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Julie Falk

A Chapter from U.S. History:

Injunction a Traditional Means
to Break Strikes

(3 February 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 5, 3 February 1947, pp. 3 & 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In theory an injunction is a court order which prohibits individuals or groups from committing lawless acts. This vague principle in itself sounds harmless enough. But in its concrete applications to labor, the injunction has proven to be the most effective tactic for breaking the back, of many workers struggles for better conditions. Put aside its innocuous dictionary, definition, strip it of wordy, legal embellishments and we get a clearer focus on what a labor injunction really is: government sanctioned strike-breaking.

It is not only the effects of labor injunctions that are vicious. The quality of labor injunctions as a means – or a technique – is on a reactionary level, consistent with its aims. A brief examination of injunction procedure will bear this out.

Injunctions fall into three general categories: the temporary restraining order, the temporary injunction and the permanent injunction. Into the first class fall court orders recognizing the “validity” and “urgency” of an employers complaint, which prevents union activities without having notified the union first. The decree comes as a complete surprise to the union, and the workers must wait for a hearing before they can even hope to get the restraining order dismissed. In the meantime the union .is paralyzed and morale begins to sink. When the hearing finally takes place (often after delays granted to company lawyers) the court invariably lives up to its essential class character and grants a more definite and strangling writ against the workers – the “temporary injunction.”

“Temporary injunction” is actually a misnomer. It may be months or even years before the issue can be argued in court. In the interim the workers are prevented from using all the normal means of fighting to win their grievances. Unless the union is willing to risk contempt proceedings, the workers cannot meet, picket, agitate or in any significant way advance their interests. The result is almost always the same: a broken morale, depleted strike funds and finally another government court-broken strike. Or, in the not infrequent temporary injunction against unionization, the unorganized workers are intimidated, the union organizers are prohibited from discussing or recruiting to their union and the drive is stymied by the anti-labor conspiracy of the capitalist and his federal (or state) court.

Contempt proceedings are an integral part of the anti-labor injunction tactic. Without contempt proceedings or the threat of it, the injunction would be ineffective.

At the slightest display of resistance to court imposed restrictions the union is charged with contempt of court. The workers are fined, the strike leaders are put in jail, and the government noose around union activities is drawn tighter. Often the attributed violations of the injunction are fantastically far-fetched or purely fictitious, made up for the purpose of enabling the court to bring down the full force of its judicial power on the head of the union.

Another important problem relative to injunction procedure, is the absence of jury trials in such cases. When an application for a labor injunction is made, the judge is also the jury. The union, denied trial by jury, must plead its case to a capitalist judge who seldom is interested in the legal rights of the union, and even less concerned with their needs and demands. This is also true of contempt proceedings. The union has to prove, not to a jury but to the judge who issued the injunction, that it was not in contempt. Under such adverse conditions the union’s chances for exercising any legal rights is obviously negligible.

Several weeks ago, we discussed the most important of the early injunction cases: The Debs case. We saw how eagerly and effectively the government courts responded to the railroad magnates’ plea for help, with an injunction and subsequent contempt proceedings which finally crushed the strike. We cannot describe minutiae, or even give the background of any of the thousands of injunctions which followed the Debs case in one article. However, it is important to note the following facts: Between 1901–1927 there were 118 reported applications to Federal Courts for injunctive “relief” against union drives and strikes. Of this number, one hundred were granted! But this is only the figure for reported cases. There are innumerable unreported injunctions. Also, we must remember that the 118 reported cases were applications to Federal Courts. The number of injunctions granted by state and local courts are almost too many to count. In New York State alone, from 1923 to 1927, there were 48 reported applications for labor injunctions of which 35 were granted. This figure too refers only to reported cases.

A few quotations from injunction texts in important precedent-setting cases, should help us to understand the reactionary sweep and vindictiveness of labor injunctions.

From a restraining order issued by Judge Wilkerson during the 1922 railroad strike: Striking workers were enjoined from “in any manner conspiring, combining, confederating, agreeing and arranging with each other or with any person or persons, organizations or associations to injure, interfere with or hinder said railway companies ...” In another part the order prevented the workers from “aiding, abetting, directing or encouraging any persons or person, organizations or associations by letter, telegram, telephone, or word of mouth, or otherwise (!) to do any of the acts aforesaid.” (Emphasis mine – J.F.)

An “improvement” on previous injunctions was made by Federal Judge Benson W. Hough, in a startling order during an important and bitter coal strike in 1927, which made it mandatory that “each picket should be a citizen of the United States and shall be able to speak the English language.” Testifying before a Senate committee, AFL President Green pointed out that “... More than 90 per cent of the workers in these mines in Eastern Ohio are foreign speaking men ...”

State injunctions have been no less rabid than those issued by Federal courts. Just one quote from a typical state court injunction should indicate this. In the 1926 injunction against the Interborough Rapid Transit workers of New York City, we read that the defendant, individuals and union, “and each of their agents, servants, attorneys, confederates and any other persons acting in aid or concert with them” were enjoined from “holding or causing to be held meetings of the employees of the plaintive for the purpose of using persuasion or exhorting them to absent themselves from their places of duty or to leave the service of the plaintive.” Furthermore, the workers were forbidden “to make demands upon the plaintive for increased wages ... And further down the text declares that the workers cannot ... congregate, picket or loiter in or on the neighborhood of the plaintives cars ... or other premises for the purpose of inducing or persuading plaintive’s employees to desist from their duties.”

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