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March 1: Creation of the First Union with a Closed-Shop Agreement in the U.S.

March 1, 2011

On this day in 1794, Philadelphia shoemakers came together in solidarity to stop the erosion of their industry by greedy factory owners at the start of the Industrial Revolution. The workers formed The Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers, a union for leather workers and cobblers. By working together, they managed to regulate machinery use and still allow jobs for craftsmen who took pride in their handwork. For a decade, the organization was highly successful by maintaining a delicate balance: protecting the rights of its members while still allowing the industry to change and grow. In one example, the union helped factory owners cultivate a new market for shoes to the American South.

The union worked peacefully for 12 years, with the only reported problems some scuffles between striking workers and scab employees during a strike in 1805.

But factory owners kept pressuring the union to reduce its piece-rate wages so that they could rake in more profits. That was when the union took action and went out on strike after a proposed wage increase was rejected. The shoe factory owners retaliated by founding a management organization. And then they filed six separate lawsuits, which were heard together as one case, Commonwealth v Pullis. One charge was “criminal conspiracy”: the union, the court papers said, was a price-fixing scheme to raise member wages.

Another charge against the union was that it was a “coercive” and “violent” organization. The violence was a single potato—lobbed at a scab worker during the 1805 strike, it missed and broke a shop window. And the coercion? That was the union’s success at negotiating the first closed shop agreement in the United States. All people working at Society-staffed manufacturing sites had to be members of the union. If a factory owner tried to hire a non-shop employee, the union members working there could strike on the spot and walk out.

During the court case, the factory owners broke the law several times, the worst example of which was that they, not the government, paid the prosecuting attorneys—and at a much higher rate than court-appointed prosecutors usually made. Motivated by their increased takings, the attorneys launched several lines of attack in their six different suits. In addition to the conspiracy charges and charges of coercion and violence, another accusation was that “the workers were transitory, irresponsible, and dangerous,” and needed “the subject of judicial control.”

But the focus taken by the court was that citizens did not have the right to judge their own economic value, and did not have the right to object to any value placed on them by society—with society defined as the factory owners. Commonwealth v. Pullis is one of the first instances on record of the government showing preferential treatment to businesses over citizens. It is also the first American case where the courts were used to bust a union.

After a three-day trial, the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers was found guilty of conspiracy to regulate the price of their labor. It was also noted by the judge that the union members had hampered “the just stewardship of the elite.”

The assessed fines bankrupted the union, so the factory owners were successful in their intent—and continued to use this strategy to their advantage until 1842. That’s when a ruling in the Pennsylvania case Commonwealth v. Hunt affirmed that unions were legal organizations, with the legal right to strike. Between 1806 and 1842, however, any member of a union could be charged and imprisoned on the grounds of conspiracy.

After 1842, capitalists found other ways to attack unions: through anti-trust suits, through court injunctions, through hired thugs who attacked people during union meetings. But a primary strategy in business owners’ line of attack against unions was broken when the judgment against the shoemakers’ union was found to be baseless and unjust

 

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