The Courts & Labor
The right to unionize was not legally recognized until the late 19th century in America. In Vermont, granite workers took the lead in organizing, but union activists could be criminally prosecuted for overstepping legal bounds. In addition to their role in enforcing union laws, the courts also ruled in individual disputes over wages, and over compensation for job-related injury.
The Struggle to Unionize
In two 1888 Caledonia County cases, workers at the Ryegate Granite Works were prosecuted for conspiracy for their attempt to discourage the hiring of men who didn’t belong to the Stone Cutters Union. They were charged with threatening to publish the names of “scabs” in the Granite Cutters Journal, and with publicizing the Ryegate works as a “scab shop.” Attorneys Henry Bates and Elisha May filed to quash the indictment, but the county court refused. The supreme court concurred and remanded back to county court.
Supreme Court judge H H Powers’ decision, published in the 1887 Atlantic Reporter, stated that it was not necessary to find the men guilty of preventing or hindering nonunion employment, but merely of conspiring to do so. In county court, defendants pleaded no contest to one count and paid a $20 fine. Three other counts were dropped. In a second, nearly identical case, State v. West et al., all charges were dropped by the state.
Women’s Work and Wages
Many wage disputes involved women. Their cases offer insight into women’s work outside the home in 19th-century Vermont, as well as information on compensation for various types of labor.
In 1834 Samuel and Mary McCullough won Mary’s back wages for picking and carding work in a Canadian woolen mill. Brother-in-law Nathaniel Richardson owned the mill. He argued that he had boarded Mary, then unmarried, as part of his household, and owed her nothing. The McCulloughs prevailed in both Orleans County Court and the supreme court.
Miss Josie Bodwell charged that School District 9 in Sheffield had not honored its 1878 commitment to hire her for twelve weeks of teaching at $3 per week plus board. The school district claimed she had not submitted a required letter of acceptance. Affirming the lower court jury decision, the supreme court awarded her $40.48, plus substantial court costs.
Ella Barney won a $15,738.07 settlement against Quaker Oats in 1912, after losing her husband in an industrial accident. A company grain elevator located at the Richford train station exploded, hurling train cars and blowing the elevator roof a mile away. The Franklin County Court decision was upheld on appeal.
John Summerskill, an employee of the Vermont Power & Manufacturing Company, survived electrocution in 1915, but was disabled. A Franklin County Court jury awarded him $7,500 damages. Summerskill claimed negligence due to a defective telephone and an intoxicated employee, while the company claimed he should still have been aware of live wires. The supreme court upheld the judgment in 1917. Case files include company “Rules and Regulations for the Government of Employees.”
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