Sunday, September 30, 2012

History: 1960s Racetrack Horseshoers Union Court Case May Have Inspired Propaganda Film

This video was a film buried in the Library of Congress and unearthed just this week.

How much has shoeing racehorses changed since 1960? Not much, but this film makes some good points about the role of horseshoers in a horse's life.

The International Union of Journeyman Horseshoers was part of the AFL-CIO until 2004; the IUJH is one of the oldest unions in the world. It was formed in 1873 and claims to be the oldest union retaining its original charter.

There is probably much more to this little film than meets the eye. It may even be what you call a "propaganda film", if you know anything about labor history in the United States and the pressure that was on unions in the 1960s.

No documentation is on this film footage as to the exact date of publication. It is labeled 1960, but that may be an approximate date. Maybe someone can date it by the models of the cars.

When this film was made, the union might have been under pressure to define the profession of farriery as a specialization, and to stress the importance of the union in keeping standard high within the trade. While the IUJH started out as representing the interests of the employee, or "journeymen", farriers against the Master Horseshoers Association whose members employed them, it survived at the racetrack in the second half of the 20th century and still exists today.

About the time this film was made, a controversy arose when three Canadian owners and trainers, while in Canada, used a nonunion farrier to shoe horses. To quote a summary of the case: "When they brought their horses to a racing meet at Bowie, Maryland, the International Union (of Journeyman Horseshoers) required its Local No. 7 to refuse service to the Canadians unless they would sign an agreement to use only union members, both in the United States and Canada...

"The other aspect of the case affecting all of the plaintiff owners and trainers sprang from the local union's setting of a minimum charge at Bowie of $16 for the shoeing of each race horse. The local enforced this policy by threatening to discipline or expel any union member who charged less than this minimum price."

Thus began an historic court case that came as close as the United States has ever come to defining the work relationship under which a horseshoer earns a living. The racehorse owner sued both the IUJH and the shoers themselves, and charged that they were acting in violation of the Sherman Act, that most famous of labor relations legislations that you haven't thought about since an American history class back in high school or college.

It all came down to a few questions: are farriers employees or independent contractors? And do they sell only their service or are they actually selling shoes, since they can, in theory, be considered "manufacturers" if they make their own shoes, in the eyes of the law. So were the unions actually a trust protecting a group of manufacturers? On which side of anti-trust laws did they truly fall?

The Sherman Act ("The Anti-Trust Law") had one of its most unusual tests right there in the blacksmith shops of Maryland racetracks. The horseshoers didn't strike, they kept on shoeing. They just didn't shoe for that one owner because he wouldn't agree to their terms.

Did this film just happen to be made in Maryland or was it intentionally made there, perhaps even to be shown in court, and to illustrate exactly what the horseshoer does and how important s/he is to the functioning of the racetrack? Was it made to gain the support of other unions and politicians who might be sympathetic to the horseshoers' union?

It appears to have been made to be shown on television or perhaps in movie theaters as a short feature, since the credits at the end mention that it is part of a series that will continue "next week".

There is probably no one left alive who can tell us, but finding this video was like finding another clue in that tumultuous time in American labor history and especially in the history and tradition of horseshoeing.

The horseshoers' unions operated under, or around, the terms of the Sherman Act, Taft-Hartley and the Clayton Act. Horseshoers didn't write the laws, but they tested them more than once and will always hold special footnotes in American labor and legal history in remembrance of cases like the Maryland one, which had the courts learning about the difference between machine-made and manufactured shoes, and what that meant--or might mean--under the law.

No matter how you look at the records, it seems that the horseshoers were able to use to their advantage their unique status as a small, necessary, but ill-defined and undocumented trade that defied being classified. To some extent, that same fuzzy focus survives today and, depending on who is doing the talking, either serves or paralyzes the advancement of the profession.

You can watch this film as a simple educational film or you can watch it as a classic example of labor propaganda.  It's up to you but this is another example of the depth of history surrounding the farrier profession.

However, like so many other things, that history has not yet been written about from the point of view of the shoers and it is equally unclear whether this court case was a victory for the horseshoers' union, or a defeat.

The real issue--whether the shoers were breaking the law by refusing to shoe one owner's horses--was lost in the shuffle and the case is referenced forevermore in legal history annals because it is so hard to define what horseshoers do, not how they do it or for whom.

To learn more:

IJHU current web site and history

Labor Law: Union Not Exempt from Suit for Sherman Act Violation If Its Members Are Independent Contractors and No Employer-Employee Relationship Exists
in Virginia Law Review, May 1966

Horseshoers Union May Be Tiny, But Members Stand Proud from the Chicago Tribune in 1987

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