The prominence of the persons involved as well as the magnitude of the issues raised combined to make the "labor contempt" cases of greater public interest in some ways than any litigation before the Supreme Court since the famous Dred Scott case.
The principals in the suit are Samuel Gompers, president; John Mitchell, vice-president; and Frank Morrison, secretary, of the American Federation of Labor. The issues, as urged by the labor leaders are the rights of free speech, a free press, and the boycott.
The case grew out of a boycott beginning with a strike of metal polishers in the plant of the Buck's Stove and Range Co., at St. Louis, August 29, 1906. The stove company insisted on maintaining an "open shop" and refused to accede to the union's request for an eight-hour day.
The union thereupon instituted a boycott, and, being affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, shortly afterward secured the aid of that vast organization in their fight. In March, 1907, the federation voted to place the name of the Buck's Stove and Range Co. on the "We don't patronize" list in the American Federationist, official organ of the federation. This was the list of firms against which organized labor was warned because of their alleged unfair attitude toward the unions. The boycott against the St. Louis firm was nationwide.
On August 19, 1907, after this national boycott had been in progress for several months, the Stove Company sued the officers of the federation to enjoin further boycott. On December 18, 1907, Justice Gould, of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, granted a temporary injunction, to restrain publication of the name of the stove company in the unfair list and to stop the boycott.
Almost immediately after this decision, the American Federationist appeared, with the name of the Buck's Co. still prominently displayed in the "We Don't Patronize List." About the same time, the convention of the United Mine Workers, presided over by John Mitchell, adopted a resolution to continue the boycott.
The Buck's Stove and Range Co. cited these alleged instances of refusal of the officers of the federation to obey the court's injunction, and the District Court after an exhaustive hearing, held Gompers, Mitchell and Morrison guilty of contempt of court in deliberately violating Justice Gould's injunction. Justice Wright sentenced Gompers to one year in prison, Mitchell to nine months, and Morrison to six months.
The labor leaders disclaimed any intention of deliberately violating the court order and injected the issue of free speech and free press. On an appeal, the decision of the lower court sentencing the men to jail was affirmed by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. The case was then appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.