Anti-Injunction Campaigns and the Transformation of Labor Law in Detroit, 1915 to 1921

By Hall, Jake | Michigan Historical Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Anti-Injunction Campaigns and the Transformation of Labor Law in Detroit, 1915 to 1921


Hall, Jake, Michigan Historical Review


The year 1916 appeared promising for advocates of labor-injunction reform at the national level. The Clayton Antitrust Act had been passed two years earlier and offered hope to workers that labor injunctions stemming from the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 would be curbed. A federal commission headed by Frank P. Walsh had just completed a report on labor unrest. Sharply condemning injunction abuse by equity courts, the report concluded that labor-injunction jurisprudence needed fundamental reform. In addition, the Democratic Party's platform for Woodrow Wilson's 1916 reelection campaign incorporated many of Walsh's findings and recommendations. American Federation of Labor (AFL) president Samuel Gompers was aligned politically with President Wilson and his administration, establishing labor's first close relationship with the executive branch. (1)

Despite the promise of labor reform at the national level in 1916, Michigan labor unions chose to push their own agenda to curb labor injunctions, rather than rely on the influence of federal laws trickling down to state and local courts. Organized labor's concern with the difficulties posed by injunctions extended well beyond the scope of national reform, which focused on curbing labor injunctions based on federal antitrust laws. At the local level, employers' campaigns against labor organizing invoked state laws and local ordinances and relied on probusiness judicial activism in labor conflicts. (2) Outrage against the abuses of employer-friendly courts fueled organized labor's efforts to reform, restrict, and prohibit the use of court-issued labor injunctions in Michigan. (3) As a consequence, between 1915 and 1921 the Detroit Federation of Labor (DFL) led organized workers and their allies in a series of anti-injunction campaigns that dramatically improved organized labor's position in local and state courts.

The anti-injunction campaigns in Michigan reveal the vitality of Detroit's working class; ultimately, they reshaped local labor relations and marked the emergence of a vibrant labor-progressive political tradition that kept organized labor politically relevant in the city during a period of antilabor attacks. By 1919 pressure from labor's campaigns led Wayne County Circuit Court judges to develop new procedures that were more favorable to workers when Congress issued injunctions in labor disputes in Detroit. Judges ended the practice of issuing injunctions ex parte, that is, without the presence in court or even the knowledge of the persons enjoined. In addition, judges no longer interpreted the act of picketing by itself as ipso facto a violent activity. Instead, they issued injunctions only after considering arguments from the parties that were to be enjoined, and only when there was credible evidence of danger to others or destruction of property. These two changes not only addressed the key concerns of many of Detroit's workers, but also anticipated the labor-injunction provisions made in Congress's Norris-LaGuardia Act, which was passed in 1932. (4) By late 1919, then, Detroit's organized labor had accomplished the transformation of labor-injunction provisions that did not arrive in federal courts until thirteen years later.

Historically, the labor injunction was one of the Michigan labor movement's key concerns. While legal precedents had "built up over sixteen years of judicial experience" prior to 1894, it was court action taken to suppress the American Railway Union's boycott against the Pullman Company in that year that sent shockwaves through the American labor movement and made the labor injunction a major target for reform. (5) By imposing a labor injunction, a single judge could prosecute and sentence those he enjoined without a jury trial. To defeat the American Railway Union, more than one hundred blanket injunctions were issued "in every large city west of the Allegheny Mountains," many of which were issued ex parte. (6) The Supreme Court decision, In re Debs, upheld the validity of the injunctions as well as Eugene Debs's jail sentence for contempt of court (imposed by a lower court). …

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