One of the most famous labor trials in American history began on October 1, 1898. It was known as the Oshkosh Woodworkers' Strike and the trial remains a case study for many law students across the United States today.
Oshkosh was known as a low wage town and throughout the 1890s conditions and wages for workers continued to deteriorate. The idea of unionizing gained strength. In early 1898, mill owners, led by George Paine, the owner of the city's largest mill, refused to honor promised wage increases. The U.S. declared war on Spain in April 1898, resulting in a sharp rise in the cost of food and fuel. The Oshkosh woodworkers voted to strike on May 16, 1898.
As the strike went on, conditions escalated into violence. In an attempt to stop the strike, George Paine and his son Nathan accused three of the labor leaders of criminal and civil conspiracy to damage the Paine Lumber Co. Thomas Kidd, George Zentner, and Michael Troiber were arrested on August 5, 1898. Other mill owners were largely silent on the subject, fearing to oppose George and Nathan Paine in any way.
A criminal trial was set, and it clearly had enormous implications for the nation as everyone realized the consequences. If the defendants were convicted, similar charges of civil or criminal conspiracy could be brought in other states against workers going on strike, potentially making strikes illegal. After the preliminary hearing, workers voted to end the strike on August 19, 1898.
Although the strike was over, Paine forged ahead and mustered an impressive force of eight experienced trial lawyers for prosecution. Fortunately, Thomas Kidd had a friend in Chicago who practiced law - Clarence Darrow, the attorney who had defended workers in the Great Pullman Strike of 1894. Darrow agreed to defend the three Oshkosh men.
During the trial, George Paine was unable to recount the people or conversations he supposedly overheard discussing a conspiracy. Thus, the defendants could not know or directly confront their accusers, as guaranteed by the 6th Amendment to the Constitution. Darrow was able to convince the jury that if any conspiracy existed, it was by the Paines, and to a lesser extent by the other mill owners, and not by the workers.
Next, Darrow discredited the Paines through the issue of child labor. Children routinely worked 10-hour days in the Paine mill for 30-to-60 cents. Darrow used this to show how George and Nathan Paine used children to undermine the wages of adult workers, as men only earned 90-cents a day and women 55-cents a day. The national average was $1.25.
Jury deliberation began November 2, 1898, and after just 50 minutes the jury returned a verdict: not guilty. The separate civil case against Kidd was subsequently dropped in 1899 after Kidd agreed not to pursue a lawsuit against George Paine.
In many ways the Woodworkers' Strike was still a failure. Wages were raised, but only by pennies a day. The strength of the union eroded. George and Nathan Paine continued to employ women and children at sub-standard wages, and the factory was not unionized until 1956.
The importance of that trial cannot be underestimated. The entire American period of industrialization and development of the middle class might have taken a very different turn if the criminal case against the three men had gone differently.