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History

From THE FIGHTING MACHINISTS, A CENTURY OF STRUGGLE
by Robert G. Rodden

Injunctions and the Anti-Trust Laws

In these early years many employers forced job seekers to sign agreements not to join a union. These were known as yellow dog contracts. Judges sternly enforced such contracts by issuing injunctions and jailing organizers for contempt. Employers routinely received government help in disputes with their workers. If the police couldn't break strikes the state militia was called in. But of all the many weapons used to keep workers impoverished and under the employers' thumb, court injunctions were probably the most effective.

On the federal level these injunctions were usually issued under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. it had been passed in the 1890's to curb the awesome power of huge corporate  combinations. In practice, anti-trust suits became another way to harass unions. Employers hit by a strike or bothered by a labor organizer merely had to ask the nearest court to declare the union's activity a "conspiracy in restraint of trade." Fines and jail sentences became a way of life, even a badge of honor, for early trade unionists.

During the strike against the Pope Motor Company of Indianapolis in 1907 a judge issued an order which, in the words of the financial secretary of Local Lodge 161 enjoined members "from doing anything except breathing." When a member named Louis Poehler defied the order, the judge directed an auction of his property. This ignited one of the largest protest demonstrations ever seen in the city. Speakers called for the impeachment of the judge and a "defense fund" was set up to solicit donations to help Brother Poehler get this property back.

During the early years the Journal dripped with scornful condemnation of "capitalist courts." Editor Douglas Wilson advised workers "to abandon all hope" when entering an American courtroom. Explaining a decision in which an employer was acquitted after physically attacking a picket Wilson wrote, "Courts are not friendly to organized labor because . . . judges have been mostly corporation lawyers before their elevation to the bench."

The blatant bias of the judiciary finally forced Congress to try to legislate some relief for workers. They Clayton Act, passed in 1914, declared that human labor was no a commodity in commerce and courts should no longer rule lawful acts for lawful goals as "conspiracies in restraint of trade." When this new law went into effect Sam Gompers called in "Labors magna Carta." However, the ink barely dried before the judges began once more to issue injunctions against unions. The case that shattered union labor's last illusion about the Clayton Act was brought against the IAM by the Duplex Printing Company. The Supreme Court affirmed punitive damages against IAM members who refused to work on scab printing presses. Holding this a "conspiracy in restraint of trade", the high court put the law right back where it had been and where it would stay until the Norris-LaGuardia Act was passed in 1932.

Suffer The Little Children

In early years of the century, child labor was rampant in factories, mines an mills. In 1907, Journal Editor Douglas Wilson noted that, "A miserable attempt is being made to minimize the fact . . . that children of tender years are being exploited and . . . but for persistent agitation . . . by the trade unions for the last half century this exploitation would be inutterably greater." On another occasion Wilson raged that child labor was the worst form of race suicide.

A few states began to move cautiously and slowly to temper some of the more horrifying conditions under which so many workers, especially women and children, were employed. But the exploitation of children continued for many years to come. As late as 1911 a commission investigating child labor in Pennsylvania found eleven-year-old girls working from 6:30 in the evening to 6:30 the next morning for 3 an hour. It was hard for even the most backward politician not to admit the need for some degree of legal protection against this kind of greed.

In that same year 154 women, mostly teenagers, burned to death in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York. The Triangle Company (read about the Triangle Fire), a typical sweatshop, operated on the three top floors of a ten-story building. It had no fires escapes and the bosses had bolted emergency doors to keep the girls from leaving their machines. The tragedy shocked the conscience of the nation and revealed the criminal lack of health and safety standards in America's work places. Although middle class progressives cried out for reform, the courts continued to nullify laws setting minimum standards for wages, hours, child labor, health and safety.


Class Struggle and The Wobblies

 

History


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