An association, combination, or organization of employees who band together to secure favorable wages, improved working conditions, and better work hours, and to resolve grievances against employers.
The history of labor unions in the United States has much to do with changes in technology and the development of capitalism. Although labor unions can be compared to European merchant and craft guilds of the Middle Ages, they arose with the factory system and the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century.
The first efforts to organize employees were met with fierce resistance by employers. The U.S. legal system played a part in this resistance. In Commonwealth v. Pullis (Phila. Mayor's Ct. 1806), generally known as the Philadelphia Cordwainers' case, bootmakers and shoemakers of Philadelphia were indicted as a combination for conspiring to raise their wages. The prosecution argued that the common-law doctrine of criminal conspiracy applied. The jury agreed that the union was illegal, and the defendants were fined. From that case came the labor conspiracy doctrine, which held that collective (as distinguished from individual) bargaining would interfere with the natural operation of the marketplace, raise wages to artificially high levels, and destroy competition. This early resistance to unions led to an adversarial relationship between unions and employers.
Between 1806 and 1842, the labor conspiracy doctrine was applied in a handful of cases.
Then, during the 1840s, U.S. courts began to question the doctrine. The most important case in this regard was Commonwealth v. Hunt, 45 Mass. (4 Met.) 11, 38 A.M. Dec. 346 (Mass. 1842), in which Chief Justice LEMUEL SHAW set aside an indictment of members of the bootmakers' union for conspiracy. Shaw agreed with employers that competition was vital to the economy but concluded that unions were one way of stimulating competition. As long as the methods they used were legal, unions were free to seek concessions from employers. By the end of the nineteenth century, courts generally held that strikes for higher wages or shorter workdays were legal.
Despite the decline of the labor conspiracy theory, unions faced other legal challenges to their existence. The labor INJUNCTION and prosecution under antitrust laws became powerful weapons for employers who were involved in labor disputes. In an 1896 case, Vegelahn v. Guntner, 167 Mass. 92, 44 N.E. 1077, the highest court in Massachusetts upheld an injunction that forbade peaceful picketing outside the employer's premises.
The first national labor federation to remain active for more than a few years was the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor. It was established in 1869 and had set as goals the eight-hour workday, equal pay for equal work, and the abolition of child labor. The Knights of Labor grew to 700,000 members by 1886 but went into decline that year with a series of failed strikes. By 1900, it had disappeared.
Labor unions nevertheless gained strength in 1886 with the formation of the AMERICAN FEDERATION OF LABOR (AFL). Composed of 25 national trade unions and numbering over 316,000 members, the AFL was a loose confederation of autonomous unions, each with exclusive rights to deal with the workers and employers in its own field. The AFL concentrated on pursuing achievable goals such as higher wages and shorter hours, and it renounced identification with any political party or movement. Members were encouraged to support politicians who were friendly to labor, whatever their party affiliation.
Following the passage of the SHERMAN ANTI-TRUST ACT in 1890 (15 U.S.C.A. §§ 1 et seq.)...