Byrnes Act

views updated

Byrnes Act

United States 1936


In 1936 Congress enacted the Byrnes Act, also known as the Antistrikebreaker Law, which was authored by Senator James Francis Byrnes of South Carolina. The act made it a federal felony to willfully transport strikebreakers across state lines for the purpose of obstructing or interfering by force or threats with peaceful picketing by employees during any labor controversy affecting wages, hours, or conditions of labor, or the exercise by employees of any of the rights of self-organization or collective bargaining. The legislation responded to over a half century of industrial violence that had been fueled in part by management's persistent use of armed mercenaries to infiltrate, intimidate, threaten, and use violence against laborers to prevent or to break labor strikes.


  • 1921: As the Allied Reparations Commission calls for payments of 132 billion gold marks, inflation in Germany begins to climb.
  • 1926: Britain is paralyzed by the general strike.
  • 1931: Financial crisis widens in the United States and Europe, which reel from bank failures and climbing unemployment levels. In London, armies of the unemployed riot.
  • 1933: Adolf Hitler becomes German chancellor, and the Nazi dictatorship begins.
  • 1936: Germany reoccupies the Rhineland, while Italy annexes Ethiopia. Recognizing a commonality of aims, the two totalitarian powers sign the Rome-Berlin Axis Pact. (Japan will join them in 1940.)
  • 1936: The election of a leftist Popular Front government in Spain in February precipitates an uprising by rightists under the leadership of Francisco Franco. Over the next three years, war will rage between the Loyalists and Franco's Nationalists. The Spanish Civil War will prove to be a lightning rod for the world's tensions, with the Nazis and Fascists supporting the Nationalists, and the Soviets the Loyalists.
  • 1936: Hitler uses the Summer Olympics in Berlin as an opportunity to showcase Nazi power and pageantry, but the real hero of the games is the African American track star Jesse Owens.
  • 1939: Britain and France declare war against Germany after the 1 September invasion of Poland, but little happens in the way of mobilization.
  • 1944: Allies land at Normandy on 6 June, conducting the largest amphibious invasion in history.
  • 1951: Six western European nations form the European Coal and Steel Community, forerunner of the European Economic Community and the later European Union.

Event and Its Context

The Byrnes Act makes it a federal felony to knowingly transport a "strikebreaker" across state lines. The act defines a strikebreaker as a person paid to use force or threats to obstruct or interfere with lawful labor activity. Two types of labor activity are specifically protected against interference by strikebreakers from out of state. First, during labor controversies regarding wages, hours, or working conditions, strikebreakers may not interfere with peaceful picketing activity. Second, at all times, strikebreakers may not interfere with union organizing or collective bargaining activity.

The Byrnes Act prohibits transport only of persons specifically hired to use force or threats against laborers. The uses of "force or threats" prohibited by the act include infiltrating labor strikes, stirring up violence, and motivating popular opinion against striking workers. In the early twentieth century, people who engaged in these prohibited activities often were employed by private detective agencies or were in the private armies of industrial employers. Labor unionists referred to such professional strikebreakers as "goons" or "finks" and distinguished them from "scabs," or nonunion workers who filled jobs that were opened temporarily by labor strikes. Interstate transport of peaceful "scab" replacement workers is not a violation of the Byrnes Act, even when such workers are brought in for the purpose of breaking a labor strike.

Violations of the Byrnes Act are punishable by fines or by imprisonment for up to two years. The Byrnes Act does not apply to transportation common carriers, such as railroads, commercial bus lines, or commercial airlines. Thus, if an employer uses a commercial airline to fly in a group of strikebreakers from out of state to threaten local labor organizers, only the employer—and not the commercial airline—is subject to prosecution under the Byrnes Act, regardless of whether the airline knows why the strikebreakers are traveling across state lines.

Labor Strikes before the Byrnes Act

From the 1890s through the 1930s, the United States economy was repeatedly disrupted by labor strikes, employer lockouts, and horrendous acts of violence perpetrated by labor and management alike. Some of the worst such violence erupted when striking laborers clashed with professional strikebreakers employed by specialized agencies such as the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, Bergoff Detective Bureau, and the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency.

