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Gordon Haskell

The First of Two Articles on the Brotherhoods

What Next for Railroad Labor?

(9 September 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 36, 9 September 1946, p. 8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Three months ago the railroad workers of America had the eyes of the nation upon them when they tied up the country from one end to the other. Since that time they have dropped out of public attention. But within the railroad unions and among the workers generally the pot has not stopped boiling for a minute.

It is safe to state that there is no other single industry in which, the workers are so dissatisfied with their organizations and so anxious for a drastic change. The famous “conservatism” of both the operating and non-operating railroad unions which has made them “model labor organizations” in the eyes of the bosses and their press, has at the same time made them an object of hatred and disdain in the eyes of large sections of their memberships.

If Gallup were to conduct a poll among the men on the popularity of the different “Railway Labor Executives” it would be a very hazardous thing indeed to give odds on who would turn out to be the most hated: Harrison by the Clerks, Robertson by the Firemen, Whitney by the Brakemen, Johnson by the Engineers, Cashon by the Switchmen, and so on down the line. Railroad workers, watching the advances made by the rest of labor during the past fifty years, and comparing them to the, relatively stationary position of their own organizations, want something done about it, and quickly.

Union Rules Not Democratic

But what is to be done? That is the question. The railroad unions have constitutions which are models for dictatorship. The national presidents of the railroad unions, both operating and non-operating, are invested with powers which make them almost completely independent of the will of the memberships.

They can expel members and suspend charters for the flimsiest of reasons. The “circularization clauses” of the constitutions forbid individual members or lodges to send out circulars or other communications to the membership or to sister-lodges except when approved by the international presidents. Yet for railroad workers who are scattered in thin lines and small groups over hundreds and thousands of miles of track this right of circularization is the very life-blood of union democracy – and it is denied them.

Further, most railroad unions have the unit rule of convention representation. This means that each lodge, no matter what its membership, has one vote. All the incumbent officers of the Brotherhoods and unions have to do, then, so as to assure themselves complete control over the conventions, is to get the delegates from hundreds of tiny lodges (many of which are made up of insurance members who are no longer railroad men). The representatives of the large lodges with a majority of the men can do nothing about it.

Independent Organizations Spring Up

The lack of democracy within the Brotherhoods has led railroad workers to seek all kinds of ways to organize their action outside the regular union framework. In terminal after terminal independent organizations have sprung up with a variety of programs and goals. In some places these call themselves “terminal councils” and try to work as a sort of coordinating agency among the local lodges, with a progressive program.

On the West Coast and in northern Minnesota the Railroad Workers Joint Action Committee for three years published literature, held meetings and rallied the progressive rails to the cause of democratic, fighting, industrial unionism.

Six months ago, with a large blast of publicity, the National Brotherhoods Rank and File Association was founded in New York under the leadership of one Wellington Roe, former ghostwriter for A.F. Whitney. In Chicago, the Operating Railway Employees of America, led by Bill Knudsen, has tried to promote a dual union for operating workers and has been able to maintain itself for some three years, though without ever gaining enough strength to win a contract or get a collective bargaining election on any road. Since the strike, the Enginemen’s Consolidation Committee has gained widespread support in different parts of the country, despite the denunciations of the brotherhood chiefs, on a program for the consolidation of the Firemen’s and Engineer’s unions (BofLF&E and BofLE).

From the last issue of Labor we read that after years of denouncing all these efforts to give the militant railroad workers some organized form of expression, the Communist Party is trying to jump on the bandwagon by launching its own “rank and file” movement with a program of amalgamation of the railroad unions into one industrial organization.

Dissatisfaction Grows Since Strike

It is not necessary at this point to go into the programs and plans of action of all these different organizations. The fact of the matter is that they have been and are all supported by groups of from hundreds to thousands of rank and file railroaders with their money and their time. Railroad workers support these organizations because they feel that it is difficult if not impossible to get redress of their grievances through the usual trade union channels.

Though some of the methods employed by some of these organizations may be ill-advised, and though some of their programs may be inadequate if not downright foolish, and though some of them may be formed or used to promote the personal fortunes of fakers and racketeers, the fact that these organizations continue to spring up and to gain support of more or less wide groups of railroad workers proves the desire and determination of railroad labor to get a brand new deal in their union set-up.

Since the railroad strike the dissatisfaction of railroad labor with its organizations and their leadership has grown rather than diminished. Workers all over the country have been dropping out of their organizations by the hundreds and thousands. Lodges by the dozens have passed resolutions demanding the resignation or removal of their national officers. And, finally, a new factor entered the railroad labor picture after the strike which may change the whole situation drastically in the near future. That was the announcement in the Railroad Labor edition of the CIO News of May 27, 1946 that the United Railroad Workers of America, CIO, was starting a drive to organize workers of all crafts on all roads leading into West Coast terminals. Is this the answer to the railroad workers long-sought-after goal of militant, democratic, industrial unionism?

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