Recognition of Labour Unions 1842

Recognition of Labour Unions 1842

Recognition of Labour Unions 1842
Recognition of Labour Unions 1842 – Chief Justice Shaw rebuffed the standing view of labor organizations as criminal conspiracies.

Commonwealth v. Hunt, Lemuel Shaw (1781–1861)

Labour Organizations

Prior to and after the Revolution, the class of skilled laborers known as artisans, craftsmen, and mechanics existed in America. These employees worked inside a “guild system,” which was a framework that mirrored their demands and social order.


Labour unions encountered several obstacles in their quest for recognition to organize employees, and it wasn’t until the Massachusetts Supreme Court decided in Commonwealth v. Hunt (1842) that they gained traction in the United States. It was not unlawful to organize a trade union, nor was it criminal to insist that businesses recruit exclusively union members, according to Commonwealth v. Hunt.

Large-scale labour groups that represented more than one city or craft arose between 1827 and 1837. The National Trades’ Union, for example, unified many municipal groups in 1834. National craft unions for shoemakers, printers, carpenters, and hand-loom weavers were created at the same time.

The Politics of Labour

Because of the broad elimination of property criteria for voting in the 1830s, labour parties sprang across the country, but these “Working Men’s” parties died quickly, and many of its members joined the radical side of the Jacksonian Democrats.

Despite the fact that labour parties only elected a few candidates, they did make their demands known. By asking for free public education, an end to debt incarceration, and a ten-hour workweek, labour parties were able to capture the attention of many middle-class reformers.

Growth and Spread of Unions

Despite the fact that unions survived the 1837 financial panic, they remained small and weak, typically disbanding after a single strike.

On February 22, 1860, the most significant labour dispute previous to the Civil War occurred in Lynn and Natick, Massachusetts. More than 20,000 employees in twenty-five locations were affected by the strike, which began when organized shoemakers went on strike for greater wages. The strike is significant not just because of the large number of employees who took part, but also because the workers were successful: employers agreed to raise salaries, and some companies recognized the union as a bargaining representative.

Workers across the northeast felt a feeling of unity as the labour movement evolved, and by 1860, there were around twenty organizations that organized skilled crafts across the country.

Commonwealth v. Hunt, Lemuel Shaw (1781–1861)

The Massachusetts Supreme Court concluded in Commonwealth v. Hunt (1842) that the common-law notion of criminal conspiracy did not extend to labour organizations. Workers’ attempts to open shuttered establishments have been prosecuted up until that point. Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw, on the other hand, claimed that trade unions were lawful and that they had the right to strike or use other peaceful means to improve wages and exclude non-union employees.

The Boston Journeymen Bootmakers’ Society had requested that an employer terminate one of its members who had broken the society’s bylaws. Fearing a strike, the employer cooperated, but the fired employee filed a complaint with the district attorney, who issued an indictment charging the society with conspiracy. The union was found guilty by the Boston Municipal Court.

When hearing the case on appeal, Justice Shaw changed the usual definition of conspiracy by ruling that just joining for a goal was not criminal. Only such combinations might be punished if they were meant to “achieve some criminal or illegal goal, or to accomplish some aim, not in and of itself criminal or unlawful, through criminal or unlawful methods.” By making this ruling, Shaw effectively legalized the American labour movement.


The National Labour Relations Act (1935);

The Fair Labour Standards Act (1938).


Recognition of Labour Unions 1842

Commonwealth v. Hunt, Lemuel Shaw (1781–1861)

The Law Book: From Hammurabi to the International Criminal Court, 250 Milestones in the History of Law (Sterling Milestones) Hardcover – Illustrated, 22 Oct. 2015, English edition by Michael H. Roffer (Autor)