Criminal & Civil Conspiracy Doctrine in Labor Law

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  • 0:05 Common Law
  • 1:46 Combinations
  • 2:29 ''Commonwealth v.…
  • 3:41 ''Vegelahn v. Guntner'' (1896)
  • 4:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Beth Loy

Dr. Loy has a Ph.D. in Resource Economics; master's degrees in economics, human resources, and safety; and has taught masters and doctorate level courses in statistics, research methods, economics, and management.

The history of collective bargaining is quite volatile. Criminal and civil conspiracy doctrines in labor law is an interesting part of it. Learn about two cases in the 1800s that laid down the foundations.

Common Law

Let's say a city was famous for its statues. Statue artists are everywhere making their living off their passion. A business springs up, hiring out these artists to clients. But then one statue maker decides to sell their work at a much cheaper price than the others. Everyone else gathers, decides this is unfair, and demands that person be removed from the company. They strike and picket the entrance. Are they legally allowed to form this kind of organization? Are they allowed to picket and strike?

Labor law is an intricate web of laws handed down from England, U.S. court cases, and U.S. laws. To understand the importance of certain labor issues in today's world, we need to look at its development.

Conspiracy means that two or more people come together to do something illegal. Back in the 1800s, unions and the law was fuzzy. There were no specific laws on the books to encourage or discourage union formation, so the law was essentially created by the courts. This is called common law.

Common law addressed whether a union and its actions constituted civil or criminal conspiracy.

  • Criminal conspiracy occurs when two or more people come together and plan to commit a crime (they can be charged even if the act is never carried out).
  • Civil conspiracy is similar: it's when two or more people conspire together and cause damages to another person.

For this lesson, we look at two cases that formed the context for labor law in the 1800s. These two case rulings address criminal and civil conspiracy doctrines around union formation and behavior. These were set forth in common law and begin with the legality of combinations.


It helps to begin with explaining combinations, the precursor to unions. They were groups of workers from one trade who joined together to collectively bargain with management.

Combination laws were passed in 1799 and 1800 in England that were supposed to prevent unlawful combinations of workers from joining together to strike during times of conflict. The government believed that workers would use this as an opportunity to force the government, during a time of crisis, to give in to higher wages.

Combinations followed workers to the United States from England. How lawful they were remained unclear until an 1842 Supreme Court Ruling involving expert bootmakers. Let's see how this unfolded.

Commonwealth v. Hunt (1842)

Boot worker Jeremiah Horne was an expert at his craft and a member of the Boston Journeymen Bootmakers' Society. One day, he decided to do some extra boot repair and not charge for it. The Society fined him, which Horne ignored. The employer eventually agreed to pay Horne for the repair, and the fine was forgiven.

But Horne kept rebelling, eventually accumulating another $7 in fines from the society, and this time the society demanded payment. Horne again refused. The Society threatened a walkout of all workers at their employer's business unless Horne were fired, which he was.

Horne sought a remedy. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts sued on Horne's behalf. Seven members of the society were defendants in the case and were charged with criminal conspiracy, because even though they didn't actually strike, they planned to if Horne weren't fired. The court ruled in Horne's favor, but it was then taken to the Supreme Court where the ruling was reversed in Commonwealth v. Hunt. This ruling established that unions could form as long as they had a legal reason and used legal means to get what they wanted.

Thus began criminal conspiracy theory in the United States. The ability to picket, however, remained unsettled until 54 years later.

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