In the early years of the State, the common law prohibited workers from seeking to raise their wages by collective agreement, deeming this kind of association a criminal conspiracy. In 1829, when New York State enacted the first consolidation of the laws then in effect, the Legislature declined to codify that common law standard but instead prohibited conspiracies related to "any act injurious to the public health, to public morals or to trade or commerce" (Revised Statutes, title 6, ch 1).
19th century prison reformers in New York urged that prison inmates engage in manufacturing goods, and the State prison at Auburn was the first institution to participate. By the 1830s, prison labor had become an important revenue source for the State, and with the newly-built canal system in operation, the goods produced in the prisons were distributed widely throughout the State at prices that were substantially lower than the goods produced by non-prison labor.
In August 1833, several shoemakers in the town of Geneva, just 20 miles from Auburn, in an effort to maintain wages in the area, came together and agreed (1) not to work for less than a specified wage, (2) to fine any shoemaker working for less and (3) not to work in the same shop with any shoemaker who worked for less. George Fisher, Stephen Fowler and Anthony Hoyts worked for a master-shoemaker, Daniel Lum. When Lum employed a shoemaker named Thomas Pennock at a lower wage, the other shoemakers fined Pennock, who not only refused to pay the fine but continued to work for Lum at the lower rate. The shoemakers then went on strike, forcing Lum to dismiss Pennock. At the same time, however, Lum ensured that the authorities indicted the striking shoemakers for combining to prevent any shoemaker in the village of Geneva from working below certain rates and also for forcing the discharge of Pennock.
This, the first case to be tried under the Revised Statutes, came before the Ontario County Court of General Sessions in May 1834. When the court dismissed the indictments for failure to describe an offense known and recognized by the laws of New York State, the District Attorney, Henry F. Penfield, appealed to the New York Supreme Court of Judicature and the case came before the Court in July 1835. District Attorney Penfield represented the prosecution and Charles P. Kirkland the defense. Chief Justice Savage, who wrote the opinion in the case, and recognized the changing economic realities of the day, noted that "boots and shoes are made in many parts of the country; not for particular persons who are to wear them but as an article of trade and commerce." Justice Savage then examined the charges against the shoemakers, stating that "the acts set out in the indictment must come within the description of acts injurious to trade or commerce, otherwise they were not criminal, as no other section of the statute applied." He concluded, however, that the acts of the shoemakers in trying to prevent another shoemaker from working for lower wages and in causing "the discharge of Pennock through a strike against his employer" were acts injurious to trade and commerce.
Although the Fisher decision was immediately criticized in the press, and Chief Justice Savage was burned in effigy at a parade of 27,000 people in City Hall Park in June 1836, the case was not appealed to the Court for the Correction of Errors, and it was not until 1870 that an association of workers formed to peaceably obtain an increase in the wage rate or to maintain an existing rate, was lawful. By L.1870, ch 17, the Legislature enacted a statute overturning Fisher, and the Supreme Court upheld the new statute in Johnston Harvester Company v. Meinhardt (9 Abbott's New Cases, 303 ) stating that People v. Fisher could no longer be deemed the law of the State "for the persons there indicted seem to have been guilty only of peaceable cooperation for the purpose of maintaining the rate of wages."
Stephen Mayer. People v Fisher: the Shoemakers' Strike of 1833, 62 New York Historical Quarterly 6 (1978)
The Evening Post, Wednesday, March 9, 1835
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