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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Looking Both Ways

PAST AND FUTURE

Looking backward at the distant past, American labor unions will find little good in the "good old days." Looking forward to the not too distant future, they are likely to face the problem of assuming social responsibilities.

In the early history of organized labor in the United States, one glaring fact boldly protrudes: organizations of workers had no rights in society and employers as a matter of law had no duties toward them. This was a direct outgrowth of the colonial days. It was not uncommon at that time to sell servants at auction, especially immigrants to the New World. In Labor in America, Foster Rhea Dulles relates that colonial newspapers often carried notices of such prospective sales, as exemplified by the Virginia Gazette, of March 28, 1771, which carried the following announcement:

Just arrived at Leedstown, the Ship Justitia, with about one Hundred Healthy Servants. . . The sale will commence on Tuesday, the 2nd. of April, at Leeds Town on Rappahanock River. A reasonable Credit will be allowed, giving Bond with approved Security to

THOMAS HODGE

Since the servant was bought and paid for, the master's attitude toward the servant was that of an owner toward property. In a society in which the selling of human beings as servants was in order, rights for labor obviously were out of order.

This psychology of master and servant was reflected in the interpretation of the common law, which in turn reflected the views of the dominant social group. The prevailing view was that laws were for the protection of property and that there was neither the need nor the basis for laws for the protection of servants. When the

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