A yellow dog contract is used to prevent employees from engaging in any activity with a union while they are on a company's payroll.

Definition of Yellow Dog Contracts

A yellow dog contract is also sometimes called an ironclad oath or yellow dog clause. These contracts outline certain employment agreements and conditions, and specifically that an employee will not become involved with a union in any way during the course of their employment. This is a labor contract that requires employees to not join unions as a condition of employment.

Yellow dog contracts first showed up in the 19th century as a way to prevent the organization of employees with the intent of demanding better working conditions and higher wages.

There are generally two major types of yellow dog contracts:

The phrase "yellow dog" was originally coined in the 1920s, signifying what employees were seen as in the eyes of their peers for signing away rights that they were entitled to in the United States Constitution. For example, it was common in the day for people to say things like, "What kind of person is willing to be a 'yellow dog' and sign their rights away just to get a job?"

Yellow dog contracts don't always take form as non-union agreements, though. Sometimes they appear as non-compete agreements, which specifically prohibit an employee from going to work with a company's direct competitor and potentially harming their current employer in the process. Yellow dog contracts are particularly beneficial to employers in that they allow a company to seek legal action against employees who engage in activities that the agreement prohibits.

A new school of thought arose in 1932, however, proposing the idea that the government should not be involved when it comes to prohibiting employees' rights of organization. This lead to the passing of the Norris-LaGuardia Act, which brought about the end of yellow dog contracts being held up in court.

These days, yellow dog contracts most commonly appear in the form of non-compete agreements. These are normally put into place by employers when they have a vested interest in preventing employees from going to work for a directly competing company and causing potential harm to the future success of their business.

History of Yellow Dog Contracts

Yellow dog contracts date back to as early as the 1870s. They originated as written agreements that were commonly called "ironclad" or "infamous" documents containing anti-union agreements. When an employee signed one of these agreements, they were giving up their rights to join the appropriate union for their trade. By 1887, however, 16 states had determined that forcing employees to sign these agreements was considered criminal activity.

As time went on, yellow dog contracts became less and less important and, by the beginning of the 20th century, they were all but irrelevant. In fact, at this point, most employees hardly ever worried about yellow dog contracts and most union organizers cared very little about them. By the beginning of the 20th century, only two industries still used yellow dog contracts: coal mining companies and metalworking companies.

Even in these cases, membership in a union was no longer prohibited. Instead, certain activities, such as those that were required as prerequisites to join a union, were restricted.

In 1910, the International United Brotherhood of Leather Workers on Horse Goods organized a major strike. This strike failed, however, resulting in many companies in the industry requiring employees to provide verbal and written agreements that they would leave their unions and refrain from joining any in the future if they wanted to go back to work. The term "yellow dog" was originally coined in 1921 and was published in a number of major publications that catered to workers who were still members of a union.

Commentary from publications such as the United Mine Workers' Journal was well received by many union workers at the time when they called out the actions of employees who were willing to sign away the rights given to everybody by the United States Constitution, calling them "yellow dogs" and comparing them to willing slaves for their employers.

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