions against combinations of laborers, the typical narrative of early American labor law states that, prior to Hunt in Massachusetts in 1842, peaceable combinations of workingmen to raise wages, shorten hours or ensure employment, were illegal in the United States, as they had been under English common law.[6] In England, criminal conspiracy laws were first held to include combinations in restraint of trade in the Court of Star Chamber early in the 17th Century.[8] The precedent was solidified in 1721 by R v Journeymen-Taylors of Cambridge, which found tailors guilty of a conspiracy to raise wages.[9] Leonard Levy went so far as to refer to Hunt as the "Magna Carta of American trade-unionism,"[10] illustrating its perceived standing as the major point of divergence in the American and English legal treatment of unions which, "removed the stigma of criminality from labor organizations."[10]

However, case law in American prior to Hunt was mixed. Pullis was actually unusual in strictly following the English common law and holding that a combination to raise wages was by itself illegal. More often combination cases prior to Hunt did not hold that unions were illegal per se, but rather found some other justification for a conviction.[11] After Pullis in 1806, eighteen other prosecutions of laborers for conspiracies followed within the next three decades.[11] However, only one such case, People v. Fisher, also held that a combination for the purpose of raising wages was illegal.[11] Several other cases held that the methods used by the unions, rather than the unions themselves, were illegal.[11] For instance, in People v. Melvin, cordwainers were again convicted of a conspiracy to raise wages. Unlike in Pullis, however, the court held that the combination's existence itself was not unlawful, but nevertheless reached a conviction because the cordwainers had refused to work for any master who paid lower wages, or with any laborer who accepted lower wages, than what the combination had stipulated.[12] The court held that methods used to obtain higher wages would be unlawful if they were judged to be deleterious to the general welfare of the community.[13] Commonwealth v. Morrow continued to refine this standard, stating that, "an agreement of two or more to the prejudice of the rights of others or of society" would be illegal.[14] Another line of cases, led by Justice John Gibson of the Supreme Court Pennsylvania's decision in Commonwealth v. Carlisle, held that motive of the combination, rather than simply its existence, was the key to illegality.[15] Gibson wrote, "Where the act is lawful for an individual, it can be the subject of a conspiracy, when done in concert, only where there is a direct intention that injury shall result from it."[15] Still other courts rejected Pullis' rule of per se illegality in favor of a rule that asked whether the combination was a but-for cause of injury.[16] Thus, as economist Edwin Witte stated, "[T]he doctrine that a combination to raise wages is illegal was allowed to die by common consent. No leading case was required for its overthrow."[17] Nevertheless, while Hunt was not the first case to hold that labor combinations were legal, it was the first to do so explicitly and in clear terms.

Legalisation of unionsEdit

Antitrust and the Lochner eraEdit

Modern labor lawEdit

Post-war regulationEdit

Civil rights movementEdit

Legislation in the 1970sEdit

Post 1970sEdit

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ a b c d Commons, ii-iii
  2. ^ a b c Tomlins, 111
  3. ^ a b Tomlins, 112
  4. ^ Tomlins, 128
  5. ^ Commons, viii
  6. ^ a b Tomlins, 133
  7. ^ a b Lloyd, 107-24
  8. ^ Commons, iv
  9. ^ (1721) 8 Mod 10, 88 ER 9; Commons, iv
  10. ^ a b Levy, 183
  11. ^ a b c d Witte, 825
  12. ^ Tomlins, 139
  13. ^ Tomlins, 140
  14. ^ Shaler, 24
  15. ^ a b Tomlins, 146
  16. ^ Tomlins, 147
  17. ^ Witte, 827