254 U.S. 443 (1921), argued 22 Jan. 1920, decided 3 Jan. 1921 by vote of 6 to 3; Pitney for the Court, Brandeis, Holmes, and Clarke in dissent. In response to growing public pressure to control the unprecedented concentrations of economic power that developed after the Civil War, Congress enacted the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890). It proscribed “unlawful restraints and monopolies” in interstate commerce as well as conspiracies to erect them. Soon thereafter federal judges began to employ the measure to combat efforts to unionize workers and to deny labor its traditional self-help weapons. To counteract this “government by injunction,” Congress included in the Clayton Act (1914) provisions that sought to preclude application of antitrust legislation against organized labor.
The Supreme Court reached the issue in Deering, a six-judge majority holding that the Clayton Act did not insulate labor unions engaged in illegal activities, such as the conduct of a secondary boycott. Justice Mahlon Pitney asserted that the machinist union's coercive action constituted an unlawful conspiracy to “obstruct and destroy” (p. 460) the interstate trade of complainant, a company with which they were not “proximately or substantially concerned” (p. 472). Writing for the three dissenters, Justice Louis D. Brandeis charged the majority with ignoring law and reality: the injunction imposed by the Court deprived labor of forms of a collective action Congress had tried “expressly” to legalize (p. 486).
For more than a decade, the majority's narrow interpretation of the nation's antitrust legislation sanctioned judicial application of injunctions against workers seeking to organize to advance their interests. With the dramatic transformation of opinion brought about by the Great Depression, Congress included in the Norris-LaGuardia Act (1932) provisions to exempt organized labor from antitrust injunctions, and the Supreme Court legitimated this fundamental New Deal legislation.
Stephen B. Wood