Contested Meanings of Freedom: Workingmen's Wages and the Company Store System, and the Godcharles v. Wigeman Decision
Laura Phillips Sawyer
Harvard Business School; Political Theory Project, Brown University
Journal of Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Summer 2013
In 1886, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Godcharles v. Wigeman struck down a law that prohibited employers from paying wages in company store scrip and mandated monthly wage payments. The Court held that the legislature could not prescribe mandatory wage contracts for legally competent workingmen. The decision quashed over two decades of efforts to end the “truck system.” While legislators had agreed that wage payments redeemable only in company store goods appeared antithetical to the free labor wage system, two obstacles complicated legislative action. Any law meant to enhance laborers’ rights could neither favor one class over another nor infringe any workingman’s ability to make free contracts; however, in the 1870s and 1880s, these categories were not as rigid as conventionally depicted by historians and legal scholars. Advocates of protective labor legislation presented principles of equity and fairness that complicated the existing categories of class legislation and contract freedom. This essay explores the evolving notions of liberty espoused by both sides of the “anti-truck” debate and how interaction with the courts shaped those ideas. The Godcharles ruling rejected the use of equity principles to justify labor legislation affecting wages and, instead, encouraged arguments for strengthening state police powers to protect workers’ safety, morals, and health. Ironically, the police powers rationale led to more particularized labor laws, contrary to the fear of class legislation. Ultimately, the ruling and those that followed fragmented the laboring class by allowing only piecemeal labor laws – a hallmark of the “liberty of contract” era that stretched into the twentieth century.
FULL TEXT AVAILABLE HERE: http://journals.cambridge.org/repo_A89MHpX9
Number of Pages in PDF File: 35
Date posted: June 5, 2013 ; Last revised: July 17, 2013