© 2011 by Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
A Brief History of Labor
and Employment Law
in the United States
The Common Law Criminal Conspiracy Doctrine
e history of labor law in this country is almost as old as the nation itself. In the
early years of the United States, there were few statutory laws compared to today.
Most of the law was essentially made by judges who relied on legal precedents, that
is, what judges decided in other cases. is principle is known as stare decisis.
Roughly translated, it means that if the law has been declared, we will follow it.
Early American judges had little precedent of their own to follow, so they fol-
lowed English law, by and large. e law in England was decidedly unfavorable to
labor unions and working people in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Judges
in England, for the most part, were not raised in working class environments. Many
people in the upper classes looked upon unions as wicked and felt threatened by
them. It did not take long for the English judiciary to develop a legal doctrine to deal
with the situation. It was known as the criminal conspiracy doctrine.
Under this doctrine, any combination of working people to raise their wages
or to withhold their services (strike) was deemed to be unlawful. Further, it was a
criminal wrong punishable by imprisonment. American courts were not long in
adopting this legal principle and in using it against working people.
One of the earliest labor cases on the books in America concerned a group of boot
makers in Philadelphia in 1805 and is known as the Cordwainers Case (an old term
for boot maker). is group of boot makers decided to band together and present their