Why does the US government have the power to break massive union strikes like the one that almost broke out on the railroads last November? Part of the story is a history of conciliatory railway unionism. It’s time to break with that legacy.

Detail from a Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers graphic, 1877. (Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

Last November, the Biden administration halted a strike of more than one hundred thousand railway workers following nearly two years of contract negotiations. Then, on December 2, President Biden signed a joint resolution from Congress binding railway workers to an agreement with the railroad corporations — a contract that excluded the core demands made by workers, key among them paid sick leave.

Among the twelve unions participating in negotiations was the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, the longest-standing union of railroad workers in the country. Despite a near unanimous vote in favor of a strike by the union membership in June, its leadership ultimately capitulated. In the subsequent leadership elections, incumbent Dennis Pierce was ousted by Eddie Hall, who won the presidency with 53 percent of the vote.

It’s not the first time the union has acted as a reliable partner of the US government. Under its previous name, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE), it has played a critical role in shaping the trajectory of the American railroad industry since the mid-nineteenth century.

Formed as a fraternal society in 1863, the BLE shunned strike activity in favor of a “respectable” unionism; among other things, this meant excluding women, people of color, immigrants, and precarious workers from the ranks of its members. After the crushing of the American Railroad Union (ARU) with the Pullman strike in 1894, the BLE emerged as the federal government’s foremost ally, aiding in the construction of legislation from the 1888 Arbitration Acts to the Railway Labor Act of 1926 and beyond. Alongside five other craft associations for railway workers (commonly referred to as the Brotherhoods), the union’s interventions in the labor movement fostered a dependence on government legitimation, mediation, and corroboration which continues to haunt the labor movement today.

Origins

The aftermath of the Civil War saw the proliferation of cross-class mutual benefit societies known as fraternal organizations. Widely accepted among elites, these societies incorporated ritual practices and social activities with voluntary insurance provision against sickness, death, and other unforeseen ills.

Though it did expand somewhat during the mid-nineteenth century, the insurance feature of these organizations remained largely unaffordable for working-class members, of whom railroad workers constituted a growing part. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Trainmen (one year later to become the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers) was established as a secret fraternal society explicitly catering to the interests of railway workers.

Between 1863 and the 1870s, the society offered a growing benefit feature, which by 1867 included life and health insurance, as well as funds for disabled members, widows, and orphans. In combining these elements, the brotherhood was a pioneer in the formation of the voluntarist craft identity that came to characterize the American labor movement in following decades.

At its inception, the union consciously and explicitly positioned itself as the ‘acceptable’ face of workers organization, committed to its racialized and gendered identity.

Key to this identity was racial, ethnic, and gendered exclusion. Like the fraternal societies upon which it was modeled, union membership was reserved for white male workers “of good moral character, sober and industrious, sound in body and limb, and able to read and write in English.” At its inception, the union consciously and explicitly positioned itself as the “acceptable” face of workers organization, committed to its racialized and gendered identity even though it prevented its affiliation with the American Federation of Labor at the turn of the twentieth century.

This respectability rested on a policy of class compromise. As early as 1875, the organization adopted a formal grievance procedure by which representatives of local chapters examined management’s reasoning before meeting with company officials to negotiate an agreement on behalf of workers. As an early leader of the brotherhoods, Eugene Debs declared that “the ill feeling and hostility that once existed between railway corporations and the members of our brotherhood has been banished . . . the brotherhood shall act only as becomes gentlemen when they attempt to enhance their interests as laborers.”

Railway Militancy

The Brotherhoods’ docile approach would be challenged by intensifying growth and competition on American railroads. Amid the depression of 1873, the final years of post–Civil War reconstruction saw conflict between the Baltimore and Ohio and the Canadian Grand Trunk Railroads over their Chicago lines, and growing rivalry with the new Central Pennsylvania railroads. The result of these tensions were progressively declining wages for railroad workers, leading to the eruption of a nationwide railroad strike in 1877.

Through coordinated repression by the National Guard, federal troops, and company-hired militias, the Great Railroad strike was violently suppressed, with many workers severely injured and at least one hundred recorded deaths. This devastating failure only deepened the Brotherhood’s opposition to strike action. In 1883, Debs described strikes as “the knives with which laborers cut their own throat,” pronouncing that “arbitration is the true method of settling differences between employer and employed.”

Opposition to strike action would be temporarily challenged by intensifying class conflict and the emergence of more radical labor organizations like the Knights of Labor, who in 1885 launched a remarkable strike against Jay Gould’s Southwest Railway System, experiencing dramatic growth as a result. In 1888, the Brotherhoods of Engineers and Firemen would enter their own protracted strike along the Chicago Burlington and Quincy railroad, though this effort ended in failure. The response to these conflicts was the 1888 Arbitration Act, which introduced voluntary arbitration for labor disputes threatening to interrupt interstate commerce. A presidential investigative committee was formed and given powers to intervene in these cases.

Class compromise, Debs argued, would come from the undeniable strength of working-class organizations, rather than their submission to bosses and governing elites.

These repeated defeats marked a turning point in Eugene Debs’s own political development. Relinquishing the conservative craft unionism of the Brotherhoods, Debs argued that the monopolized and centralized railroad corporations could only be resisted through a progressive and political union that organized workers across grades, and waged earth-shattering strikes that halted entire industries. Class compromise, he argued, would come from the undeniable strength of working-class organizations, rather than their submission to bosses and governing elites.

