On May 25, 1805 the officers of a local union of shoemakers were arrested in Philadelphia for leading a strike, one of the first such organized work stoppages in American history. Local employers brought charges against them for criminal conspiracy to violate English Common Law that banned schemes to force wage increases. The strike was broken.
In the post-Revolutionary period some master artisans and craftsmen, then often referred to as a class as mechanics, were transitioning from small shops employing a handful or less of apprentices and journeymen to larger scale production. Their shops were becoming factories and the masters were becoming, at least on a modest scale, capitalists.
This was accelerated in the years after the Constitution was adopted and stable national government and peace helped bring about some boom years before the turn of the 19th Century. Shoemaking crafts, an established trade with ample local raw materials, were among of the first to industrialize.
Philadelphia, still the infant nation’s largest and most important city despite no longer being the Capitol, was the center of some of the earliest efforts by workers to come to grips with their new situation. According to History of Trade Unionism in the United States by Perlman and Selig “The earliest genuine labor strike in America occurred, as far as known, in 1786, when the Philadelphia printers ‘turned out’ for a minimum wage of six dollars a week. The second strike on record was in 1791 by Philadelphia house carpenters for the ten-hour day.
The response was the creation of some of the first recognizable craft unions, as opposed to guilds of master mechanics or beneficial societies.
These are the tools of a cobbler's work bench in the pre-industrial era, the ones Philadelphia Cordwainers first lay down in 1796 in pursuit of better conditions.
In 1796 local shoemakers organized the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers. Cordwainer is just another name for shoemaker, derived from the Cordovan leather commonly used in quality gentlemen’s footwear. The organization staged a 10 week, successful strike in 1799 for higher wages. It was the first strike organized and sectioned by a union. At least one more successful strike followed.
Emboldened, the union struck again in 1805. This time, however, employers enlisted support from the wider business community which was becoming alarmed with the rise of unionism. The strike was marked by street battles between workers and would-be replacements. But because they were skilled craftsmen, replacements were not easy to come by. The union figured to once again outlast their bosses to force a settlement.
Arch Street in Philadelphia circa 1800.
But with the support of the business community, leaders were shocked to be arrested and charged. The strike collapsed. But the worst still lay ahead.
Both the union itself and eight officers were charged. Employers paid for the prosecution in the Mayor’s Court. The actual trial did not get underway until 1806 months after the strike was over.
The case, known as Commonwealth v. Pullis, was heard over three days. The union and all of the individual defendants were convicted of “a combination [conspiracy] to raise their wages.” The Federation of Cordwainers was bankrupted and forced to disband.
The individual officers were each fined $8. On modern historian has called this a “token fine.” He is wrong. That was more than a week’s wages and they also had to bear the cost of the prosecution and trial. Although no record of those costs remains, it was probably considerable. In addition, all of the men were essentially blackballed from their trade. They were personally ruined, each and every one of them.
The case established precedent and was cited several times over the next decades in similar circumstances.
Under the circumstances, the growth of craft unionism was largely stifled and did not begin to resume on a large scale until the 1830’s. Strikes were not unheard of, but were often quick, spontaneous actions without organization or support. Today we would call them wildcats.
It wasn’t until 1842 in another case involving shoemakers, that the precedent of Commonwealth v. Pullis would finally be overturned.
An 1839 strike against employers who hired non-union labor by the Boston Journeymen Bootmakers’ Society resulted in the similar arrest and conviction of union leaders on conspiracy charges. But in the case of Commonwealth v. Hunt heard on appeal by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1842, the convictions were overturned. The court ruled that “the act of unionization and recognition of that union through strike was legal unless the methods to coerce workers to strike were illegal.”
That case essentially finally legalized trade unions. But employer and public opposition remained strong and time and again the rights of working people to organize would be trampled upon or won only at great sacrifice.