De Luna, Gabriel
Prior to the Industrial Revolution in the United States during the 19th century, laborers did not have group legal representation nor the economic means to confront the new types of working conditions that were placed upon them in the new factory settings. During this era, the prospect of any work was sufficient cause for several Americans to migrate towards large urban cities away from rural areas. The Industrial Revolution was quick in its development and factory owners or those with capital did not face government regulation or oversight. Thus, workers faced long hours, dangerous conditions, strict robotic regiments, and received poor payment (1). Workers were driven to compete with each other to produce maximum results and profit in order to retain their employment. The factory did not require particularly skilled workers and thus workers, if not productive enough, were expendable. This arrangement of employment served to limit the economic mobility of the factory workers. The worker’s abilities to address their poor working conditions and treatment were limited. The best option the workers had at the time was to collectively organize strikes, halting factory productivity.
Since these forms of organization and business were new, there was no recent legal precedent on how to treat the collective of employees going on strike against their employers. Until the landmark case of Commonwealth v. Hunt in 1842, the predominant governing laws concerning laborer-employer relations in the United States were still English common laws leftover from the Revolutionary period (2). The common law did not have procedures for recognizing or facilitating what employers saw as the workers’ conspiracies to drive up wages. Few cases were taken to court against workers who ‘conspired’ to raise wages such as Commonwealth v. Pullis (3) and People v. Fisher (4) held that a union of conspirators were to be fined. Other cases often found another cause for conviction (5). Finally in Commonwealth v. Hunt, Chief Justice Shaw’s court ruled explicitly that a union of workers was legal provided they were working towards legal goals by legal means. The argument was jointly that the boot craftsmen of Boston withholding labor was not illegal per se and the unions were non-coercive in their membership.
This decision created a radical new social and economic structure for laborers to organize and have their demands heard and addressed. Since the government now legally allowed the formation of trade unions, the course of “collective bargaining” has become of great importance in labor laws and working conditions. Furthermore, the influence of trade unions spread towards political matters as they were of economic interest, earning lower and working-class laborers more political power as combined unions or blocks. The results of collective bargaining such as normalizing work hours and increasing wages improved the welfare of lower, working-class people. The political influences still extend to today as there are 14 million union workers today (6), comprising a significant portion of the population greatly influencing local, state, and national party politics (7).
Image source: http://www.makingthemodernworld.org.uk/stories/the_second_industrial_revolution/05.ST.01/img/IM.1049_zl.jpg
2. Tomlins, Christopher L. (1993), Law, Labor, and Ideology in the Early American Republic, Cambridge University Press, p. 133
5. Witte, Edwin E. (1926), “Early American Labor Cases”, Yale Law Journal, p. 825
6. Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.nr0.htm
7. Zelizer, Julian. http://www.cnn.com/2012/07/17/opinion/zelizer-labor-democrats/index.html