Massachusetts v. Hunt
by Richard E. Noble
In 1842 Judge Lemuel Shaw of the Supreme Court of the State of Massachusetts handed down the first judicial decision in the United States that labor unions were not illegal, criminal conspiracies. It was contended that seven bootmakers (cordwainers) who were members of the Boston Journeymen Bootmakers Society conspired together to compel Isaac B. Wait, a master cordwainer, to terminate Jeremiah Home. Home was a journeyman bootmaker who refused to join the Boston Society. The seven men involved told their boss that if he did not dismiss the worker in question, they would no longer provide him with their services. The boss took the workers to court. He contended that their action was illegal. It was an action that threatened the competitive success and goodwill of his business and infringed upon Mister Home’s right to seek fair employment. For the first time in U.S. History, possibly world History, a judge decided that workers could unite into a labor union.
The judge concluded that competition is often detrimental to businesses, but as long as no one is acting criminally, using violence, or breaking a law, the rights of the workers must be judged equally with the rights of the employers. The workers involved were not acting violently, or breaking any legal contracts that they had engaged in with their boss. Their action therefore could not be considered to be in restraint of free trade. They were not petitioning for higher wages, fewer hours or even asking for better working conditions. Mister Home could join the labor association or go someplace else to work. Mister Wait could hire Mister Home and lose his other workers, or he could fire Mister Home and retain his present staff. No one was being intimidated or threatened. The seven workers could quit and Mister Wait could hire seven more new workers. If bootmakers were in short supply, Mister Wait would simply have to weigh his alternatives. This action on the part of the union members was competitive but not illegal or criminal. Everyone involved had choices. The bootmakers Society was not a labor monopoly. All that was involved would depend on the free choices of each of the parties as to who would be injured, or if anyone were to be injured. But, nevertheless, any injury was not due to any act of force or violence. All actions being taken were within the legal rights of each of the citizens involved.
This decision simply recognized the right of workers to legally combine in a union or association. Nothing more than this was decided. This was, more or less, simply a recognition of the obvious. Workers had already been combining to form benevolent and social organizations. Workers who were not hired under any contract agreements already had the right to quit their present employer and seek employment elsewhere. Workers had the right to compete among bosses and with other workers for their positions.
This law really established nothing. But prior to this decision all of the above had never actually been granted legal sanction. Workers did these things but nobody said that they had a legal right to do such things. This decision wasn’t much of a step forward for labor, and it was only in the state of Massachusetts that such worker respect had been granted. It would be another century before any serious steps would be taken in the direction of labor and labor rights on a national or federal level. Even then such steps would be small and contested violently. *
*This essay is based on information gathered from the following books: The Annals of America Vol. 7, p 61; “Labor Problems in American Industry”, Carroll R. Daugherty.