5.3.6. The Midwest, 1865-1900: The Battle Over Reform Laws Begins


The battle begins – clashes in the mines:

Braceville Coal Co. v. PeopleIllinois, 1893 (35 N.E. 62); In re Preston – Ohio, 1900 (59 N.E. 101); Republic Iron & Steel Co. v. State Indiana, 1903 (66 N.E. 1005); Seelyville Coal & Mining Co. v. McGlosson Indiana, 1906 (77 N.E. 1044)
  • Coal mining in southern Ohio, Indiana and Illinois was a dangerous business and engendered much labor-management conflict; thus, it is not surprising that the industry was a particular subject of reform efforts which in turn triggered many court challenges.  In Braceville Coal, Illinois's supreme court struck down a law requiring that miners be paid their wages weekly; the court reasoned that employers had a right to negotiate pay periods with workers.  In Preston, Ohio's supreme court struck down an 1898 law prohibited mine owners from screening the coal before it had been weighed and credited to miners who were paid based on weight.  Like the Braceville Coal court, the Preston court held that the law interfered with owners’ and workers’ freedom of contract; furthermore, it would be inimical to the principle of pay based on merit, which the court viewed as a fundamental American value.
  • The Indiana supreme court was more sympathetic to mine workers.  In Republic Iron it struck down a law requiring that miners and other employees be paid at least weekly, calling the law “paternalism, pure and simple,” but three years later, in Seelyville, it upheld a law that required payment at least once every two weeks “if demanded” by an employee.  The court reasoned that this voluntary feature preserved freedom of contract.  Republic Iron and Seelyville illustrate the fine legal distinctions upon which the fate of many Progressive-era reforms hung.

"Yellow dog” labor contracts:

Gillespie v. People  Illinois, 1900 (58 N.E. 1007); New York, Chicago & St. Louis Railroad Co. v. Schaffer Ohio, 1902 (62 N.E. 1036); State ex rel. Zillmer v. Kreutzberg Wisconsin, 1902 (90 N.W. 1098); State ex rel. Scheffer v. JustusMinnesota, 1902 (88 N.W. 759)

  • Many late-19th century employers refused to hire workers unless they signed “yellow dog” contracts promising not to join a union.  In the 1890s, most Midwestern states passed laws prohibiting such contracts.  Those laws had little success in Midwestern courts:  most held the laws interfered with employers’ and employees’ freedom to contract as they saw fit.  In  Gillespie and Shaffer, the Ohio and Illinois supreme courts focused primarily on the harm such laws did to employers, while in Zillmer the Wisconsin supreme court viewed the laws as equally harmful to employees.  All three courts; all were oblivious to the fact that as America entered the age of giant industrial corporations, equality of bargaining power between employer and worker was a thing of the past. 
  • Minnesota was a notable exception:  in Justus, it held the state had power to promote labor peace as a public safety measure and that a state law prohibiting employers from black-listing union members was a reasonable means to this end. 

"[The law] does not seek to prohibit an employer from communicating to other employers the nature and character of his employees, when the facts would be for their interests.  While such interference by an employer is not expressly characterized as malicious, that intent is necessarily implied.  It is the purpose of this law to protect employees in the enjoyment of those natural rights and privileges guaranteed them by the constitution, viz., the right to sell their labor and acquire property thereby." - Justice Charles Lewis, in Justus


Freedom from vaccination:

Hurst v. Warner  Michigan, 1894 (60 N.W. 440); State v. Burdge – Wisconsin, 1897 (70 N.W. 347); Potts v. Breen – Illinois, 1897 (47 N.E. 81); Blue v. Beach – Indiana, 1900 (56 N.E. 89); State ex rel. Freeman v. Zimmerman - Minnesota, 1902 (90 N.W. 783); State ex rel. Milhoof v. Board of Education of Village of Barberton – Ohio, 1907 (___ N.E. ___)

  • Midwestern courts had few qualms about upholding public health laws – with the notable exception of compulsory vaccination measures for students and migrant workers.  This was probably due to lingering uncertainty about the effectiveness of vaccination: all of the courts that struck down such laws (Michigan in Hurst, Wisconsin in Burdge and Illinois in Potts) indicated they might have reached a different result if an immediate emergency (such as a smallpox outbreak) existed.  Other courts (Indiana in Blue, Minnesota in Freeman and Ohio in Milhoof) had no such qualms and regarded it as a perfectly legitimate – and safe – public health measure.


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“To withhold from merit its reward, may be a favorite object of socialism, but it is inimical to the individual rights which are preserved by the constitution.”

-Chief Justice John Schauck, in In re Preston

Illinois coal mine, 1903 (courtesy Library of Congress)


“As each morning comes the employee is free to decide not to work, the employer to decide not to receive him … If that may be denied by law, the result is legalized thralldom, not liberty, - certainly not to the laboring men of our country. -Justice Joshua Eric Dodge, in Zillmer



"[Health officials] are clothed with extraordinary powers for the protection of the community from noxious influences affecting life and death, and it is important that their proceedings should be embarrassed or delayed as little as possible by the unnecessary observance of formalities." - Justice James Jordan, in Blue




"It is a matter of common knowledge that the number of those who seriously object to vaccination is by no means small, and they cannot, except when necessary for the public health and in conformity to law, be deprived of their right to protect themselves and those under their control from an invasion of their liberties by a practically compulsory inoculation of their bodies with a virus of any description, however meritorious it might be." - Justice Orrin Carter, in Potts