Labor Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

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.Workers’ rights

In 1894 several federal courts issued injunctions to stop the national boycott of Pullman railway cars organized by Eugene Debs,Debs, Eugene leader of the American Railway Union. In In re Debs[case]Debs, In re[Debs, In re] (1895), the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the contempt conviction and imprisonment of Debs and several other boycott leaders for violating the injunction.

Among the tools at the courts’ disposal was the Sherman Antitrust ActSherman Antitrust Act of 1890. The act, designed to curtail business monopolies, was also applied to unions. In Loewe v. Lawlor[case]Loewe v. Lawlor[Loewe v. Lawlor] (1908), the Court used the provisions of the act to order the United Hatters of America, who were attempting to organize the seventy-first of eighty-two firms in the industry, to pay triple damages ensuing from a national boycott of all retailers, wholesalers, and customers.

The Clayton ActClayton Act, passed by Congress in 1914, was designed to offer relief to workers from the pressures of the antitrust laws and federal injunctions. Its passage was hailed by Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor. However, in the 1920’s the Court in effect reversed the act through a series of decisions including Duplex Printing Co. v. Deering[case]Duplex Printing Co. v. Deering[Duplex Printing Co. v. Deering] (1921), Truax v. Corrigan[case]Truax v. Corrigan[Truax v. Corrigan] (1921), and United Mine Workers v. Coronado Coal Co.[case]United Mine Workers v. Coronado Coal Co.[United Mine Workers v. Coronado Coal Co.] (1922). In American Steel Foundries v. Tri-City Central Trades Council[case]American Steel Foundries v. Tri-City Central Trades Council[American Steel Foundries v. Tri-City Central Trades Council] (1921), the Court placed limits on picketing, defining “peaceful picketing” as one person at each factory entrance and exit gate. In 1926 it also declared that strikes may have an illegal purpose (Dorchy v. Kansas).

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 contractsYellow dog contracts in that “only a miserable cur would ask a man to sign one, and only a dirty yellow dog would agree to sign it.” Congress’s first attempt to outlaw yellow dog contracts, the Erdman ActErdman Act of 1898, was nullified by the Court in Adair v. United States[case]Adair v. United States[Adair v. United States] (1908). In Hitchman Coal and Coke Co. v. Mitchell[case]Hitchman Coal and Coke Co. v. Mitchell[Hitchman Coal and Coke Co. v. Mitchell] (1917), the Court ruled that attempts to organize workers were grounds for injunction, contempt, fine, or imprisonment.

A National Policy

Although the Court had reversed the Clayton Act, in the 1930’s Congress again passed legislation favorable to labor. The Norris-LaGuardia ActNorris-LaGuardia Act of 1932 gave workers the statutory right to organize and bargain and restricted the use of injunctions by the federal courts. Legislators, however, were unsure whether the Court would allow the act to stand. Beginning with its decision in United States v. E. C. Knight Co.[case]E. C. Knight Co., United States v.[E. C. Knight Co., United States v.] (1895), the Court’s narrow interpretation of the commerce clause prohibited federal regulation in sectors such as manufacturing (Hammer v. Dagenhart, 1918), mining (Carter v. Carter Coal Co., 1936), and farming (United States v. Butler, 1936). In Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States[case]Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States[Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States] (1935), the Court cited the commerce clause in overturning President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s National Industrial Recovery ActNational Industrial Recovery Act (1933), which included terms amounting to national promotion of trade unionism.

In 1937, however, in five separate cases, the Court upheld the National Labor Relations ActNational Labor Relations Act of 1935, which allowed workers in private industry to organize and required employers to bargain with workers’ representatives. In National Labor Relations Board v. Jones and Laughlin Steel Corp.,[case]National Labor Relations Board v. Jones and Laughlin Steel Corp.[National Labor Relations Board v. Jones and Laughlin Steel Corp.] the Court described “the close and intimate relation which a manufacturing industry may have to interstate commerce.” It also termed the right of employees to organize and to select representatives of their own choosing for collective bargaining, without employer interference, as “a fundamental right.” In this way, dual federalism separate state and national spheres of authority was replaced by what would become an era of growing national dominance.

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 AmendmentFirst Amendment;picketing[picketing] protection to picketing in the 1940 landmark case Thornhill v. Alabama.[case]Thornhill v. Alabama[Thornhill v. Alabama] However, in Milkwagon Drivers Union v. Meadowmoor Dairies[case]Milkwagon Drivers Union v. Meadowmoor Dairies[Milkwagon Drivers Union v. Meadowm] (1941), the Court ruled that picketing could be restrained in the interest of public safety. The Court overturned an injunction against a union picket of one store in a privately owned shopping mall in Amalgamated Food Employees Union v. Logan Valley Plaza[case]Amalgamated Food Employees Union v. Logan Valley Plaza[Amalgamated Food Employees Union v. Logan Valley Plaza] (1968), but Justice Potter Stewart, in Hudgens v. National Labor Relations Board[case]Hudgens v. National Labor Relations Board[Hudgens v. National Labor Relations Board] (1976) argued that the constitutional guarantee of free expression did not apply when warehouse employees picketed a company’s retail store in a similar mall.

