On this day in 1908, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Loewe v. Lawlor, 208 U.S. 274, better known as the Danbury Hatters case.
This years-long controversy began in 1901, when members of hatters’ unions, with support from the American Federation of Labor, attempted to unionize the factory of D.E. Loewe & Company, a hatmaker in Danbury. Loewe resisted, and the union members instituted a boycott against both Loewe and those who patronized the company (a “secondary boycott”). Word of the boycott spread through the country in trade journals, unfair lists, and notices posted by labor organizations. The boycott caused a great deal of financial damage to Loewe.
In reaction, Loewe brought suit against the American Federation of Labor, the officers of the local hatters’ unions in Danbury, and 250 Danbury and Norwalk residents who were members of hatters’ organizations, claiming that they violated the Sherman Antitrust Act by combining to restrain interstate commerce. The case was dismissed in the District Court, but that dismissal was overturned by the United States Supreme Court, who held for the first time that the Sherman Antitrust Act did apply to labor unions.
The Supreme Court’s decision was not the end, however. The case returned to the District Court; after several more years of litigation, including another trip back to the U.S. Supreme Court, Loewe was awarded $250,000. The defendant members of the union were individually and personally liable for the judgment. The case ultimately settled for about $234,000, and in order for the defendant union members to keep their homes, other union members donated an hour’s wage, raising $216,000.
The Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 and the Norris LaGuardia Act of 1932 eventually protected unions from antitrust laws. Nevertheless, the Danbury Hatters case remains a well-known and important case demonstrating the development of labor law in the United States.
The text of the case can be seen here.
CSL provides an electronic version of the case’s records and briefs here (must be in the library to view).
Big Labor Suit: Sherman Anti-Boycott Law Invoked for First Time, Hartford Courant, Sept. 14, 1903, p. 8.
William B. Gould IV, A Primer on American Labor Law, 2nd ed., MIT Press, 1986.
Edward Berman, Labor and the Sherman Act, Russell & Russell, 1930.