Trade Unionism

The Trial of the Boot and Shoemakers of Philadelphia, on an Indictment for a Combination and Conspiracy to Raise their Wages. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Transcription by Thomas Lloyd of the Cordwainers Trial (Historical Society of Pennsylvania) 

Commonwealth v. Pullis (1806) was the first "judicial supression of Trade Unions" in the United States. It ruled that methods of challenging "masters", such as striking or boycotting, were criminal conspircacies, punishable by law. 

The origin of this case takes place in Philadelphia:

In 1794, the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers was established by shoemakers in order to protect themselves from the rapid industrialization of their craft. As a response, the Master Cordwainers "filed a criminal complaint with the State of Pennsylvania to have the tactic of the FSJC declared unlawful." 

In 1806, the Philadelphia Mayor's Court ruled that George Pullis, along with seven other Journeymen Cordwainers, were found guily of "a combination to raise their wages." The Philadelphia Court used English Common Law to come to their conclusion. 

The court's use of the English Common Law of Conspiracy to justify their verdict was significant because of what it revealed about America's early court system. Professor Omar Swarts of the University of Colorado at Denver contends that this case revealed the larger feud in America between federalism and Jeffersonian democracy. The aristocracy was heavily associated with Federalism, while republicanism was represented by journeymen and the emerging working class. Jeffersonians rejected English Common Law while Federalists championed the adoption of English Common Law into America's legal systems. 

Commonwealth v. Pullis set a precedent that made union activites (such as combining for the purpose to higher wages) illegal until Commonwealth v. Hunt in 1842. 

Portrait photograph of Lemuel Shaw, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court

Cheif Justice Lemuel Shaw wrote the majority opinon of Commonwealth v. Hunt (1842) 

“It appears by the bill of exceptions, that it was contended on the part of the defendants, that this indictment did not set forth any agreement to do a criminal act, or to do any lawful act by criminal means, and that the agreement therein set forth did not constitute a conspiracy indictable by the law of this State, and that the court was requested so to instruct the jury.”

In his argument, Chief Justice Shaw asserted that an indictment against criminal conspirators must consist of two things:

1. The crime that the conspirators are perpetrating must be clearly established. 

2. If the crime in question was accomplished through unlawful means, those methods must also be clearly established. 

Prior to Commonwealth v. Hunt, cases brought up against organized laborers claimed that they used “unlawful” methods in order to achieve their goals. Chief Justice Shaw of the Massachusetts Supreme Court deemed that those methods did not constitute unlawful acts. 

Ely Moore

President of the General Trades' Union, Ely Moore (1798-1860) 

"...We, in order to guard against the encroachments of aristocracy, to preserve our natural and political rights, to elevate our moral and intellectual condition, to promote pecuniary interests, to narrow the line of distinction between the journeymen and employer, to establish the honour and safety of our respective vocations upon a more secure and permanent basis, and to aleviate the distress of those suffering from want of employment, have deemed it expedient to form ourselves into a 'General Trades' Union.'" - Ely Moore in his Address before the General Trades' Union of the City of New-York, December 2, 1833

The General Trades' Union (GTU) was founded in 1833 and orginally consisted of nine tade organizations. While the GTU was a new and formidable entity designed to fight for higher wages, some of its leaders had been involved in past labor movements. For example, "six GTU delegates, 3.3 percent of the total" had been involved with the Working Men's Party. Over a period of four years, the GTU organized "over fifty unions and nearly forty strikes." 

Between 1835 and 1836, the cost of living in the United States "rose by 50 to 100 percent." Despite such a sharp increase in the cost of living, "wages did not rise in the same proportion." Such turbulation in America's economy led laborers to look upon trades' unions for solidarity and assistance. Although many journeymen did not want to affiliate themselves with "sweated hands," they found themselves aligning with "sweated journeymen." In his address, Ely Moore appears to extend the invitation of combing to increase wages to those of the "second-rate" sort. "Thus far I have confined my remarks chiefly to the mechanic arts; but we must not stop here; the field we have entered upon embraces a still wider range." 

Despite such large combinations of workers fighting for higher wages and equality, the United States' economy ultimately weekended the power of the GTU and other labor organizations. The Panic of 1837 caused an economic crisis that made unemployment surge and wages fall by "one-third." Dr. Sean Wilentz describes the effect of the economy on labor organizations by writing: "Inflation had bred union militancy, but hard times and their aftermath demanded defensive strategies for dignified survival." During the depression, wage-earners were more concerned with feeding their families than going on strikes. 

Further Reading:

Commons, John R., David J. Saposs, Helen L. Sumner, E. B. Mittelman, Henry E. Hoagland, John B. Andrews, Selig Perlman, Don D. Lescohier, Elizabeth Brandeis Raushenbush, and Philip Taft. 1918. History of labour in the United States. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Moore, Ely. 1833. Address delivered before the General trades' union of the city of New-York. New-York: J. Ormond, printer.

Swartz, Omar. "Defending Labor in Commonwealth v. Pullis: Contemporary Implications For Rethinking Community," Murdoch University Electronic Journal of Law 11, no. 1 (2004). 

Wilentz, Sean. 2004. Chants Democratic : New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850. London, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004.