Injunctions, Labor

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INJUNCTIONS, LABOR. In the late nineteenth century, America saw a dramatic increase in state intervention against labor protest. Beginning with the railway strikes of the 1870s and spreading to every major industry by century's end, the nation's courts vastly enlarged their role in regulating and policing industrial conflict through labor injunctions.

The substantive law governing the bounds of workers' collective action changed little from the beginning of the nineteenth century until the first and second decades of the twentieth century. Strikes to improve wages and working conditions at individual workplaces were legal, but boycotting or striking to gain union recognition or to support fellow workers in "unfair" shops was outlawed. What changed, then, was not the substantive law but its application.

Until the late nineteenth century, conspiracy trials were the chief way that courts enforced this body of law; and they were rare. By 1895, conspiracy prosecutions for strike activities had dwindled to a handful each year, while labor injunctions were multiplying. By a conservative reckoning, at least 4,300 injunctions were issued between 1880 and 1930—by the 1920s 25 percent of strikes were limited by injunctions. While capital consolidated and individual plants and firms merged into large-scale, nationwide corporations, workers' ability to join together to enlarge their economic might was sharply curtailed.

The switch in form from conspiracy trial to injunction also signified an enormous increase in the pervasiveness of judicial regulation. Every injunction represented a new, particularized set of legal commands—a kind of custom-made criminal statute—addressed to strikers and often to whole working-class communities, or to all the members of a national union. A single injunction's language often ranged from the broadest proscriptions against interfering with a plaintiff-employer's business to prohibiting the aiding or abetting of a strike or boycott down to the most minute tactics and customs. The appeal of the labor injunction from an employer's perspective lay not only in this breadth, but also in the ease and swiftness of obtaining and enforcing it. The criminal process was slow; but one could appear before an equity judge with a handful of affidavits and obtain a temporary decree against a strike in a matter of hours; one did not even have to notify the defendants until after the order was issued. Local juries, moreover, often stymied criminal prosecutions against strikers, but strikers accused of violating an injunction were tried by the judge who issued the decree. Juries often acquitted, lending popular legitimacy to the underlying labor action, whereas judges almost always meted out jail sentences. Injunction proceedings circumvented more than just local juries. An injunction suit could be used to over-ride the judgments of local mayors, sheriffs, and police chiefs, whom courts as well as employers constantly accused of siding with strikers.

Thus, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the labor injunction enabled hostile employers and public officials to depict peaceful protest and mutual aid as the acts of outlaws. From the 1890s until the New Deal, the chief political goal of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was repealing this judge-made law. Repeatedly, trade unionists brought to state and federal lawmakers their stories of broken strikes and their claims of constitutional wrongs by the nation's courts—of judicial violations of the freedom of speech and association, and the freedom to quit, individually and in concert. From the 1890s through the 1920s, labor prevailed on both state legislatures and Congress to pass roughly forty "anti-injunction statutes," loosening the judge-made restraints on collective action. However, at least twenty-five of these statutes were voided on constitutional grounds, and most of those not struck down were vitiated by narrow construction. Until the Great Depression and the New Deal, courts had both the power and the will to trump these measures. In 1932, Congress enacted the Norris-La-Guardia Act, which stripped federal courts of authority to issue injunctions in labor disputes. The new anti-injunction law did not undergo Supreme Court scrutiny until 1938.By then, however, New Deal judges and jurisprudence had begun to vanquish the old legal order, of which "government by injunction" had been a central pillar.


Forbath, William E. Law and the Shaping of the American Labor Movement. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Frankfurter, Felix, and Nathan Greene. The Labor Injunction. New York: Macmillan, 1930.

William E.Forbath

See alsoAmerican Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations ; Collective Bargaining ; Labor Legislation and Administration ; Picketing ; Right-to-Work Laws ; Strikes ; Taft-Hartley Act ; Yellow-Dog Contract .