The history of workers’ rights in the United States has primarily focused around unions and how they interact with major employers; this history is… less than honorable. The first major court case concerning labor strikes (critical union activity) was Commonwealth v. Pullis, which was tried in the Philadelphia Mayor’s Court in 1806.In Commonwealth v. Pullis, the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers was convicted by their employers of enacting an “illegal criminal conspiracy” by striking in order to obtain higher wages. Pullis won the case with the defense that the workers were “transitory, irresponsible, and dangerous.” As a result, Commonwealth v. Pullis made labor unions illegal.The decision in Commonwealth v. Pullis, as we know, did not remain unchanged; it was overturned in 1845 by Commonwealth v. Hunt. In Commonwealth v. Hunt, disgruntled Society (a quasi-labor union) member Jeremiah Horne was forced out of his job as a boot-maker when the other society members threated to walk-out of the shop because Horne wouldn’t follow the Society’s rules. Horne lost the trail at the local court, but his attorney Thatcher appealed the case to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. Justice Lemeul Shaw ruled in favor of Horne, noting in his majority that:
Stripped then of these introductory recitals and alleged injurious consequences, and of the qualifying epithets attached to the facts, the averment is this; that the defendants and others formed themselves into a society, and agreed not to work for any person, who should employ any journeyman or other person, not a member of such society, after notice given him to discharge such workman.The manifest intent of the association is, to induce all those engaged in the same occupation to become members of it. Such a purpose is not unlawful.
After this decision, the United States began to see labor unions en masse, working for better conditions and higher wages for their members.
Nearly 50 years after the ruling in Commonwealth v. Hunt, the US saw the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act, and much later the Clayton Antitrust Act. These two acts were critical in trust busting, increasing competition, and, more importantly, legalizing and protecting unions. The Clayton Antitrust act specifically granted immunity to unions that were being prosecuted as “illegal conspiracies,” and it ensured that they could not be the subject of legal trouble based upon their activities.
All of this led up to the most important legislature concerning labor rights: the Fair Labor Standards Act. Enacted in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act introduced the forty hour workweek, the national minimum wage, “time-and-a-half” for overtime, and laws banning child labor. This move was critical in a time where wages were low, working conditions were poor, and overtime was mandatory. By enacting these labor laws and allowing the people to group together for their common good, the Federal Government has extended the franchise of democracy to its labor force.
The US Government also extended the franchise of democracy to its female citizens upon the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which ensured “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” The Nineteenth Amendment was the zenith of the feminist movement; the events leading up to its passage were not remotely as grand.
The women’s’ suffrage movement began in New Jersey in 1790. During that time, the general suffrage law was revised to include both women and men; this revision was overturned in 1807. Early (During the 1830s) advocates for equal suffrage include Frances Wright, a Scottish woman who advocated women’s rights during a series of lectures, Ernestine Rose, a Polish woman who petitioned for equal suffrage, and Lucretia Mott and Margaret Fuller, both active equal suffrage movement leaders from Boston.
The movement lied dormant throughout the Civil war, until two competing organizations for women’s suffrage, the American Woman Suffrage Association and the National Woman Suffrage Association, merged to create the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1890. This merger reinvigorated the movement under its new leader Susan B. Anthony, and brought a broadened base of support for its end game. Their national headquarters was established in Warren, Ohio in 1903 under a new president, Carrie Chapman.
Under Chapman’s leadership the zenith of the woman’s suffrage movement was reached. On January 12, 1915, a suffrage bill was brought before the House of Representatives; however, it was defeated by a vote of 204 to 174 (primarily democrats against). The evening before a similar bill was to be brought before the House of Representatives on January 10th, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson made a public appeal to the House to pass the bill. This appeal was successful, however the bill was still stopped in Congress, falling just two votes short of the majority needed for passage. After a failed re-attempt, the president called a special session of congress in order to discuss the amendment; this time the bill passed successfully to the senate, where it was passed with 56 ayes and 25 nays. The Nineteenth Amendment was not enacted until August 18th, 1920, when Tennessee narrowly ratified it, making it law throughout the United States. Thusly, the franchise of democracy was extended to the female citizens of the United States, who could now enjoy the full rights given to them as citizens.
Lastly, the most recent extension of the franchise of democracy to the citizens of the United States happened through the African-American Civil Rights movement. Two critical pieces of legislature occurred as a result of this movement which granted democracy to African Americans: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This movement was driven by the passionate Dr. Martin Luther King Junior, who helped drive the movement to its famous march on Washington, where King delivered his “I have a dream” speech.
King’s involvement with the African American Civil Rights Movement began with the formation of the Montgomery Improvement Association, created with the sole purpose of leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a successful protest of the segregated bus system. This success put Dr. King on the national stage in the mid-1950s. Dr. King took his new found fame and used it to create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or the SCLC.
The SCLC went on to be incredibly successful with the protests it led; however, none were more successful than the March on Washington, which it was only a participant in. It was here, as aforementioned, that King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech. The march gave the movement national attention, particularly from a rather enthusiastic President Kennedy. Kennedy met with the movement leaders, where he expressed that he was committed to passing the bill, he was not sure that he could get enough votes in congress in order to pass an Amendment. However, in a twist of morbid luck, JFK was assassinated; his successor, Lyndon Banes Johnson, used JFK as a martyr (and his vast influence in Congress) in order to push civil rights legislation through Congress.
The results of this “push” were two acts: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These acts guarantee the protections under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment to African-American citizens across the United States. These landmark pieces of legislature ended the cruel tyranny of Jim Crow laws, and ended generations of legal discrimination against African-Americans. It gave them a place in our society and our government; even more importantly, it extended the franchise of democracy to them.
The United States Constitution is a dynamic force that is always working to better itself. Despite the blood and degradation in the United States’ past, it has boldly moved forward from its dishonorable past. It’s mind-blowing to see how the United States has set a rather progressive pace for other nations to follow when it comes to democracy. The United States Constitution has extended democracy far beyond the bounds that its framers ever thought it could go; and one can be sure that they are thankful for it.