Clayton Act, Labor Provisions

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CLAYTON ACT, LABOR PROVISIONS. By the turn of the twentieth century, the national leadership of the American labor movement had abandoned politics in favor of "pure and simple trade unionism." But the federal courts, wielding the nation's antitrust law, soon drove labor back into national politics. The injunction against the Pullman Railway boycott, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in In Re Debs (1895), was followed by a series of judicial decrees that used the Sherman Antitrust Act to outlaw strikes and boycotts. Equally ominous were damage suits such as the Danbury Hatters' Case (1908), making trade unionists liable for treble damages for losses occasioned by boycotts. The unanimous Court in that case seemed to condemn not only secondary boycotts, but the very goal of industry wide collective bargaining.

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) campaigned for immunity from the antitrust laws and repeal of the federal courts' equity jurisdiction to issue anti-strike and anti-boycott decrees. In 1912 the election of Woodrow Wilson and of a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives combined with the revolt of insurgent Republicans to open the door to reform. When Wilson signed the Clayton Act in 1914, the AFL chief Samuel Gompers hailed its labor provisions as "the Magna Carta" of organized labor.

These provisions included section 6, which declared that labor "is not a commodity or article of commerce" and that "[n]othing contained in the anti-trust laws… forbid[s] the existence and operation of labor … organizations"; section 20, which proscribed injunctions in labor disputes except where necessary "to prevent irreparable injury to property or to a property right" for which there was no adequate remedy at law and also listed ten "peaceful" and "lawful" labor activities (including strikes and boycotts) that injunctions could not forbid; and sections 21 to 25, which made some procedural reforms in contempt cases arising from injunction suits. In contrast to Gompers's encomiums to the act, other commentators insisted that the statute fell far short of granting labor immunity from antitrust law or of repealing "government by injunction." For example, they noted that a finding of irreparable injury and of no adequate legal remedy were already required under equity doctrine for any injunction. For his part William Howard Taft, president of the American Bar Association at the time, declared that the law did nothing more than state "what would be law without the statute."

Certainly, the language of the act's labor provisions was sufficiently ambiguous to support widely divergent interpretations. That is because it bore the imprint of powerful lobbying by unions and employers alike and of compromise among lawmakers. In effect, Congress largely left the power to define labor's freedom with the courts. And given the composition of the Supreme Court then, the outcome was fairly predictable. In 1921, the Court held in Duplex Printing Press Co. v. Deering that the act had neither legalized peaceful secondary boycotts nor immunized them from injunctions. The tenor of the Duplex decision suggests that the Supreme Court believed that the Clayton had merely affirmed what the Court previously had said about labor's rights. Now the Court's chief justice, William Howard Taft authored the opinion in American Steel Foundries v. Tri-Central Trades Council (1921), in which he wrote that the act "is merely declaratory of what was the best practice always." Only in the changed legal and political climate of the New Deal would organized labor find relief from "government by injunction" and antitrust liability.


Ernst, Daniel R. Lawyers against Labor: From Individual Rights to Corporate Liberalism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Kutler, Stanley I. "Labor, the Clayton Act, and the Supreme Court." Labor History 3 (1962): 19–38.

William E.Forbath

See alsoDanbury Hatters' Case ; In Re Debs ; Injunctions, Labor ; Labor ; Labor Legislation and Administration ; Strikes .

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Clayton Act, Labor Provisions

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