For much of American history, labor relations went largely unregulated by government; they were considered private matters best settled directly between employers and employees. In the late nineteenth century, however, this "government-neutral" view of the workplace began to change. Employees acting together to address workplace issues increasingly drew the attention of the courts.
Many of the early labor court cases held that these employees' concerted workplace activity was really a form of criminal conspiracy.4 Though these cases were primarily adjudicated in civil, not criminal, proceedings, the conspiracy theory was nevertheless broadly invoked to limit or prevent concerted or union activity.5 The prevailing judicial view was that most forms of concerted employee protest aimed at interfering with an employer's business operations, including strikes and picketing, were illegal.6 The courts therefore frequently halted forms of concerted employee activity that were often initiated by unions.7
Toward the turn of the century, organized labor unions became increasingly assertive as the federal government began to eye the emerging "big business" class of employers with suspicion, believing they engaged in restraint of free trade. Congress soon passed laws, such as the Sherman Antitrust Act, to prohibit monopolistic business practices8 and in this climate, labor and management began to engage in a battle for supremacy over workplace terms and conditions of employment that continues today. Recent examples of this ongoing battle include the labor disputes between General Motors and the United Auto Workers union and United Parcel Service and the Teamsters union.
Early labor skirmishes were often waged in the courts. In the 1908 "Danbury Hatters" case9, the U. S. Supreme Court held that the United Hatters Union had violated the Sherman Antitrust Act by initiating a nationwide boycott against a Danbury, Connecticut, hat company with the intent to force it to recognize the union. In response to the Danbury decision, the organized labor movement shifted strategy, turning its attention to the legislative front and becoming more active politically.
By 1914, the unions' political strength had grown to such an extent that it could successfully pressure Congress into passing the Clayton Act10, which exempted labor organizations from the antitrust laws. The Clayton Act provided
The labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce. Nothing contained in the antitrust laws shall be construed to forbid the existence and operation of labor, agricultural, or horticultural organizations, instituted for the purpose of mutual help, and not having capital stock or conducted for profit, or to forbid or restrain individual members of such organizations from lawfully carrying out the legitimate objects thereof; nor shall such organizations, or the members thereof, be held or construed to be illegal combinations or conspiracies in restraint of trade, under the anti-trust laws.11
The Clayton Act also placed restrictions on the ability of courts to stop strikes and picketing.12 Labor unions heralded this legislation as the solution to the judicial application of antitrust laws to curb union activity. The organized labor movement's celebration, however, was short-lived.
In 1921, the Supreme Court analyzed another union boycott, similar to the one in the Danbury Hatters case, in Duplex Printing Press Co. v. Deering.13 This time, the unions had initiated a boycott of nonunion printing presses in an effort to protect unionized printing companies from price competition. The Court held that such a boycott was not protected under the Clayton Act, ruling that attempts to exert pressure on companies other than the ones that employed the unionized employees still violated antitrust law.
In another decision the following year, the Supreme Court held that the United Mine Workers union had unlawfully conspired to inhibit production and distribution of nonunion-mined coal.14 Thus, despite the passage of the Clayton Act, court decisions remained an impediment to the success of many of organized labor's goals at the end of the 1920s.
By 1930, other events began to influence the direction of labor relations. During World War I, a War Labor Board was created to regulate relations between employers and unions in order to forestall any workplace disputes which might imperil goods and services necessary for the war effort.15
The War Labor Board officially recognized a process by which employees could bargain through unions and imposed restrictions on employers that interfered with their employees' ability to organize unions.16 Additionally, in 1926, after a number of strikes in the railroad industry, Congress passed the Railway Labor Act into law.17 That act, which applies to "common carriers" such as railroads and now airlines, was the result of negotiations between railroad companies and unions and sets forth an elaborate procedure for collective bargaining for that industry.18
In 1929, the Great Depression era was ushered in. The sudden economic upheaval threw thousands of people out of work, and they soon began to exert unprecedented pressure on government and private employers to address the crisis in employment. This massive unemployment combined with an increasingly favorable legislative climate set the stage for a significant change in governmental regulation of labor-management relations and created the environment in which "Big Labor" grew to its current size and influence.