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The Labor Law that Wasn’t: How the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in the Nineteenth Century Denied Mechanics’ Liens to Wageworkers


Mechanics’ lien laws give those who supply labor or material to the construction of a building a lien against the building if they are left unpaid. Historians have often described these statutes, which had spread throughout the United States by the mid-nineteenth century, as an early form of labor legislation. This Article shows how, in Pennsylvania at least, that description is simply wrong. In the nineteenth century, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court construed the state’s mechanics’ lien laws as providing protection to unpaid contractors and suppliers, but it repeatedly refused to read the legislation as giving any remedy to the unpaid wageworker.

This Article also explores why the court refused to extend mechanics’ liens to wageworkers. After considering various possible explanations, the Article concludes that class bias provides the most plausible explanation. Legal historians have noted various contexts in which class bias led nineteenth-century courts to deny recoveries to workers. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s construction of the state’s mechanics’ lien legislation provides another example.

The early judicial construction of mechanics’ liens is not just a matter of historical interest. Pennsylvania’s high court has recently relied on its nineteenth-century precedents in construing mechanics’ lien laws. These historical decisions thus continue to shape the law and deprive workers on building projects of a means of collecting compensation they have earned.