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Gordon Haskell

Last in a Series of Three Articles

What Next for Railroad Labor?

(23 September 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 38, 23 September 1946, p. 8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

(Continued from Last Week)

In the meantime, without a large staff, with-out public meetings, without literature to answer the thousand and one questions of railroad workers about the structure, program and policy of the URRWA-CIO; hundreds and even thousands of railroad workers of all crafts were joining the CIO union and signing cards authorizing the URRWA-CIO to represent them in collective bargaining with their employers. Despite the alleged “independence” and “conservatism” of the operating workers, in northern California at least, a majority of the men signing cards were from the operating crafts.

Despite the lack of literature, despite the confusion created by the information put out by the state CIO officers, and even despite the fact that at least one of them, locally in charge of the CIO drive in northern California, was a man whose unsavory record of irresponsibility and double-dealing has made him suspect in the eyes of the workers, hundreds of workers were signing up. They clamored for literature, demanded that a charter be issued and meetings held and that the drive be really organized as it should be. This was as good proof as anyone could want that the railroad workers want a change and want it quickly, and that, at least many of them see their best chance of a rapid change in the formation of an industrial union under the banner of the CIO.

And then, about the middle of August the drive for the operating men was stopped dead in its tracks. A.B. Martin, National Director of Railroad Organization of the CIO, informed his West Coast representatives to stop organizing members of the BRT, and to start cooperating with the representatives of that union. He informed them, further, to stop organizing all operating workers, and to confine themselves to the non-operating field.

Behind CIO’sChange of Policy

As was stated previously on the CIO rail drive, around the middle of August West Coast organizers of the United Railroad Workers of America-CIO were instructed to stop organizing men from the operating crafts. Instead of raiding the BRT, the URRWA-CIO was ordered to cooperate with the representatives of that organization.

What was behind this sudden change of CIO policy? The answer is a simple one. Whitney of the BRT has been hinting for some time that he is going to propose affiliation with either the AFL or CIO at the trainmen’s Convention this month. After he got news of the URRWA drive on his membership on the West Coast, he got the national leadership of the CIO to stop the drive by giving them some kind of assurances that he will get the convention to approve affiliation with the CIO.

This puts a new face on the whole future of railroad labor organization. If the BRT affiliates with the CIO it will represent a powerful force for the CIO among all operating workers. With the BRT in the fold, the CIO will then be in a good position to launch a drive to organize all operating workers into the operating department of the URRWA-CIO. This will be accomplished either through raiding the other operating unions via the BRT, or forcing them to affiliate as a whole in order to avoid such raids.

But from the point of view of the progressive railroad workers who want a democratic, militant industrial union, this also has a bad side to it. Whitney is noted even among the rail union chiefs for the ruthlessness of his methods in crushing any opposition and for the power of his machine. Only a child can believe that by putting on the CIO label Whitney will change his methods. Railroad workers are being told that the CIO will not accept the BRT unless they change their constitution “in line with CIO policy.” They should not put too much store by this. There is a wide difference even within the CIO among the various constitutions, and certainly a wide difference among the different unions in the actual degree of democracy enjoyed by the membership. Whitney and the members of his machine are certainly going to put up a fight to insure that they control the new union. Whether they succeed in their fight will depend on the militancy and alertness of the rank and file all over the country.

A Program Alone Is Not Enough

Among the non-operating workers, the CIO is definitely conducting a drive to take in all crafts, regardless of their present state of organization. (Note: This does not include Pullman porters. Dining car cooks and waiters, red caps and certain other workers are being organized by the Transport Service Workers-CIO.) This is a straight raiding operation on the AFL, no matter what fancy words may be used to describe it. As such, it is something new for the CIO. As everyone knows, the CIO was set up to organize the unorganized workers of the mass production industries into industrial unions. From time to time they have attempted to go into one or another field in which AFL unions are already established, such as the building trades. Generally speaking, these efforts have had small success. Is there any reason to believe that the railroad drive will be more successful?

