As I take some extended time off from the office, frequent guest poster Chris Engler takes a look back at some of the earliest background on labor history.

Because I majored in history in college, I’m a firm believer that understanding history is of great benefit when planning for the future.

Early “Workers”

Autumn is in many ways a time of heritage and traditions.  With the trifecta of Columbus Day, Veterans Day, and Thanksgiving, we have numerous opportunities to step back and reflect on our predecessors and forefathers.

I have always enjoyed pondering the effects of their actions and considering where we’d be, for better or for worse, without them.

That’s a worthwhile exercise to do with employment law as well.  To better understand the current state of the law, as Dan said above, it’s helpful to know what the workplace was like in the days of old.

As fate would have it, this is also the perfect time of year for this type of reflection.

They didn’t exactly make the front page, but the anniversaries of three important milestones in the development of American labor relations recent came and went.

The late summer and early fall marked the 180th anniversary of a pair of cases involving Thompsonville Carpet Manufacturing Company, late of Enfield.  In one of the first recorded strikes in Connecticut, carpet weavers had walked off the job.

The company sued them, claiming that they were illegally interrupting the company’s business.  One of the strikers returned the favor and sued his employer on the grounds that the first lawsuit was just an attempt to get him arrested.  (Back then, civil defendants without property to cover their potential liability were often imprisoned.) 

A win for the employer in these important early cases might have crippled the nascent labor movement.

However, the jury in the first case sided with the strikers, empowering and emboldening workers in other industries.  (The second lawsuit was eventually withdrawn, presumably when the striker was released from jail.)

However, this did not end the question of the legality of strikes and unions.  That question was dealt with again by the Clayton Antitrust Act, which celebrated its centennial on October 15.

Antitrust law generally has no place on an employment blog, but the Clayton Antitrust Act had one nugget of relevance for us.

Clever employers (or clever employers’ clever lawyers) had taken to using earlier antitrust laws against striking unions by claiming that they were cartels and restricted trade.

The Clayton Act sought to put an end to this by specifically exempting unions from the act’s provisions.

Both of these developments arguably came at the expense of employers.

The third development pointed the other direction and limited the behaviors of unions.  The case was Steele v. Louisville & Nashville Railroad Co. which turns seventy in a few weeks.

In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized for the first time the duty of fair representation.  This duty requires unions to be diligent and fair in representing the interests of all members of the bargaining unit.  While the case involved racial discrimination (white union members were trying to keep their African-American coworkers out of the union), the doctrine has since expanded significantly.

The merits of these three legal developments are still debated.  Regardless of one’s viewpoint, however, there can be no doubt that they have had profound impacts on American labor relations and, by extension, on society as a whole.

Just think what the workplace will look like in another 180 years.