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

By Elias Lieberman | Go to book overview

- 17 -
The "Free Speech" Umbrella for Peaceful Picketing ( 1939-1940)

THE STATE OF ALABAMA v. BYRON THORNHILL

I

Byron Thornhill saw no significance in the incident. While on the picket line, he merely attempted to persuade a worker of Brown Wood Preserving Company in Brownsville, Alabama, not to return to work during the strike. He had done the same sort of thing on many other occasions. But this, to him insignificant, incident catapulted him to fame in the annals of the struggles of American labor to establish an important legal right. Byron Thornhill achieved the distinction of having the United States Supreme Court enunciate the principle that peaceful picketing by labor was a fundamental right, protected by the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech.

The incident leading to this decision occurred in the state of Alabama, whose motto is "We dare defend our rights." This state is the leading heavy-industry state in the South. In the nation, it ranks third in iron mining, fourth in lumbering, and eighth in coal mining. While it has developed industrially, the influence of its plantation days may still be felt. Its employers in their industrial relations have transferred the traditional plantation owner's relations with tenants to the factory owner's relations with employees. For many years Alabama practiced the "convict lease" system, by which convicts were hired out to contractors and companies for their work. Since convicts are not free labor, they are easily exploited by employers who hire them from the state.

In many sections of Alabama the "company town" prevailed, particularly in mining and lumbering and also in the steel-making

-217-

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