Commonwealth v. Pullis

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Commonwealth v. Pullis[1] of 1806, was the first reported case arising from a labor strike in the United States. It decided that striking workers were illegal conspirators.


In 1794 Philadelphia shoemakers organized the "Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers" (the name came from the cordovan leather they worked with) in an effort to secure stable wages. Over the next decade, the union secured some wage increases. Through 1804, the Journeymen received moderate wage increases. In 1805 the union struck for higher wages. The strike collapsed after the union leaders were indicted for the crime of conspiracy.


The jury trial was in the Philadelphia Mayor’s Court, which unfortunately was not a court of record. The only report historians have today consists of shorthand notes by Thomas Lloyd, a young Jeffersonian printer who later published the proceedings.

Eight leaders of the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers were brought to trial and accused of conspiring to increase their pay rates after leading an unsuccessful strike for higher wages. The employers, not the government, paid the prosecution's expenses. The arguments in Pullis promoted the idea '"that workers were transitory, irresponsible, and dangerous", and were, thus, properly the subject of judicial control' [2].


After a three day trial, the jury found the defendants guilty of "a combination to raise their wages". The union of Philadelphia Journeymen Shoemakers was convicted of and bankrupted by charges of criminal conspiracy. The defendants were fined US$8 each (the cost of one week's wages) and made to pay the costs of the suit. [3]

The law established in this case, that labor unions are illegal conspiracies, would remain the law until Commonwealth v. Hunt, tried in Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.[4]

"The prosecution in Pullis was part of a larger political battle being waged in the United States between the forces of aristocracy (federalism) and those of republicanism (Jeffersonian democracy). Within this ideological battle (which continued with different labels through the early 20th century), the working classes argued that Jeffersonian democracy envisioned a society in which the pursuit of happiness and dignity was the right of each citizen. Under this view, equality was grounded in the opportunity for individuals to participate in public and economic life. With the growth of industry, organized labor was necessary to mobilize citizens to retain their presence in the public sphere. Nothing less than the freedom of the individual was at stake. In short, Jeffersonian democracy placed great value on individuals and defined freedom as autonomy and self-reliance."[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Also known as the Philadelphia Cordwainers case.(The full case name is: Commonwealth v. Pullis, Mayor's Court of Philadelphia (1806)); The full case can be found in Commons, John B. (1910). A Documentary History of American Industrial Society. The A.H. Clark Company. ASIN B0008C9YR0. ISBN 1-152-23834-5.  Book 3, p. 59-248
  2. ^ Hattam, Victoria (1993). Labor Visions and State Power. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-691-07870-X.  p. 53
  3. ^ Swartz, Omar (March 2004). "Defending Labor in Commonwealth v. Pullis: Contemporary Implications For Rethinking Community". Murdoch University Electronic Journal of Law 11 (1). ; Urofsky, Melvin I. ; Finkelman, Paul (Editors) (2001). Documents of American Constitutional and Legal History. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-512870-2. Tomlins, Christopher L (April 30, 1993). Law, Labor, and Ideology in the Early American Republic. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43857-8.  p 128; Barbash, Jack (1954). Taft-Hartley Act in Action, 1947-1954: And essentials of a new labor policy. League for Industrial Democracy. ASIN B0007ECAKW.  p. 6; Orren, Karen (Jan 1, 1992). Belated Feudalism: Labor, the Law, and Liberal Development in the United States. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-42254-X.  p. 106-107; SUNY Press (July 1, 1990). Liberty, Property, and the Future of Constitutional Development. SUNY Press. ISBN 0-7914-0303-3. , p. 246-247; Holt, Wythe (1984). "Labour Conspiracy Cases in the United States, 1805-1842: Bias and Legitimation in Common Law Adjudication". Osgoode Hall Law Journal 22: 643–653. 
  4. ^ Swartz, see note above.

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