The Legitimization of Unions

Lemuel Shaw.

The labor movement gained significant momentum during the 1830s and 1840s, paving the way for future generations of Americans to secure extensive workers’ rights.

In the 1830s, strikes “constituted illegal conspiracies under common law, exposing labor union members to criminal prosecution.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 549.

Gradually, states began to soften stances toward labor unions. In 1847 in New Hampshire and in 1848 in Pennsylvania, legislatures enacted maximum-hours laws. See id. In 1842, in Massachusetts, Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw of Massachusetts “ruled that the Boston Society of Journeymen Bootmakers was not a criminal conspiracy and that its members had the right to press for what we would call a closed shop.” Id. Ultimately, labor unions secured the legitimacy of any other organization. See id. citing Christopher Tomlins, Law, Labor, and Ideology in the Early American Republic (Cambridge, Eng., 1993), 180-219.

President Martin Van Buren helped the cause by mandating a “ten-hour day for laborers on federal public works” on March 11, 1840. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 549-50 citing Donald Cole, Martin Van Buren and the American Political System (Princeton, 1984), 367-68.

Meanwhile, slave labor had permeated numerous industries, even public works including “digging canals, building levees, laying railroad track, cleaning streets, and lighting the gas lamps that illuminated nighttime cities.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 550. Companies, “municipalities, and state and even federal government agencies all owned or hired slaves.” Id. Even the city of Savannah, Georgia “hired slaves as firefighters.” Id. at 551 citing Ronald Lewis, Coal, Iron, and Slaves (Westport, Conn., 1979), 33.

Despite the spread of slavery, and its deep manifestation in all parts of American life, the labor movement had made significant gains. Workers were increasingly working more reasonable hours, securing additional protections, and doing so in an organized way, lending credibility to their movement.

Individuals like Lemuel Shaw supported the movement, allowing it to become established and credible at a time where that was not necessarily popular. Those early actions have reverberated throughout American history, as workers’ rights have only become more important, unions have only become stronger, and workers have only become more protected by law and union.

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