Truax v. Corrigan

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Truax v. Corrigan

United States 1921


In Truax v. Corrigan the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated an Arizona law that prohibited the state courts from issuing injunctions against labor unions involved in disputes with employers over the terms and conditions of employment. The case was a setback for organized labor in its efforts to seek legislation that would allow peaceful picketing and boycotts without the interference of the courts.


  • 1906: Founding of the British Labour Party.
  • 1911: Revolution in Mexico, begun the year before, continues with the replacement of the corrupt Porfirio Diaz, president since 1877, by Francisco Madero.
  • 1916: Battles of Verdun and the Somme on the Western Front. The latter sees the first use of tanks, by the British.
  • 1918: The Second Battle of the Marne in July and August is the last major conflict on the Western Front. In November, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicates, bringing an end to the war.
  • 1921: As the Allied Reparations Commission calls for payments of 132 billion gold marks, inflation in Germany begins to climb.
  • 1921: Canadian scientists Frederick Banting and Charles Herbert Best isolate insulin, an advance that will alter the lives of diabetics and greatly reduce the number of deaths associated with the disease.
  • 1921: Washington Disarmament Conference limits the tonnage of world navies.
  • 1921: In a controversial U.S. case, Italian-born anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti are tried and convicted of armed robbery and murder. Despite numerous protests from around the world, they will be executed six years later.
  • 1924: V. I. Lenin dies, and thus begins a struggle for succession from which Stalin will emerge five years later as the undisputed leader of the Communist Party, and of the Soviet Union.
  • 1928: Discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming.
  • 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.
  • 1936: Germany reoccupies the Rhineland, while Italy annexes Uthiopia. Recognizing a commonality of aims, the two totalitarian powers sign the Rome-Berlin Axis Pact. (Japan will join them in 1940.)

Event and Its Context

The Injunction in Labor Disputes

The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 was designed chiefly to curb monopolistic business practices, but an unintended outcome of the act was that it was used against organized labor. In effect, the courts repeatedly held—in such cases as Danbury Hatters (officially Loewe v. Lawler, 1908) and Gompers v. Bucks Stove and Range Company (1911)—that trade unionism violated antitrust law because certain of its tactics constituted an illegal restraint of trade. Although trade unionism remained technically legal, the only weapons that it had to influence the outcome of labor disputes were held to be illegal.

Employers quickly learned that they had a potent weapon in their arsenal against labor: the injunction. The courts routinely granted injunctions to halt the activities of organized labor, including picketing and secondary boycotts. In the early twentieth century, organized labor mounted a campaign to get both the federal and state judiciaries out of labor disputes by curbing the use of injunctions. The American Federation of Labor (AFL), which at the time was the only federation of labor unions in existence in the United States, spearheaded this effort. Although the AFL wanted federal legislation, it concentrated much of its effort on getting anti-injunction statutes passed in the states, largely because the use of injunctions on the state level had predated their use in the federal courts. The AFL, however, met with only moderate success. By 1914 only six states had passed laws limiting the power of state courts to issue injunctions in labor disputes. In four of these states—California, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, and Montana—the legislation regulated specific aspects of the labor injunction. Two states, however—Kansas and Arizona—passed more sweeping laws that actually tried to halt judicial interference in labor disputes by prohibiting injunctions. It was this type of law that the AFL hoped to see in each state and at the federal level.

The AFL thought that it had finally gotten its wish in 1914 with the passage of the Clayton Act. Among other provisions, the act specifically stated that the federal courts could not restrain unions from engaging in peaceful picketing, strikes, and employer boycotts. The act also spelled out the circumstances in which a temporary restraining order might be issued against the activities of organized labor. The act required the court to notify the union that such an order would be issued unless there was an imminent danger of irreparable injury to property for which there was no other remedy at law. In the event that a restraining order was issued, it expired in 10 days. Employers seeking a restraining order had to post a bond that would indemnify the union if it was later determined that the union's activities were lawful. The act further required that any injunction that was issued had to specify in detail the union activities that were enjoined.

Armed with the Clayton Act, the AFL redoubled its efforts to get similar legislation passed in each of the states, for the Clayton Act would apply only to labor actions that affected interstate commerce. Again, its success was moderate: only five states passed laws modeled on the Clayton Act, and no state passed such a law after 1921, because in that year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Truax v. Corrigan, that the 1913 Arizona anti-injunction law was unconstitutional. Actually, a pair of cases the Court ruled on that year—Truax and American Steel Foundries v. Tri-City Central Trades Council—rendered the Clayton Act impotent as it pertained to labor injunctions, for the Court reasoned that the injunction provisions of the Clayton Act were superseded by the restraint-of-trade provisions of the Sherman Antitrust Act.

A Setback for Labor

The High Court telegraphed the position it would take in Truax in American Steel Foundries, when it sharply curtailed the ability of unions to picket. In particular, the Court limited the number of picketers, attempted to control conduct on the picket line, and prevented picketing by workers who were not directly involved in the labor dispute. Although the Court did not rule directly on the constitutionality of the Clayton Act, it effectively negated the protections afforded to organized labor under the act.

Then just weeks later, on 19 December 1921, the Court dealt a death blow to state anti-injunction legislation when it ruled on the Truax case. The plaintiffs were the owners of a restaurant, the English Kitchen, in Brisbee, Arizona. In 1916 a dispute arose between the owners and the defendants' union over the terms and conditions of employment as they affected the restaurant's employees. When the restaurant refused to accede to the employees' demands, they went on strike. They picketed the restaurant, displayed banners, denounced the restaurant as "unfair" to labor, advertised the strike, and attempted to induce the restaurant's patrons to stay away. Their actions were successful; daily receipts at the restaurant fell to less than half of what they had been before the strike. Consequently, the restaurant went to county court to seek both a temporary and a permanent injunction against the union, claiming that the picketing, boycott, and other activities would bring irreparable harm to the business and that it had no other remedy at law because of the insolvency of the strikers. The basis of the restaurant's claim was that the employees' actions violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution by depriving the restaurant of its property without due process of law and by denying the plaintiffs equal protection. The county court dismissed the complaint, and the state supreme court, citing the 1913 statute, affirmed the lower court's ruling. The restaurant appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, by a 5 to 4 vote, reversed the decision of the Arizona Supreme Court, in the process declaring the Arizona statute prohibiting injunctions unconstitutional.