Drawing on these new principles, Debs went on to organize the American Railway Union (ARU) in 1893. Unlike the craft brotherhoods, the ARU organized workers across the industry and waged strikes from the bottom up. After an impressive victory against the Great Northern Railway in the summer of 1894, the union backed a wildcat strike at the Pullman Company Town on the outskirts of Chicago. The subsequent strike and boycott shut down railway lines across twenty-seven states.

Despite its militancy, the ARU’s efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. Drawing on the 1888 Arbitration Act — which had been supported by the BLE in the previous decade — the US circuit courts banned strikers from interfering with postal transportation and interstate commerce. When strikers failed to comply, they were judged guilty of contempt and sentenced to prison. With its leadership jailed, facing court injunctions and military intervention, the ARU dissolved to form the Social Democracy of America (SDA) party in the following years. Once again, railroad managers and the federal government had effectively crushed industrial action on the part of US railroad workers.

The Persistence of Craft Unionism

From the ashes of the ARU, the railroad brotherhoods reemerged as the chief negotiators on behalf of labor. Emphasizing their expanded insurance features and differentiating themselves from the radical politics of industrial unionism, the brotherhoods doubled down on their commitment to class compromise and arbitration, offering themselves as the disciplinary agents of labor and the brokers of industrial peace. In meetings with then secretary of state Richard Olney, they demonstrated their rejection of ARU tactics and stressed the expulsion of thousands of members who were perceived to be in support of the Pullman strike. As Christopher Tomlins has observed, this process involved distinguishing between trade unions and their membership, positioning the former as a reliable partner for government negotiations — both by making commitments on their members’ behalf, and by regulating their behavior.

The culmination of these discussions was the Erdman Act of 1898. Like the act of 1888, it promoted federal arbitration of industrial disputes involving interstate commerce. Following a request by either labor or management, mediation would be led by the chairman of the interstate commerce commission and the commissioner of labor, after which the dispute would be handed off to a three-member board whose rulings would be binding for one year. In exchange for this participation, the Brotherhoods negotiated the legitimation of trade-union membership through the abolition of yellow dog contracts, and the guarantee of their insurance operations through the outlawing of company-sponsored insurance. With the act, the Brotherhoods obtained “a level of security and stability unprecedented for any national union until that time or until the New Deal era.”

The turn of the century saw profound growth and monopolization for the industry; by 1900, the thirty-two largest railroads operated under seven groups of investment bankers. Between 1870 and 1910, freight car capacity tripled and motive power doubled, while air brakes, automatic couplers, heavy steel rails, and the standardization of equipment dramatically increased productivity through larger engines and longer trains.

The Brotherhoods made significant gains for the wages and contracts of their (still exclusively white) membership.

Buoyed by this growth, the Brotherhoods made significant gains for the wages and contracts of their (still exclusively white) membership. They hired experienced researchers to present before arbitration panels, and, when management refused to negotiate, they demonstrated their strength with overwhelming votes in favor of strike action. Between 1906 and 1912, they made substantial gains in more than sixty arbitration cases. As opposition to the Erdman act grew, they leveraged their expanding lobbying operations to assist in the design of the Newlands Labor Act signed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913, and later as champions of the eight-hour day in 1916.

Setting the Stage

As a response to World War I, the railroads came under federal control between 1917 and 1920. Throughout this period of government operation, existing legislation was largely displaced by mediation procedures led by the Director General of Railroads. Terms of employment were agreed upon between the director general and the unions, and interpretation disputes were handled by three bipartisan adjustment boards. This was a favorable period for labor, and — with the reassertion of private ownership of the railways in 1920 — trade unions across the board were keen to preserve their gains.

In a brief break from their conservative business unionism, the Brotherhoods proved key advocates of the Plumb Plan, a proposition for continued government ownership that encouraged cooperation between railway employees, the public, and operating officials. Under the Plan, 50 percent of railroad profits would be allocated to the wages of employees and officials, and 50 percent would go to subsidizing rates for customers.

Ultimately, however, the Brotherhoods abandoned the plan. With the collapse of the railroad labor board during the national strike of railroad shopmen in 1922, and the increased organization of the private sector, the Brotherhoods invested their energies once more in devising strategies for mediation and industrial harmony. The result of these efforts was the Howell-Barkley Bill. With an expansive public-opinion campaign, the brotherhoods pressured railway executives into a series of meetings beginning in August 1925.

The revised bill, which was proposed in May 1926, guaranteed an emergency board to intervene in disputes which threatened interstate commerce or in which no agreement could be reached. Enacted as the Railway Labor Act, it drew on the Erdman Act in reestablishing mediation as the basic means of government intervention, and in prohibiting the use of yellow dog contracts. At the conclusion of negotiations, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad W. W. Atterbury testified that “heretofore labor and management have been opposed. Today we come to you with an agreed upon program.” The dependence of railroad workers on the federal government and the companies was thus solidified.

The recent contract negotiations with railway workers have again shown how conciliatory craft unionism hampers the labor movement. The dependence on government legitimation and mediation makes it near impossible for the grassroots of unions to advance their cause. Only a break with such a corroborative form of unionism — and with the legacy of unions like the BLE — can empower members to fight for meaningful demands.

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