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Past and Present

Forming The Legal Basis For Labor Unions

Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

The United States designates the first Monday of September as a day to honor the contributions of American workers and the achievements of the American labor movement.

As one of the foundations of the labor movement, labor unions serve many purposes, including representing the interests of workers. However, the legal status of labor unions was not always guaranteed, leaving workers and labor leaders open to harassment, arrest and criminal prosecution.

In October 1840, the Suffolk County Attorney of Massachusetts issued an indictment to members of the Journeymen Bootmaker’s Society, charging that the organization was a criminal conspiracy organized to impoverish employers and non-union workers. While the Society had waged successful strikes to increase wages a few years earlier, in 1840, no such threat existed.

But the trial judge saw the situation more broadly. He argued that if organizations like the Bootmaker’s Society were allowed even to exist, the very nature of private property would be compromised, leading to society’s ruin.

The Bootmaker’s Society appealed this decision to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1842. In the landmark case, Commonwealth v. Hunt, Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw overturned the trial court’s decision and ruled that labor unions, organizations and societies were legal, provided that they were organized for a legal purpose and used legal means to achieve their goals.

While Shaw was an outspoken opponent of labor, he may have been attempting to placate the working class during an economic depression, and the Hunt decision lay the foundation for labor unions to argue and fight for their legitimacy as the United States grew into an industrialized nation over the 19th and 20th centuries.