We describe on this page some episodes in the history of the American labor movement in the hope that it will prove inspiring to the generation of young workers in offices and restaurants and coffee shops and warehouses and factories around our country who are fighting to build their unions, and in the process, to rebuild the union movement today
This current US Supreme Court has people worrying about some of its recent horrible decisions. Now the country is awaiting a decision that could virtually cripple a union’s right to strike (see item Pending Supreme Court case … on then Labor News page of this website). But a reactionary Supreme Court is nothing new. Privileged men in their black robes have long stood in the way of progress in the United States. And their record on decisions favoring workers is a case in point . We cite below one of is more egregious examples:
In 2023, it is worth recalling a decision handed down a hundred years ago. The case was Adkins v. Children’s Hospital. The District of Columbia had enacted a law setting a minimum wage for women and children which was challenged in court. In a 1923 decision that set a standard for twisted reasoning, the Court held that the law was unconstitutional since it interfered with “liberty of contract” which they said was guaranteed by the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. According to the Court, employers and employees “have an equal right to obtain from each other the best terms they can as the result of private bargaining.”
In his dissent, Chief Justice William Howard Taft noted the reality that ‘employees in the class receiving least pay are not upon a full level of equality of choice with their employer… (and) are prone to accept pretty much anything that is offered. They are peculiarly subject to the overreaching of the harsh and greedy employer.”
This decision was overturned by the Supreme Court in its 1937 decision upholding the National Labor Relations Act, that protected the right of workers and their unions to bargain collectively.
The notion that an individual worker, particularly one in a class that is most exploited, has equal bargaining power with a large corporation, conjures up the image of “equality before the law” satirized by Anatole France, the French writer, in his oft-quoted line, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread,”
Work History News, newsletter published by the New York Labor History Association, Winter/Spring 2023