5.4.1. The Midwest, 1900-1925: The Struggle for Workers Rights

The struggle for reasonable wages and hours

Ritchie v. People Illinois, 1895 (40 N.E. 454); City of Cleveland v. Clements Bros. Construction Co. – Ohio, 1902 (65 N.E. 885); State v. Varney Electric Supply Co. – Indiana, 1903 (66 N.E. 895); Ritchie v. Wayman Illinois, 1910 (91 N.E. 695); Stange v. City of Cleveland Ohio, 1916 (114 N.E. 261)

  • From the 1880’s on, one of the American labor movement’s key goals was to reduce the number of hours in the standard work day and to secure minimum wage laws.  Between 1890 and 1920 many states experimented with limited wage and hour laws.  Some laws targeted working women on the theory that they, as the frailer sex, needed special protection; some targeted public works projects on the theory that local governments had the right to set minimum wages and limit workers’ hours as a condition of  government contracts.  In three early cases, Ritchie, Clements Bros. and Varney, the Ohio, Indiana and Illinois supreme courts rejected these rationales.  They held that the freedom of private employers and employees to bargain without government interference was paramount. 

  • Attitudes changed as the Progressive era wore on.  In 1895, Illinois’ supreme court had rejected the rationale that 8-hour laws were necessary to protect women’s health.  In 1910, the same Chicago paper box company that had brought the 1895 challenge now attacked a new 10-hour day law for women.  This time, the court upheld the law, taking a considerably broader view of the state’s right to limit women’s hours as a health measure.  In 1902, the Ohio supreme court struck down a 8-hour law applicable to public works projects but in 1916, after Ohio voters passed a constitutional amendment authorizing such laws, the the court upheld a similar law.       

Workers compensation laws

Borgnis v. Falk Wisconsin, 1911 (133 N.W. 209); State ex rel. Yaple v. Creamer Ohio, 1912 (97 N.E. 602); Debeikis v. Link-Belt Co.Illinois, 1914 (104 N.E. 211); Hunter v. Colfax Consolidated Coal. Co. – Iowa, 1916 (157 N.W. 145)

  • In most American factories of the late 19th century, conditions were dangerous, safety devices were few and serious injuries occurred with alarming frequency.  Early tort laws made it difficult for injured workers to recover benefits from their employers, but the tide of worker suits grew steadily and by the early 1900s there was consensus, even among employers, that a new system of compensating workers for injuries had to be found. 
  • All Midwestern states enacted workers compensation laws between 1911 and 1915 (see the table in section 5.4.1).  After New York’s  law was new compensation law was struck down in early 1911, reasoning that because the law was compulsory it unconstitutionally interfered with bargaining rights, there was concern that Midwestern courts would follow suit.  But Midwestern states avoid a key mistake:  New York had made its law compulsory, but they gave employers and employees the right to opt out of workers compensation. 
  • The advantages of the law – for workers, the certainty of some recovery; for employers, the elimination of the risk of sympathetic juries making huge awards in the cases they lost – made the choice an easy one for virtually all workers and employers.  As a result Midwestern courts united in upholding their state’s workers compensation laws, though some approved the new laws more wholeheartedly than others.   

The comeback of yellow-dog  laws

State ex rel. Smith v. Daniels Minnesota, 1912 (136 N.W. 584); Jackson v. BergerOhio, 1915 (110 N.E. 732)

  • As the Progressive era advanced, Midwestern courts showed increasing reluctance to strike down laws prohibiting yellow-dog contracts (that is, employment agreements that prohibited workers from joining unions).   The Ohio supreme court had no trouble striking down the state’s yellow-dog law in 1901.  Fourteen years later, in Jackson, it struck down a new yellow-dog law but stated that it did so only out of deference to U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding similar laws in other states.  The Ohio court went to extraordinary lengths to made clear that it viewed the high Court’s decisions as bad law and bad policy.  Justice Reuben Wanamaker unsuccessfully urged his colleagues to uphold Ohio’s new law on the theory that it merely prohibited threats to fire workers for union membership, not the actual right to fire.  
  • In Daniels the Minnesota supreme court adopted Justice Wanamaker's theory:  it agreed that employers could discharge employees for union membership but said employers could not use the threat of discharge to force employees to agree not to join unions.  Yellow-dog contracts ultimately died out during the New Deal, after Congress enacted laws recognizing collective bargaining rights.    


Lewis Hine - Child workers in Indiana glass factory, 1908 (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

“If the Legislature ... can regulate the price of labor, it may also regulate the prices of flour, fuel, merchandise, and land.  But these are powers which have never been conceded to the Legislature, and their exercise by the state would be utterly inconsistent with our idea of civil liberty." - Justice Alexander Dowling, in Varney

"When an 18th century constitution forms the charter of liberty of a twentieth century government must its general provisions be construed and interpreted by an 18thcentury mind in the light of 18th century conditions and ideals?  Clearly not.  This were to command the race to halt in its progress, to stretch the state upon a veritable bed of Procrustes." - Chief Justice John Winslow, in Borgnis

"If the constitution is to efficiently endure, the ideal that it is capable of being re-squared, from time to time, to fit new legislative or judicial notions, ... must be combated whenever and wherever advance." - Justice Roujet Marshall, in Borgnis

"Theoretically the employer and employee are on an equality, ... but in practice it is to the employee very often a matter of compulsion, and not of free choice. ... To sustain life he must needs obtain or retain employment on whatever terms it may be offered.  Under such conditions his necessities may easily be made use of as a means of coercion." - Justice Andrew Holt, in Daniels

“Every time a state or federal legislature has undertaken to exercise the police power in preventing gross abuses that jeopardize life, liberty, health and public safety generally, every mercenary interest affected thereby has claimed that its liberty of contract was being violated.  This theory has been invoked to protect almost every infamy that can be put into the form of a contract." - Justice Reuben Wanamaker (dissenting), in Jackson