Evolution of the Legal Status of American Unions

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Evolution of the Legal Status of American Unions

The evolution of American unions from the beginning to now has been a slow and frustrating process for both labor and management. During the first half of the 19th century unions were not recognized by employers as legitimate organizations. Many activities such as the rights to organize, bargain, strike, boycott, and picket, even if done peacefully, were restricted by the courts. These activities were viewed as interfering with the mail, interfering with the war effort and restricting trade (Fossum, 2002).

There were early successes and early setbacks. As early as 1778, the New York Journeyman Printers organized and were successful in gaining a wage increase through collective bargaining. However, in 1794, the Federal Society of Journeyman Cordwainers organized and their collective activity was deemed criminal conspiracy by the courts. Despite the setbacks and much to management's dismay, unions were here to stay. The late 19th century saw the formation of several national unions including the National Labor Union (NLU), Knights of Labor (KOL), and the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

A step toward recognition came in the early 20th century when the Supreme Court held that unions could not be construed as illegal simply by existing, but their actions might still be held to restrain trade. However, it wasn't until 1918 that "labor's right to organize and bargain collectively was recognized" (Fossum, 2002, p. 40), by the creation of the National War Labor Board.

The 1920s showed a growing interest in industrial unions and the 1930s showed a shift in public policy toward them. Before this time "no laws facilitated organizing or bargaining" (Fossum, 2002, p. 43). The passage of the Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932 restricted the power of federal courts to issue injunctions against union activities and the Wagner Act of 1935 specified the rights of employees to engage in union activities, as well as...
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