Railroad men are very dissatisfied with their present organizations. At the same time, they are reluctant to change unless they know just what they are changing to. In this situation if the CIO union can offer them a definite program and show them an organizational structure in which the rank and file can really control its organization, there is good reason to believe that tens of thousands of workers will jump at the chance.

A good program alone, however, is not enough. What is needed, in addition, is enough money to publish literature explaining this program, and enough competent organizers to get to the men. So far, at least, the URRWA-CIO has not had enough money for these purposes, at least in the Western territory. Railroad workers who join the CIO union and participate actively in building it must realize not only this, but also that it will be a long up-hill fight. If it continues at its present pace, it is not likely that the URRWA-CIO will be able to hold collective bargaining elections on the Western roads for many months, perhaps even for a year or more. In the meantime the workers who join will be faced with the united opposition of the old-line organizations, the railroad managements and the government.

The Struggle in the CIO

There is one further fact which rail workers who join the CIO might as well get clear right now, and particularly on the West Coast. Within the CIO on the West Coast there is a terrific battle going on for control. On the one side are lined up the so-called “Murray” faction and on the other side the Communist Party-controlled unions led by Harry Bridges. In California, and generally on the Coast, the unions with the largest membership are controlled by the Bridges-Stalinist machine. The organization of several hundred thousand railroad workers into the CIO will change the whole balance of power, and it is therefore to be expected that both groups will bend every effort to keep or gain control of the URRWA-CIO in the West.

How do all these factors stack up when we consider the best course for railroad workers to follow?

Let’s add them up once again, and draw the balance sheet. Railroad labor is dissatisfied with the old-line craft unions which have failed to keep up conditions for railroad workers with those gained in other industries. Railroad workers want a new deal ‐ they want democratic, aggressive unionism. The United Railroad Workers of America-CIO offers the non-operating workers the opportunity to build for themselves a new industrial union on the rails ‐ but the rank and file railroad workers are going to have to do the job of building this union themselves, with very little financial and organizing help from the CIO. The operating workers may be faced with the prospect of one or more of their present organizations affiliating with the CIO, and therefore of fighting within the new CIO set-up for democratic control and militant policies. Within the CIO, railroad workers as well as all others are faced with a fight between the Murray leadership and the leadership of the Stalinist-dominated union.

There is no easy road for railroad labor to get what it wants. The CIO drive and the shift of one or more of the independent brotherhoods to the CIO may be just what was needed to break the stranglehold of the old-line leadership and conservative “business unionism” (the workers get “the business”) on railroad labor. But the results will be up to the rank and file railroaders.

It is they who will have to build the new union in the face of opposition from the bosses, the old union leadership and the government, which does not want railroad labor to take the road of militant struggle for its rights. It is the rank and file which will have to see to it that the CIO union does not become the tool of any faction, but the instrument of the rank and file.

Stormy Period of Struggle Ahead

American labor as a whole faces a stormy period of economic and political struggles. The railroad strike brought out more clearly than any other action of labor in recent years the line-up between the government and employers on one side and the workers on the other. The actions of Congress during that strike have made it clear to anyone with eyes to see that in the future the battles of labor are going to have to be fought on the political front just as much as on the picket line, and that pussyfooting tactics will lead to its economic subjugation.

Thus, in the new era which is opening for railroad labor, the fate of the railroad workers lies in their own hands. They now have the chance to build a democratic, militant industrial union. They have the chance to insure that they will choose leaders and put forth policies for this union which will be a real challenge to railroad management both politically and economically. The time to start is now, right at the beginning of the drive, before any machine has a chance to get control of the organization.

Every railroader must become an active, thinking member of his union. Every railroader must attend his union meetings, and elect officers who really represent him. If this is done, the URRWA-CIO will become one of the most powerful, most advanced union organizations of American labor, and the railroad workers will lead in the struggles ahead.

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