The history of labor in the United States has had many different highlights, particularly during the Industrial Revolution. The way people handled labor and their particular craft changed drastically, especially among urban areas. In cities, the number of less-skilled workers, referred to as journeymen, soon overtook those who were considered “masters” in their fields. This shift brought together large groups of workers from a single company whose main goal was to develop better working conditions for the collective good. We now know these formations as unions.
But union groups were not always given the right or opportunity to express their ideas. In the case of Commonwealth v. Hunt, a landmark decision changed the way labor unions were viewed.
Previous to the decision
Strikes and disputes occurred periodically before the Industrial Revolution and before Commonwealth v. Hunt was taken to court. Examples of fisherman or carpenters striking for better working conditions can be found, though these strikes were usually easily resolved. They also operated on a small scale since the growth of most industries didn’t take off until the the 1800’s.
While small scuffles were more easily resolved, larger issues continued to occur in the Industrial era. At the time, it was unclear to both workers and employers whether or not these strikes for higher wages or less working hours were even legal. Until Hunt, it was not clear whether post-Revolution America still followed English common law, which declared workers’ unions and their actions illegal.
The Background of the Case
Historic in its conclusion, this case made clear that forming labor unions was, in fact, not illegal. Further, the case issued rights to workers, making it easier to groups of employees to work together in order to achieve goals.
The origins of Hunt lay with The Boston Journeymen Bootmakers Society. Inflation occurred due to Andrew Jackson eliminating the Bank of the United States. In doing so, the cost of living rose dramatically. The Bootmakers began raising their wages, though boot quality increased soon after, which prevented the bootmakers from making as many as they had previously, so they made less money and struggled to hold to a standard wage.
One bootmaker began doing extra work for free, so the Society threatened to strike unless the man was fired. After this incident, the Society was taken to trial to determine whether or not their actions were coercive and negative.
Once it went to trial, the Society’s lawyer highlighted the benefits of the Society and how it protected those within it by working toward their interests as employees. The argument also centered around the fact that no force or fraud was used in threatening to strike over whether or not one of the bootmakers would be let go. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court and Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw dictated that there was nothing unlawful about what the Society did, according to Massachusetts’s law.
Chief Justice Shaw’s decision shows that labor combinations who use legal actions to achieve a legal goal are allowed under United States law. Though Hunt significantly helped workers by allowing them to ban together to achieve their goals, it was not as much of an issue until after the Civil War, when more conspiracy cases were brought against labor unions. At the time, labor unions were accused of using underhanded means to achieve their goals. Even then, individual members could be charged with unlawful activity and some unions were still convicted of conspiracy charges.
Still, Hunt remains an important landmark in establishing a precedent to show that the Supreme Court will side with unions. We’ll continue to explore these historic decisions and events that have shaped the way unions operate today.