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labor law

Early Labor Law

In England, Parliament was averse to legislating on subjects relating to workers because of the prevailing policy of laissez-faire. The earliest factory law (1802) dealt with the health, safety, and morals of children employed in textile mills, and subsequent laws regulated their hours and working conditions. An act of 1833 provided for inspection to enforce the law. Young mine workers were first protected in 1842, women in 1844. Although labor unions were legalized in 1825, agreements among their members to seek better hours and wages were punishable as conspiracy under the common law until they were legalized in 1871 and 1906.

In colonial America, labor laws limited a worker's ability to raise his wages and legalized such forced labor systems as slavery and indentured servitude. Regulations were nonetheless passed limiting a master's control over servants and slaves and in the 19th cent. labor legislation was passed to improve working conditions. Federal employees were granted a 10-hr day in 1840, but the Supreme Court did not recognize the legality of state legislation that limited the work day to 8 hrs until 1908. Slavery ended with the Civil War and the legal basis for peonage and indentured servitude disappeared by 1910.

As in Great Britain, labor organizing in the United States was discouraged by the common law doctrine that unions represented a conspiracy against the public good. The Massachusetts supreme court abolished the doctrine in 1842, but in the 19th and early 20th cent. courts often prohibited unions for going on strike and generally granted prosecutors wide authority to indict union leaders for violence or property damage that occurred during a strike. Sedition laws passed in World War I were used to crush such unions as the Industrial Workers of the World.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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