Chief Justice William Howard Taft delivered the majority opinion. In his decision he made two fundamental arguments. First, he agreed with the plaintiffs that both the union's activities and the 1913 Arizona anti-injunction statute deprived the restaurant of property without due process of law: "a law which operates to make lawful such a wrong as is described in plain-tiff's complaint deprives the owner of the business and the premises of his property without due process and cannot be held valid under the Fourteenth Amendment." Second, Taft declared that the statute was unconstitutional because it denied employers equal protection under the law. Specifically, Taft said, the statute provided the employees with a right that their employers did not enjoy: "The necessary effect of [the Arizona law] is that the plaintiffs would have had the right to an injunction against such a campaign as that conducted by the defendants, if it had been directed against the plaintiffs . . . in any kind of a controversy which was not a dispute between employer and former employees."

Among the four dissenters were two giants in the history of jurisprudence, Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis, whose dissenting opinions frequently evolved into mainstream legal doctrine in later years. It was Brandeis who delivered the most elaborate dissent in Truax. He stressed that the Arizona legislature, acting through the legislative process, did not act unreasonably when it passed an anti-injunction statute, and thus the plaintiffs were not deprived of due process of law. Further, he said, changing social needs and conditions necessitated the statute, for as labor unions attempted to press their demands, the injunctive process stacked the deck in favor of employers in labor controversies.

The Aftermath

For more than a decade, no state passed an anti-injunction bill. The courts in those states that had such a law on the books, following the Supreme Court's lead in Truax, interpreted them in such a way as to render them worthless to the labor movement. In 1927 Congress, increasingly recognizing the essential role of collective bargaining in resolving labor disputes, began to fashion a federal anti-injunction bill, the Norris-La Guardia Act, which was finally passed by overwhelming majorities in 1932. The act curtailed judicial involvement in labor disputes. Accordingly, it denied the federal courts the power to enjoin peaceful picketing or strikes regardless of their purpose, and it narrowly defined the process and the circumstances under which an injunction against labor might be issued when the law did not forbid it. The question that remained was, in light of Court decisions such as that in Truax, would the act pass constitutional muster?

The first test case, Senn v. Tile Layers Protective Union, came in 1938. The case involved the tile-laying union in Wisconsin. In 1931 Wisconsin had passed an anti-injunction statute whose provisions closely paralleled those of the Norris-La Guardia Act, which had been the subject of widespread public discussion and debate for years before its passage. Thus, observers felt that if in Senn the Court upheld the Wisconsin statute, it would in effect be ratifying the Norris-La Guardia Act. By a vote of 5 to 4, the Court upheld the constitutionality of the Wisconsin law in 1938. In a minor historical irony, it was Justice Brandeis who delivered the majority opinion. In a very real sense his dissenting opinion in Truax became the majority opinion and a key precedent 16 years later. In the wake of the Court's decision in Senn, some states passed what were called "Little Norris-La Guardia Acts" to protect workers who were not covered by the federal law. The court injunction as a tool to hamper efforts by labor to press its demands was finally blunted.

Key Players

Brandeis, Louis D. (1856-1941): Brandeis, one of the judiciary's most distinguished scholars and the first Jew to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, was born in Louisville, Kentucky. From 1879 to 1916 he maintained private law practices in St. Louis, then in Boston. In 1916 President Woodrow Wilson nominated him to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he served until 1939. Brandeis is perhaps best known for his belief that in rendering their decisions judges must take into account not only the strict letter of the law but also current social and economic conditions.

Taft, William Howard (1857-1930): Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Taft enjoyed a long and distinguished career. In 1892 he became a federal circuit judge, but in 1900 he gave up that position when President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him civil governor of the Philippines, then secretary of war in 1904. As Roosevelt's anointed successor, Taft was elected president in 1908, but he lost the 1912 election to Woodrow Wilson. In 1913 Taft took a faculty position at the Yale law school, which he left in 1921 when President Warren Harding appointed him chief justice of the Supreme Court, where he served until a month before his death.

See also: American Federation of Labor; Clayton Antitrust Act; Gompers v. Bucks Stove; Norris-La Guardia Act.



Taylor, Benjamin J. Arizona Labor Relations Law. Tempe:Arizona State University, Occasional Paper No. 2, Bureau of Business and Economic Research, College of Business Administration, 1967.

Taylor, Benjamin J., and Fred Witney. Labor Relations Law,3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1979.


Jones, Edgar A., Jr. "The Right to Picket—Twilight Zone of the Constitution." University of Pennsylvania Law Review (June 1954): 997.

"Labor Picketing and Commercial Speech: Free Enterprise Values in the Doctrine of Free Speech." Yale Law Journal (April 1982): 960.

Pope, James Gray. "The Thirteenth Amendment versus the Commerce Clause: Labor and the Shaping of American Constitutional Law, 1921-1957." Columbia Law Review 102 (January 2002): 112.


American Steel Foundries v. Tri-City Central Trades Council, 257 U.S. 184 (1921).

Senn v. Tile Layers Protective Union, 301 U.S. 468 (1938).

Truax v. Corrigan, 257 U.S. 312 (1921).

—Michael J. O'Neal