Unions in Post-Colonial America   Leave a comment

“Those who tell you of trade-unions bent on raising wages by moral suasion alone are like people who tell you of tigers that live on oranges.”

– Henry George, 1891

In the Europe that most Americans of this era came from, there was a guild system which featured tightly regulated local occupational and product monopolies. This system really never caught on in North America. Most labor protests were spontaneous outbursts such as the one reported in the Charleston Gazette (1763). Black chimney sweeps “had the insolence, by a combination among themselves, to raise the usual prices, and to refuse doing their work.”

Before 1800, printers and shoemakers organized in Philadelphia and New York. In 1786, Philadelphia printers conducted the first recorded strike for higher wages, opposing a wage cut and demanding a minimum wage of $6 per week. Employers quickly acquiesced because free labor was hard to come by and because the average daily wage rate for laborers was $0.53 and $1.00 for artisans in the Philadelphia area, it is not clear that the strike boosted wages for a majority of printers.


Trade unions following the formation of the United States sought monopoly control over the local supply of labor with the “closed shop” system, an arrangement requiring employers to hire only union members. Selective admission to apprenticeships artificially limited the supply of skilled labor for hire and placed upward pressure on wages.

Threats and violence accompanied strikes. The typical strike aimed to force employers to pay more than necessary for labor available on the open market. In order to make this work, everyone — union member or not — must “strike” and withhold his or her labor, willing or not, and refuse employment at pay less than that demanded by strikers. Employer had to be intimidated and decisively discouraged from hiring replacement workers called “strikebreakers”. A union warning from the 1830s suggests how unions discouraged interlopers:

“We would caution all strangers and others who profess the art of horseshoeing, that if they go work for any employer under the above prices, they must abide by the consequences.”

By 1810, union tactics were fully formed: bargain “collectively,” demand fixed minimum pay rates, enforce closed shops, stage strikes with picket lines, scab lists, strike funds, and traveling cards, and promote unity among skilled and unskilled workers and solidarity among locals of the same trade.

Of course, the adversarial-style of unions conflicted with the right of each person to seek his or her best opportunity free of interference. The threat of collective violence interfered with the right to strike a bargain for lawful employment. Union coercision was and is incompatible with individual freedom of contract.

The courts struggled with the legal status of labor unions from the beginning. They just weren’t sure it was legal under the Constitution. According to some legal doctrines, unions were “criminal conspiracies in restraint of trade” and illegal combinations to fix labor prices.

State courts wrangled with these issues from 1806 through 1842. The famous 1806 criminal prosecution of the Philadelphia cordwainers (shoemakers), Commonwealth v. Pullis, featured a three-day trial led that the jury to convict the accused unionists of a criminal conspiracy to fix prices. Eight defendants were each fined $8, slightly more than a week’s wages. In 1842, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw in Commonwealth v. Hunt, that the bootmakers’ union was a lawful association with a lawful right to organize and collectively withhold labor (“strike”). The courts did not go so far as to authorize threats and violence by unions as legitimate “weapons of labor” during strikes, but law enforcement was and is lax in many labor disputes, siding with the aggressors against its alleged basic purpose, to protect life, property, and individual liberty.


Posted September 8, 2016 by aurorawatcherak in Uncategorized

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