Trade unions, associations, and other organized economic groups formed by people who work for wages, often performing manual labor.
Attempts to organize in order to improve working conditions in the early 1800’s were labeled “criminal conspiracies” by the courts, a doctrine imported to the United States from English common law. The courts were generally sympathetic to business, and by the mid-1800’s they began to support companies by readily issuing labor injunctions to help them deal quickly and effectively with strikes, boycotts, and picketing.
In 1894 several federal courts issued injunctions to stop the national boycott of Pullman railway cars organized by Eugene Debs,
Among the tools at the courts’ disposal was the Sherman Antitrust Act
The Clayton Act
In addition to attempting to halt the activities of unions, businesses tried to keep them from forming. In the 1890’s, employers commonly required workers to sign oaths that they would refrain from any union activity. Unionists labeled these yellow dog contracts
Although the Court had reversed the Clayton Act, in the 1930’s Congress again passed legislation favorable to labor. The Norris-LaGuardia Act
In 1937, however, in five separate cases, the Court upheld the National Labor Relations Act
Also in 1937 writing for the majority in Senn v. Tile Layers Union, Justice Louis D. Brandeis explicitly linked picketing and publicity authorized under Wisconsin law to the Fourteenth Amendment and “freedom of speech…guaranteed by the Federal Constitution.” The Court extended full First Amendment
The Court also placed restrictions on strikes, ruling against sit-down strikes
Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act
In 1959 Congress passed the Landrum-Griffin Act
The Court established judicial review of arbitration with its decision in Textile Workers Union v. Lincoln Mills
In Vaca v. Sipes
Collective bargaining in state and local governments dates from the 1950’s. A limited form was first permitted in the federal sector by presidential executive order although it did not receive statutory force until the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. Hopes for a single, national policy framework were dashed when the Court ruled in National League of Cities v. Usery
In AFSCME, AFL-CIO v. Woodward
Though dated, a good, detailed history can be found in Alvin L. Goldman’s The Supreme Court and Labor-Management Relations Law (Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1976). A useful textbook covering the scope of the private sector issues, including competent coverage of the Court’s impact, is William H. Holley and Kenneth M. Jennings’s The Labor Relations Process (5th ed., Chicago: Dryden Press, 1994). A counterpart is Richard C. Kearney’s Labor Relations in the Public Sector (2d ed., New York: Marcel Dekker, 1992). Constitutional Interpretation by Craig R. Ducat (6th ed., St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing, 1996) depicts the Court’s labor rulings in the context of the broader historical currents. Landmark and current cases, by topic, can be found via the Internet at Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute Supreme Court Collection (www.supct.law.cornell.edu).
Adair v. United States
Allgeyer v. Louisiana
Debs, In re
Elrod v. Burns
Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority
Loewe v. Lawlor
National Labor Relations Board v. Jones and Laughlin Steel Corp.
National League of Cities v. Usery
Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States
Sherman Antitrust Act
Thornhill v. Alabama