In 1886, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court 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.” Although 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 voluntary contracts. These distinctions, however, were not as rigid and laissez faire-oriented as depicted by conventional history. Labor reformers argued that principles of equity must supplement these categories of class legislation and contract freedom. This essay explores how legal doctrine helped both sides of the anti-truck debate articulate the contested meanings of liberty. Ultimately, the Godcharles ruling enshrined the specialness of workingmen’s labor contracts and rejected the use of equity principles to justify contract regulations, but the controversy also informed future labor strategies, especially the turn to state police powers as the rubric under which workers’ safety, morals, and health could be protected.
Laura Phillips Sawyer,
Contested Meanings of Freedom: Workingmen's Wages, the Company Store System, and the Godcharles v. Wigeman Decision
, 12 J. Gilded Age & Progressive Era 285
Available at: https://digitalcommons.law.uga.edu/fac_artchop/1366