In 1892 Pinkerton agents clashed with organized labor when, in an effort to halt union organizing, the Carnegie Steel Company locked out 1,100 steelworkers from their jobs at the company's Homestead, Pennsylvania, plant. When 3,000 of the plant's 3,800 workers picketed the plant, plant manager Henry C. Frick called in the Pinkertons. Hundreds of armed agents arrived by barge on the Monongahela River. Thousands of strikers and strike supporters lining the riverbank warned them not to disembark. Shots were fired, and a 14-hour battle ensued. When the Pinkerton agents surrendered, three agents and nine steelworkers were dead. The Pennsylvania National Guard eventually took control of the plant.

In 1914 in Colorado's "Ludlow Massacre," agents from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency participated in setting fire to a tent camp that had been established by striking miners who had been evicted from their company-owned homes. The Ludlow fires killed 12 children and seven adults. On 19 May 1920 the "Battle of Matewan, West Virginia," erupted when Baldwin-Felts detectives hired by the local mining company tried to evict striking miners and their families from the Stone Mountain Mine camp. The ensuing gun battle resulted in the deaths of seven detectives, two miners, and the mayor of Matewan.

Neither the Pinkertons nor the Baldwin-Felts agents, however, were as notorious in organized labor circles as was the self-proclaimed "King of the Strikebreakers," Mr. Pearl L. Bergoff, founder of the Bergoff Services Bureau. In 1910, 16 men, women, and children were killed by Bergoff Services Bureau employees who had been hired to break a Philadelphia rapid transitworkers' strike. In 1920 the Bergoff Detective Bureau received $2 million to break just two strikes: the Brooklyn, New York, rapid transit strike and the Erie, Pennsylvania, railroad strike. By 1935 Bergoff boasted in both Fortune magazine andReaders' Digest that his bureau had undertaken 172 strikebreaking engagements between 1907 and 1934. In fact, the bureau had been hired to break more than 300 strikes during that period, during which its activities were associated with 54 deaths.

Not all labor-related violence was directed against unionists. In 1923, for example, striking miners in Herrin, Illinois, murdered 20 "scab" replacement workers. Nonetheless, lawmakers in the 1930s directed their efforts primarily against the professional strikebreaking agencies. In the early twentieth century, at least 16 states enacted "Pinkerton Laws." These variously prohibited the maintenance of armed forces within the state, required licensure for private detective agencies, barred employment during labor disputes of people who customarily and repeatedly offered themselves for employment in the place of employees involved in labor disputes, required employers to notify job applicants of impending labor unrest, and forbade the transport of armed men into a state. These state laws, however, failed to eliminate the scourge of violent professional strikebreaking.

The Enactment of the Byrnes Act (1935-1936)

On 22 August 1935 Senator James Francis Byrnes (D-SC), a self-described "conservative liberal" and key southern congressional ally of President Franklin Roosevelt, introduced in the U.S. Senate a bill to hinder strikebreaking activities undertaken by private agencies of national scope. Senator Byrnes stated that the bill was specifically targeted against several existing national agencies—namely the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency and the Bergoff Detective Bureau—that employed "armies of men for the purpose of sending them into various States of the Union to interfere in labor controversies by obstructing and interfering physically with those who are engaged in peaceful picketing." Citing Colorado's Ludlow Massacre and a similar massacre of coal miners in West Virginia, Byrnes asserted that whenever these private agencies "sent their hirelings into the coal mines or into other industrial centers, the result has invariably been to cause bloodshed, and the use of weapons, and physical violence."

Byrnes's antistrikebreaking bill passed the Senate without controversy. In the House of Representatives, John Elvis Miller (D-AR) introduced the Byrnes bill in May 1936, where it was met with some opposition. The leading opponent, Thomas Lindsay Blanton (D-TX), argued that the Byrnes bill would deprive employers of necessary means to protect their property and the safety of replacement workers against violence and vandalism initiated by striking laborers. To illustrate this point, Blanton argued that the federal government itself had been disrupted recently when carloads of union thugs had beaten up "scab" replacement workers who had been hired to continue building the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. during a labor strike. Blanton also argued that the Byrnes bill would render workers who chose not to join unions vulnerable to physical intimidation or retaliation by union thugs. In floor debate, to substantial applause, Vito Marcantonio (R-NY) characterized Blanton's remarks as "the most vicious antilabor speech that has ever been made on the floor of this House."

