Today, employees are guaranteed a certain quality of treatment; they are promised safety and appropriate wages in return for reliability and work. However, that wasn’t always the case. History is full of stories of mistreatment of workers, from slaves and indentured servants of the colonial period to women and minorities in the present day. Thanks to slow, steady progress in laying down labor laws, the modern workplace is relatively equal and secure — but there is still plenty that can be done to make employment fair for everyone.
If you want a law specialization that will make an impact on the everyday lives of untold millions of workers, labor law is for you. To prove it, here are 10 cases where labor law changed history for the better.
1636: Maine Fisherman Strike
Throughout the colonial period, long before the revolution, groups of laborers fought for rights. The first documented example of this occurred on Richmond Island, Maine, where fishers organized work stoppage to protest the withholding of wages. This strike and other early movements like it did not immediately result in permanent change because workers retained little political power. In fact, at this time, strikes were considered illegal because labor law had yet to be established.
1792: Philadelphia Cordwainers Unionize
In 1792, the cordwainers — or shoemakers — of Philadelphia were tired of mistreatment, and they banded together to form the U.S.’s first union. Jointly, they commanded greater bargaining power — but still, the union was only temporary and disbanded roughly one year after it was created. Later, a more formal union of cordwainers would arise, the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers, who were convicted of conspiracy after striking for higher wages. After a massive fine, the union once again dispersed. In labor law programs, you are likely to read about this famous case, called Commonwealth v. Pullis.
1842: Boston Bootmakers Win Rights
In 1840, a bootmaker in Boston named Jeremiah Horne offered to do extra work without extra pay. As a member of the Boston Journeymen Bootmakers Society, Horne was flagrantly breaking the union’s rules and was fined for this act. Horne continued to disobey, and when Horne was fired and driven from Boston, he filed a complaint against the society, claiming it was criminally impoverishing employers and non-union laborers. The resulting court case, titled Commonwealth v. Hunt, determined that unions organized for legal ends were not unlawful, and the bootmakers society had the right to aid, benefit, and protect its laborers.
1857: Dred Scott Decision Extends Slavery
One of the most egregious decisions in Supreme Court history, the ruling of the Dred Scott case stated that anyone of African descent could never be considered an American citizen. Previously, slaves brought into territories where slavery was prohibited were considered free; Dred Scott not only eliminated this precedent but determined that people of African descent did not claim any rights. Fortunately, this case launched the U.S. into turmoil that ultimately resulted in the next great labor legislation.
1865: The 13th Amendment Abolishes Slavery
The 13th Amendment states “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude… shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Before this radical alteration to the Constitution, more than half of the United States used slaves instead of paid laborer’s; after the 13th Amendment was ratified — alongside the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which promised citizenship and rights to Americans of African descent — paid workers were mandatory and could command greater bargaining power, especially in territories where slavery was once legal.
1890: The Anti-Trust Era Begins
At the end of the 19th century, business was booming, and successful business owners were able to acquire vast portions of their market, outcompeting smaller opponents and dictating critical economic components, like wages. The Sherman Act, passed in 1890, was among the first legislation intended to bust nefarious monopolies; it allowed government regulators to separate trusts, which were intentional, artificial business moves to control prices. Not only did this benefit the economy, but it was another step toward guaranteeing fair treatment to workers.
1938: Modern Labor Laws Emerge
In truth, the modern era for labor law began at the start of the Great Depression, when workers and legislators alike recognized widespread injustices and their impacts on the American economy at large. Still, one of the most foundational achievements occurred in 1938, when the federal government enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. This act established many of the basic labor laws workers take for granted, including a nationwide minimum wage, guaranteed overtime pay, and prohibitions on employment of minors. Many similar workers’ rights acts of the 20th century are built upon the Fair Labor Standards Act — and undoubtedly the labor laws of the future will also follow this precedent.