Guest Essayist: Gennie Westbrook

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the industrial revolution transformed the American landscape, culture, economy, and relationships between workers and management. The transformation brought significant gains in prosperity for both workers and management, but it also meant laborers worked long hours in dangerous conditions in factories and mines. Workdays of ten to twelve hours were common, with reduction of wages during economic slumps. There was no job security, and lack of safety features led to frequent grisly accidents caused by hazardous working conditions. Workers organized labor unions to bargain collectively for improvements in pay and other working conditions. Management almost always resisted the labor union demands, and each side worked to influence laws in its favor. The United Mine Workers Union was founded in 1890, followed by several other unions organized throughout the 1890s. Also throughout the 1890s, strikes, uprisings, and sometimes violent confrontations between labor and management broke out as workers attempted solidarity in pursuit of better wages, shorter hours, and safer working conditions. Management responded to these initiatives by firing labor union leaders, hiring strike-breakers, intimidating workers, and using political influence to block any lasting legal reforms.

Beginning at least by the 1830s, workers in some American industries had advocated the eight-hour day. This objective became a rallying point for the diverse labor organizations; even if they could not agree on other issues affecting workers, they agreed that eight hours at work was enough. The eight-hour movement accelerated in the decades following the Civil War. In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor unions issued a resolution that all work days should be limited to eight hours.

In 1896 the Utah legislature enacted the first hours-limiting legislation based on hazardous working conditions in the western United States. Spearheading the effort was Tom Kearns, a wealthy mine owner, banker, and newspaperman in Park City, Utah. An unlikely advocate for worker interests, Kearns had started as an impoverished miner who struck it rich. Deeply aware of the dangers of mine work as well as the power of workers’ votes in his upcoming campaign for the U.S. Senate, he sponsored the law providing that “the period of employment of workingmen in underground mines or workings shall be eight hours per day, except in cases of emergency where life or property is in imminent danger.” The law also protected workers in smelting in the same way.

That year, Albert F. Holden, owner of the Old Jordan Mine in Bingham Canyon in Salt Lake County, Utah, faced charges for violating the new law with respect to two employees. He required miner John Anderson to work ten-hour days, and he required William Hooley to work twelve hour days. Sheriff Harvey Hardy arrested Holden for these violations. Holden argued that the Utah law restricted his constitutional rights, as well as those of his employees, to make contracts. He maintained that the law also deprived him of both property and liberty without due process. He testified that his employees had voluntarily contracted with him for those working conditions. He also argued that the statute was unconstitutional because it was class legislation which singled out managers in the mining industry, depriving them of equal protection of the laws. The trial court found Holden guilty and fined him fifty dollars, which he refused to pay. Therefore, he was sent to jail for fifty-seven days. He initiated a habeas corpus petition against Sheriff Hardy.

Holden appealed his conviction to Utah’s Supreme Court. That court unanimously found that the law complied with Utah’s constitution, particularly its specific article providing for laws to protect the health and safety of industrial employees. The court explained that in mining and smelting operations there was no doubt that exposure to poisonous gases and dust in “prolonged effort day after day…will produce morbid, noxious, and often deadly effects in the human system.” The court noted that “breathing of pure air is wholesome, and the breathing of impure air is unwholesome.” Regulation of hours was necessary. “Twelve hours per day would be less injurious than fourteen, ten than twelve, eight than ten. The legislature has named eight.” Addressing Holden’s complaint that the law was class legislation discriminating against him because of the nature of his business, the court ruled that the class in question was only those subject to “the peculiar conditions and effects attending underground mining and work in smelters…” It was not necessary to extend the 8-hour-day protection to persons engaged in less hazardous work. The decision was based on the need for government regulation of the extremely unsafe work of smelters and miners, not a general ruling regarding the legitimacy of the principle of an eight–hour workday.

Holden then appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing once again that the Utah law’s limitation of the freedom of contract violated due process provisions of both the Utah and the U.S. Constitution. Just as had been the case in state court, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Utah law because of the hazardous working conditions in the mines. Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote for the Court in the 6-2 decision, acknowledging the importance of freedom of contract, but noting that the state’s police power to protect the health, safety, or morals of the citizens imposes certain limits on that freedom. Significantly, the Court concluded that there was a reasonable, factual basis for the legislature’s judgment that mining was so dangerous as to justify state regulation.

The proprietors of these establishments and their operatives do not stand upon an equality… their interests are, to a certain extent, conflicting. The former naturally desire to obtain as much labor as possible from their employees, while the latter are often induced by the fear of discharge to conform to regulations which their judgment, fairly exercised, would pronounce to be detrimental to their health or strength. In other words, the proprietors lay down the rules, and the laborers are practically constrained to obey them. In such cases self-interest is often an unsafe guide, and the legislature may properly interpose its authority.

In upholding a state law because the Supreme Court’s majority saw reasonable, factual evidence of danger in the workplace, this decision established the principle that the federal government has the authority to regulate the working conditions of at least some workers. In succeeding years, state laws in other states also limited hours of work for employees in mining and smelting operations: Montana (1901); Arizona and Nevada (1903); Idaho and Oregon (1907).

In 1905 the U.S. Supreme Court would hear a case based on a similar controversy. The New York legislature, citing concerns for health and safety due to unsanitary conditions in bakeries, had enacted a law that limited hours of labor for bakery employees. Justice Rufus Peckham, one of the dissenters in Holden, wrote the majority opinion in Lochner v. New York, overturning the New York law. This time, the majority in the 5-4 decision ruled that the state law in question was an unconstitutional limit on freedom of contract because, in the Court’s judgment, the baking business was not an unhealthy trade. Thus the Court began the Lochner Era, becoming the final authority over all kinds of state regulations for the next thirty-two years.

Holden v. Hardy (1898) Supreme Court decision:

Gennie Westbrook, formerly a classroom teacher, is a Madison Fellow (2000 TX), and senior advisor for education at The Bill of Rights Institute.

Sources Consulted

George M. Addy. “The Economic and Social History of Bingham Canyon, Utah, Considered With Special Reference to Mormon-Gentile Synthesis” Brigham Young University – Provo, 1949.

Holden v. Hardy

Holden v. Hardy

Paul Kens, Lochner v. New York (1905) The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court, Kermit Hall (ed) 1992, p. 508.

Laurie Caroline Pintar, “The Struggle for the Eight-hour Day” Chapter 68; Law in the Western United States (Legal History of North America Series) First Edition, Edited by Gordon Morris Bakken; University of Oklahoma Press, 2001.

Walter F. Pratt, Jr. Holden v. Hardy (1898) The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court, Kermit Hall (ed) 1992, p. 405.

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