Robert Fleming Rich (R-PA) further objected that the Byrnes bill would impose liability on transportation companies that innocently hauled strikebreakers from one state to another, although in the Senate, Byrnes had assured the contrary. In response, the House amended the bill to clarify that it would not apply to transportation common carriers.

Despite such individual objections, the Byrnes bill easily passed the House, where most members saw it as a potentially useful tool for moderating a cycle of violence between labor and management that had escalated out of control. Miller, the bill's House sponsor, articulated this viewpoint: "The trouble is that whenever you take men from Arkansas into New York, or from Massachusetts to Arkansas, and they go interfering with the local problems, it is just like waving a red flag in a bull's face."

President Roosevelt signed the bill into law on 24 June 1936.

Efforts to Convict under the Byrnes Act

Although the Byrnes Act has remained in effect since 1936, only a handful of individuals ever have been charged with violating it. Moreover, not a single person has ever been convicted of violating the act.

Shortly after the Byrnes Act became law, criminal prosecutions were brought against Bergoff Detective Bureau, one of its principal intended targets, whose agents had crossed state lines to break strikes. In 1937, however, a federal district judge in Connecticut acquitted these agents, finding that the government had not proved that the agents intended to interfere with peaceful picketing, collective bargaining, or union organizing at the time they crossed state lines.

In 1956 a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) trial examiner initially determined that the Byrnes Act had been violated when the captain of a shipping vessel docked near Cairo, Illinois, physically attacked four union organizers who refused to leave the vessel after boarding at the invitation of a crewman. Later that year, however, the full NLRB overturned the trial examiner's determination, finding that the union organizers had been trespassing on the vessel and that the captain was within his rights in attempting to remove them.

The dearth of criminal convictions under the Byrnes Act may indicate that the law is ineffective; that is, that it is easily evaded or that it is difficult for prosecutors to prove that an accused strikebreaker crossed state lines specifically to interfere with peaceful picketing, collective bargaining, or union organizing. On the other hand, it may indicate that the law has been highly effective; that is, that the Byrnes Act eliminated the existence of private agencies of national scope that specialize in using force or violence to break labor strikes. Alternatively, the Byrnes Act may have fallen into disuse after the 1935 National Labor Relations Board enabled the government to address "unfair labor practices"—including the use of threat or force against workers, intimidation, and the use of industrial spies—through administrative proceedings rather than through the criminal justice system.

Key Players

Byrnes, James Francis (1879-1972): Byrnes served as a member of both the House of Representatives and the Senate and was associate justice of the Supreme Court, director of economic stabilization under President Roosevelt, director of war mobilization, secretary of state, and ultimately governor of South Carolina. He was the author of the Byrnes Act.

Miller, John Elvis (1888-1981): Democrat representative (1931-1937) and senator (1937-1941), Miller was appointed U.S. district judge for the western district of Arkansas in 1941 and retired in 1967, becoming U.S. senior district judge.

See also: Homestead Lockout; Ludlow Massacre.



Fitch, John. The Causes of Industrial Unrest. New York:Harpers, 1924.

Hoxie, Robert Franklin. Trade Unionism in the United States.New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1923.

Norwood, Stephen H. Strikebreaking and Intimidation: Mercenaries and Masculinity in Twentieth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.


"Anti-Strikebreaking Legislation—the Effect and Validity of State-Imposed Criminal Sanctions." University of Pennsylvania Law Review 115, no. 190 (December 1966).

The Congressional Record: Vol. 79, pp. 14105-14106 (22August 1935); Vol. 80, pp. 6654-6655 (4 May 1936); Vol. 80, pp. 10218-10222 (19 June 1936).

"Employer Interference with Lawful Union Activity."Columbia Law Review 37, no. 816 (1937).

"Legislation: Congress Assails Industrial Thuggery."University of Pennsylvania Law Review 85, no. 406 (February 1937): 406-413.

Wolf, Herman. "Strike-Breaker Number One." The Nation141, no. 3671 (13 November 1935): 568.

Additional Resources


The Byrnes Foundation. "James Francis Byrnes." 1998 [cited28 September 2002]. <>.

PBS Online. The American Experience. "Homestead Strike."1999 [cited 28 September 2002]. <>

—Linda Dynan

About this article

Byrnes Act

Updated About content Print Article