Unions before the Bar: Historic Trials Showing the Evolution of Labor Rights in the United States

By Elias Lieberman | Go to book overview

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The Conspiracy of the Philadelphia Bootmakers (1805-1806)

COMMONWEALTH (PA.) V. CORDWAINERS

I

The first recorded labor case in the United States is as dramatic as it is significant. The eight defendants on trial were simple, honest, hard-working bootmakers. They were charged by the commonwealth of Pennsylvania with the crime of conspiring to raise their wages. The scene in the courtroom reflected the clash between the two dominant political and social powers of the day -- the Federalists and the Jeffersonians. The defendants in the case were mere pawns in the battle between these two contending forces. This is the case of the Philadelphia Cordwainers.

When this trial took place -- at the beginning of the nineteenth century -- there was hardly any labor movement in existence in the United States. There were no mass production industries, there were no large employers, and there was no collective bargaining with labor to speak of. The only type of so-called workers' organizations in existence then were "friendly societies," organized mainly for fraternal purposes to which employers or masters, as well as workers, belonged. Class cleavages occurred much later, with the development of industry. When that occurred, the employers began forming their own trade associations, and the workers turned to their own trade unions.

In no slight sense this Philadelphia Cordwainers case was symbolic of things to come in industrial relations. Let us look at the background of the first recorded labor case in the history of the United States.

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