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Adair v. United States

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Significance: The Supreme Court severely limited the extent to which the federal government could protect the rights of workers.


The Erdman Act of 1898 made it illegal to discharge or punish employees for union activity. Its main purpose was to prohibit yellow dog contracts, which required workers to agree not to join a labor union. By a 7-2 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that the Erdman Act deprived persons of their substantive liberty guaranteed in the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. Justice John Marshall Harlan, speaking for the majority, used the theory of freedom of contract, or the right of individuals to enter into labor agreements without governmental interference. In dissent, Justices Joseph McKenna and Oliver Wendell Holmes argued that the Constitution did not prohibit reasonable legislation promoting fairness in collective bargaining. In Coppage v. Kansas (1915), the Court used the Adair precedent to strike down state laws protecting workers’ rights to join unions. Progressives of the day were outraged by such decisions, while conservatives praised the Court for preventing class warfare. In 1937 the Court reversed the precedents of Coppage and Adair when it upheld the constitutionality of the Wagner Act (1935), a New Deal law protecting the right of collective bargaining.