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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"Virtuous Ends Pursued by Virtuous Means" (1840-1842)

COMMONWEALTH (MASS.) v. HUNT

I

For almost thirty-six years, the decision of the Philadelphia Cordwainers case continued to plague workers' organizations. During these years, about twenty indictments in various states were secured against labor organizations, charging them with "criminal conspiracy" in combining unlawfully to raise their wages. In spite of these indictments, organizations of workers for improvement of their economic conditions sprang up from time to time.

In the year 1842 a radical change occurred in the attitude of the courts toward labor organizations. The ambitions of a district attorney in Boston, and the obstinacy of a Bostonian bootmaker, contrary to the intentions of both, helped to dissolve the taint of crime that was attached to labor organizations by the Philadelphia Cordwainers decision. This new attitude of the courts was demonstrated in the case of Commonwealth v. Hunt in the state of Massachusetts, which was destined to have a far-reaching effect on the development of labor rights in the United States. Let us look at the background of this case.


II

The economic position of workers about 1830 was not a happy one. There was currency inflation, with its accompaniment of continuous mounting in the cost of living. The country was getting a foretaste of hard times to come and the workers were feeling the effect of incipient economic depression. Some of them were seeking

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