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Gordon Haskell

The Second of Three Articles on the Brotherhoods

What Next for Railroad Labor?

(16 September 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 37, 16 September 1946, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

(In the previous issue of Labor Action it was pointed out that since the railroad strike last May the railroad unions have been seething with discontent. The article ended by stating that the new element in the railroad labor picture was the announcement last May that the United Railroad Workers of America-CIO, was starting a drive to organize all workers on all roads leading into West Coast terminals, regardless of craft. This article is the second in a series of three written specially for Labor Action by Brother Haskell who is a locomotive fireman.)


It is difficult to estimate the full extent of the revolt in the brotherhoods since strike. Labor and the brotherhood magazines either give no publicity to what has happened, or refer to it in vague terms. On the other hand, such is the cutthroat competition among the different rail unions, that the representatives of each seek to exaggerate as much as possible the disaffection in the ranks of its rivals.

To the personal knowledge of the writer, several lodges of the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen in northern California passed resolutions demanding the resignation of Whitney. Estimates run from one to several hundreds in this area alone, of the firemen who left the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Engineers and joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers because of the role they believed Robertson to have played during the strike. It was also due in part to the propaganda by the BofLE to the effect that by joining it firemen were promoting the cause of one union for all enginemen. (It should be born in mind that the largest lodge of the BofLF&E on the Southern Pacific has under four hundred members.) If these instances have been repeated on a national scale, it can easily be seen that the movement is of tremendous proportions.

In the labor movement when full and accurate information is not available, a good way of estimating the sentiments of the ranks is to watch the reactions of the leadership. It is true that the conservative and bureaucratic union leadership does not express the will of the membership. But when feeling among the ranks runs too high, the leadership will often attempt to institute measures which it hopes will quiet the discontent and run it into “safe” channels – that is, channels which will in no way disturb the control and domination of the leadership.

Post-Strike Reactions

Judging from the response of the leadership in the railroad unions, the pressure from the rank and file must be at the bursting point. No sooner was the rail strike sold down the river, than the leaders began making what for them were very strange noises indeed. Whitney began issuing statements to the effect that the days of the independent brotherhoods were numbered, and that the BofRT was going to affiliate with one of the great national labor organizations. He appeared arm-in-arm with local and national CIO leaders on a platform at a New York City demonstration to protest the anti-labor laws pending before Congress.

Robertson began singing his old tune of amalgamation with the hogheads – and this time it was more than a song. The August issue of the BofLF&E magazine contained a referendum ballot on which the membership could vote for or against consolidation with the Engineers. Rumors fly thick and fast that the Engineers are also for consolidation or, for affiliation with the CIO, or both. At the same time that they issue these statements and give wings to these rumors, the brotherhood chiefs are proceeding with their usual vigor against any INDEPENDENT agitation from the ranks for amalgamation among the unions or affiliation with the CIO.

Among the non-operating unions the reactions are less obvious, but equally intense. Labor tries in every issue to prove to the men that the “tried and true” policies of the leaders and of the AFL in general are to the greatest benefit of the men. Actually, the leaders of the non-operating workers have less room in which to maneuver than do those of the operating brotherhoods, for they are firmly wedded to the AFL craft union policy as well as to the AFL organization. Their propaganda has to be along the traditional lines of the AFL’s attacks on the CIO – that is, to incite the skilled workers against the unskilled, to arouse and foster craft prejudices, prejudices against women workers and particularly against the Negroes.

CIO Enters Field

The announcement by the United Railroad Workers of America (URRWA-CIO) that they were going to start organizing railroad workers of all crafts on roads leading into West Coast terminals hit the railroad unions like a bombshell.

Previously the URRWA had confined itself to organizing non-operating workers and these chiefly on roads where company or independent unions had the contracts. They had won a collective bargaining election for all Maintenance of Way men on the Santa Fe in a contest with the AFL union. The fact of the matter is, however, that the issue in the Santa Fe election was mainly whether the existing “independent” union would go over to the URRWA-CIO. On the Pennsylvania, the URRWA had won three crafts out of eight in the shop and maintenance of equipment departments, but there the contest was mainly with the company union which had never been replaced by an independent labor organization. At the present time the URRWA-CIO is conducting another organizing campaign on the Pennsy for the remaining shop and maintenance of equipment crafts and is being opposed by the company union as well as by the shopcrafts unions of the AFL.

But this campaign on the Western roads was, apparently, to be an all-out battle for a real industrial union from top to bottom waged against all the old-line organizations. Workers who know the situation in the railroad unions greeted the announcement of the URRWA drive with high hopes. They knew the dissatisfaction among the men, the strivings for one powerful railroad union embracing all the men, which would put an end to the constant bickering, friction and interunion conflict which have led to the partial defeats of one wage movement after another; But they also knew that the rail union chiefs are men grown old in the experience of railroad unionism who would put up a terrific battle, with no holds barred, before they would permit themselves to be replaced by a democratic, rank and file controlled, militant industrial union on the rails.

The most progressive and intelligent railroad workers therefore hailed the announcement of the CIO drive with cheers, and naturally expected it to be immediately followed up by the kind of organizing drive of which they know the CIO is capable when it means business. They also expected the old-line unions, and particularly the operating ones, to descend on the West with dozens of organizers and hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to combat the CIO drive.

Drive Slows to Nothing

But weeks went by, and then months, and neither happened. Those on the inside soon found out that the URRWA-CIO was operating on what amounted to a shoestring, depending almost solely on what it could collect in initiation fees and dues to finance the Western drive.

The whole West Coast was provided with just one (1) representative from the national offices in Chicago, supplemented by a couple of very brief visits by A.B. Martin, National Director of the URRWA, and later by D.B. Anderson, National Secretary-Treasurer. It further turned out that there was no agreement among the recognized leaders of the CIO on the West Coast on this drive. Railroad workers, enquiring of state and local CIO Councils about the drive, were told that it was not authorized by the national CIO and was contrary to national CIO policy. Letters to this effect were sent by Mervyn Rathbone, Secretary of the state CIO Council, to brotherhood representatives which were then posted in the shops and yards and distributed among the workers. Finally, at the July meeting of the State CIO Council a formal resolution was passed condemning the drive and stating that it was not authorized by the National CIO.

On the other hand, the brotherhoods confined their opposition to the drive to posting these letters. Not a single organizer was sent into the field to combat the drive, and, to our knowledge, not a single piece of literature was distributed to the men attacking the CIO (except for the letters from Rathbone mentioned above). On July 3, 1946, a copy of a telegram from A.F. Whitney to one of his local henchmen was posted in which Whitney informed this man not to worry about the organizing activities of the CIO among members of the BRT. Whitney stated that he had just had a conference with Allan Heywood, National Director of Organization of the CIO, and that Heywood had promised him that he would put an end to such organizing activities at once.

(Next Week: What happened to the CIO drive to organize all railroad workers? Why did the URRWA-CIO, change its policy, and what is the real policy of the national CIO toward railroad workers? Should progressive rails support the URRWA-CIO and work to build it, or should they seek a different approach to their union problems? Read the answers to these questions in the filial article of this series on railroad labor in the next issue of Labor Action.)

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