The Court also placed restrictions on strikes, ruling against sit-down strikesStrikes in National Labor Relations Board v. Fansteel Metallurgical Corp.[case]National Labor Relations Board v. Fansteel Metallurgical Corp.[National Labor Relations Board v. Fansteel Metallurgical Corp.] (1939), deeming such strikes to involve the forcible seizure of property. In United States v. United Mine Workers[case]United Mine Workers, United States v.[United Mine Workers, United States v.] (1947), it determined that strikes can have illegal purposes if they conflict with some other state or federal policy. The Court ruled on replacement workers during strikes in National Labor Relations Board v. McKay Radio and Telegraph Co.[case]National Labor Relations Board v. McKay Radio and Telegraph Co.[National Labor Relations Board v. McKay Radio and Telegraph Co.] (1938). It distinguished between strikes resulting from an unfair labor practice committed by an employer and those in which employees walk out over a bargaining (economic) dispute. In the latter case, the employer may hire replacement workers, but if the National Labor Relations Board finds that the employer has committed an unfair labor practice, union members must be reinstated in their jobs.

Congress passed the Taft-Hartley ActTaft-Hartley Act in 1947, placing various restrictions on the labor movement. Among them were limits on the right of workers to select their own bargaining representatives, a requirement for labor leaders to disavow membership in the CommunistCommunism Party, and a prohibition on the closed shop, whereby a person must be a union member to be hired. Union shops, in which workers must join a union within a fixed period after hire, remained legal unless the state had a right-to-work law forbidding union shops. The ruling also permitted agency shops, in which all workers are represented by a union whether or not they are members. The Court upheld these arrangements in both private and public sectors in Retail Clerks International Association Local 1625 AFL-CIO v. Schermerhorn et al.[case]Retail Clerks International Association Local 1625 AFL-CIO v. Schermerhorn et al.[Retail Clerks International Association Local 1625 AFL-CIO v. Schermerhorn et al.] (1963) and D. Louis Abood et al. v. Detroit Board of Education[case]D. Louis Abood et al. v. Detroit Board of Education[D. Louis Abood et al. v. Detroit Board of Education] (1977), respectively. In Communication Workers v. Beck[case]Communication Workers v. Beck[Communication Workers v. Beck] (1988), the Court ruled that employees in an agency shop can pay a fee covering the cost of their representation without having to contribute money to be used by the labor organization for political or other purposes.

In 1959 Congress passed the Landrum-Griffin ActLandrum-Griffin Act (also known as the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act), which was designed to end undemocratic practices within unions and corruption among union leaders. It also contained provisions to stop secondary boycotts.


The Court established judicial review of arbitration with its decision in Textile Workers Union v. Lincoln Mills[case]Textile Workers Union v. Lincoln Mills[Textile Workers Union v. Lincoln Mills] (1957). It elaborated and bolstered the arbitrator’s role in three 1960 cases: United Steelworkers of America v. American Manufacturing Co., United Steelworkers of America v. Warrior and Gulf Navigation Co., and United Steelworkers of America v. Enterprise Wheel and Car Corp. The Court’s rulings in the first two emphasized the efficacy of having an arbitrator, as opposed to the courts, interpret a labor agreement. In the third, the Court identified the arbitrator as the agency most qualified to fashion an appropriate remedy. However, in Alexander v. Gardner-Denver Co.[case]Alexander v. Gardner-Denver Co.[Alexander v. Gardner-Denver Co.] (1974), a minority employee was encouraged to pursue his grievance through both arbitration and the available judicial processes.

In Vaca v. Sipes[case]Vaca v. Sipes[Vaca v. Sipes] (1967), the Court explored the limits of the duty of unions to represent all members of the bargaining unit, union members and nonmembers alike. It decided that not all grievances must go to arbitration, given the expense in money and time; the employee has the burden to prove any breach in representation. However, the Court determined in Bowen v. United States Postal Service[case]Bowen v. United States Postal Service[Bowen v. United States Postal Service] (1983) that a union can be sued for lost wages and damages.

The Public Sector

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[case]National League of Cities v. Usery[National League of Cities v. Usery] (1976) that the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938Fair Labor Standards Act did not apply to subnational employees. Although Usery was overturned by Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority in 1985, the law remained patchwork in the 1990’s.

In AFSCME, AFL-CIO v. Woodward[case]AFSCME, AFL-CIO v. Woodward[AFSCME, AFL-CIO v. Woodward] (1969) the Court declared public employees’ right to unionize to be protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Restrictions on public employees’ political activity were upheld in United States Civil Service Commission v. Letter Carriers[case]United States Civil Service Commission v. Letter Carriers[United States Civil Service Commission v. Letter Carriers] (1973). PatronagePatronage dismissals (dismissals for being members of the wrong political party) were prohibited by the Court’s rulings in Elrod v. Burns[case]Elrod v. Burns[Elrod v. Burns] (1976) and Branti v. Finkel et al.[case]Branti v. Finkel et al.[Branti v. Finkel et al.] (1980). The right to due process before discharge was guaranteed by Cleveland Board of Education v. Loudermill in 1985. The Court extended Elrod and Branti to cover promotion, transfer, recall, and hiring decisions in 1990 with Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois.

Further Reading
  • 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 (

Adair v. United States

Allgeyer v. Louisiana

Debs, In re

Elrod v. Burns

First Amendment

Fourteenth Amendment

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

Categories: History