Yellow Dog Contracts

views updated May 11 2018


A yellow dog contract is a labor contract in which workers are required to refrain from joining a union in exchange for being hired. It emerged in the nineteenth century as one of many tactics companies used to discourage workers from organizing to win wage increases and improved working conditions.

During rapid industrialization of the United States in the years after the American Civil War (18611865), many workers endured seven-day workweeks, minimal pay, and inhumane working conditions. As a result, the U.S. labor movement successfully organized many new unions. As unions pushed for eight-hour days, pro-business legislators and sympathetic judges passed laws to prevent labor unions from recruiting new members. Across the country legislatures passed laws outlawing "combinations" of workers that, in the words of one such law, "willfully or maliciously injured another in his . . . business." Because unionizing a company's labor force could be viewed as "injuring" that business, union activism was successfully thwarted.

In the famous Pullman Strike of 1894 which was led by socialist Eugene V. Debs (18551926), members of the American Railway Union went on strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company of Chicago when it cut wages by 25 percent. Refusing to work on any train that pulled a Pullman railcar, the union looked like it could prevail because almost every train passing through Chicago carried Pullman cars. When the striking workers began attacking the trains, however, President Grover Cleveland (18851889) called in the U.S. Army to end the strike. When Pullman reopened its plant later that year, it required all new employees to sign yellow dog contracts.

In 1898 Congress passed the Erdman Act, which prevented railroads that were engaged in interstate commerce from forcing their employees to sign yellow dog contracts. In Adair v. the United States, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Erdman Act was unconstitutional. Throughout the 1920s many U.S. businesses continued to require workers to reject union membership as a precondition of employment, but the onset of Great Depression (19291939) finally shifted the law to the side of labor. The Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932, the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, and the Wagner Act of 1935 formally recognized the rights of labor unions to organize and explicitly outlawed yellow dog contracts.

See also: Closed Shop, Labor Movement, Labor Unionism, National Industrial Recovery Act, Norris-LaGuardia Act