Since the late nineteenth century, the precedents established by the Supreme Court have had a profound impact on the complex field of labor law, and the Court has been the final arbiter in legal disputes between organized labor and management.
Until the late nineteenth century, judicial rulings concerning labor law were the purview almost entirely of state courts. After the U.S. Supreme Court asserted its authority in the field, it went through distinct phases in its interpretation and adjudication of labor law. From the 1880’s until the 1930’s, the Court’s majority tended to be hostile toward unions and to defend an ideology of laissez-faire constitutionalism, opposing many governmental regulations of the private sector. Then, from the late 1930’s through the end of World War II, the majority was generally sympathetic toward unions, upholding legislation that protected the rights of workers to engage in collective bargaining. The Court’s decisions since the war have generally been less favorable toward organized labor, based on postwar legislation that curbed some of the privileges that unions had earlier acquired. Finally, since the 1960’s, the Court has made many important interpretations of antidiscrimination laws.
During the 1880’s, the federal courts increasingly became involved in settling conflicts between private businesses and labor unions. For the next half century, the decisions of both the Supreme Court and the lower courts tended to favor business interests at the expense of organized labor. During this period, lower federal and state courts issued about three thousand injunctions requiring labor unions to terminate strikes and boycotts, and the Court generally approved of such injunctions. In a major precedent,
The Supreme Court’s bias was reflected in its approach to the
From 1897 until 1938, the Court interpreted the due process clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to provide substantive protection for a freedom of contracts, often overturning legislation designed to improve working conditions. In
The Supreme Court, however, was not ready to allow Congress to regulate manufacturing under its constitutional power to regulate interstate commerce. After the
During the first five years of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, five conservative justices (called the “five horsemen”) were firmly committed to the laissez-faire perspective and opposed many
The next year, however, the Court issued two monumental, landmark reversals–often referred to as constituting the “judicial revolution of 1937.” In
The Supreme Court’s change in direction reflected public opinion, which was becoming more sympathetic toward organized labor. Even before Roosevelt’s election, Congress had enacted the
In interpreting the National Labor Relations Act, however, the Court did not always support the interests of organized labor. In
During the years following World War II, there was a reaction against the power that organized labor had gained during the New Deal period. After the government seized coal mines in 1946, the president of the miners’ union refused to obey an injunction to end the strike. The Supreme Court held in
To the dismay of labor unions, the Supreme Court firmly endorsed all the provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act. In
The Court has continued to decide many complex National Labor Relations Act-related questions, including the question of which workers are covered under the act. In Beasley v. Food Fair (1974), the Court ruled that managers of a grocery store chain were supervisors rather than employees, and they therefore were not guaranteed the rights of collective bargaining. Likewise, teachers in private schools, if allowed sufficient independence in their teaching, were classified as supervisors in National Labor Relations Board v. Yeshiva University (1980). The Court in
Another long-standing National Labor Relations Act issue has been the right of collective bargaining in the public sector. In
Supreme Court rulings helped many win lawsuits alleging job discrimination. Nancy Wheelock Mayfield won reinstatement to her flight attendant job with American Airlines after she was forced to leave when the company learned she was married.
Before the Civil Rights movement, the Supreme Court in Steele v. Louisville & Nashville Railroad Co. (1944) established the doctrine of “fair representation,” requiring that a labor union fairly represent all workers in a bargaining unit, regardless of race. The decision was based on a very broad interpretation of the Railroad Labor Act. Two decades later, Congress enacted an explicit antidiscrimination mandate in Title VII of the
The Court has interpreted Title VII to prohibit not only intentional discrimination but also employment practices that have an indirect discriminatory impact on particular groups. In the landmark case
The Court’s broad interpretations of Title VII also allowed preferences for women in
Another labor statute requiring judicial interpretation is the
Center for Education and Employment Law. U.S. Supreme Court Employment Cases. 11th ed. Malvern: Author, 2005. Standard reference source providing summaries of some seven hundred significant decisions relating to labor law. Forbath, William E. Law and the Shaping of the American Labor Movement. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991. Interesting scholarly account arguing that law more than culture explains the differences between the American and European labor movements. Gorman, Robert. Basic Text on Labor Law, Unionization, and Collective Bargaining. St. Paul, Minn.: Pearson West, 2004. Highly respected textbook; particularly good on issues of discrimination law. Leslie, Douglas. Labor Law in a Nutshell. St. Paul, Minn.: Thornton West, 2008. This succinct handbook provides useful summaries of legislation and hundreds of major court cases–an excellent introduction to the field. Taylor, Albion G. Labor and the Supreme Court. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Braun-Brumfield, 1961. The standard historical work on the Court’s decisions through the late 1950’s. Tomlins, Christopher, and Andrew King, eds. Labor Law in America: Historical and Critical Essays. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. Includes several essays devoted to important Supreme Court decisions. Twoney, David P. Labor and Employment Law. 12th ed. Cincinnati: South-Western, 2003. Provides introductory definitions of legal terms and concepts and includes a great deal of historical background.
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