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The Railroad Wage Cut

(February 1932)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 6 (Whole No. 102), 6 February 1932, p. 1.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

From the protracted negotiations for a new railway wage agreement, the millionaire magnates have emerged victorious. But that they accomplished only by the cunning servility of those with whom they negotiated – the union leaders. These rogues accepted the 10 per cent wage-cut while the 1,500,000 railroad workers were not consulted.

It would be difficult to expect any other outcome in view of what happened since the negotiations assembled several hundred local union chairmen in the Chicago conferences. According to one chairman who was present, only speakers designated by the official union hierarchy could obtain the floor. The standing refrain repeated by these worthies early and late was the one: “You will have to accept a wage cut.” That spelled defeat in advance.

The New York Times says, in commenting editorially upon the great good which is to accrue – not to the workers – but to business in general, to the life insurance companies and to the banks which have more than $4,500,000,000 invested in railway issues: “Union leadership has sacrificed an immediate advantage in order to obtain a larger, objective.” No, the leaders sacrificed nothing, not even their honor for such they never had as long as they occupied their official positions. The sacrifice is all on the part of the workers. To them it will mean a lower standard below the $2.88 per day which is now reported to be the average earning of all railroad workers counting both employed and unemployed. The railroad owners on the other hand will receive an additional plum of $215,000,000 to further line their pockets during the coming year, during which this reduction is to remain in effect. These servile, cringing union officials served them well indeed.

The railroad magnates could easily give glib promises of “reciprocity” to the demand for the so-called employment stabilization advanced by the union officials. This promise is just as meaningless as the manner in which the demand was proposed was futile. The promise offers only to endeavor to increase employment whenever practicable. And, of course, with the magnates now pleading inability to meet the payroll because of diminishing returns, this will never be practicable. But after all, as far as the union leaders are concerned they never intended their proposed “stabilization” schemes to be taken seriously. For them it served only as a smoke screen to hide their failure to heed the need of fighting workers – namely to secure the six hour day. A serious fight for this proposal would at least have served as a warning upon the railroad magnates that the workers are deeply concerned about finding some means of alleviating the ravages of unemployment and heavy lay-offs due to the advance of labor saving machine technic.

The railroad companies won this skirmish; but their real objective is a far greater one. They have now begun definitely to come to grips with the railroad unions and they will be certain to lose no opportunity to continue in pursuit of their objective to impose more wage cuts, to gradually undermine the position of the unions in preparation for their final destruction – if possible. This present wage cut was imposed even without the employers having to stop to utilize the rigamaroles of the arbitration machinery provided by the railway labor act. If it had been the case of a wage increase the workers would surely have been at least compelled first to run the whole gamut of this complicated machinery. But that is what it is for. To function as a brake upon the workers; to be at the service of the employers and to be entirely set aside or ignored when the employers feel themselves sufficiently strong to do so.

To the workers one important lesson should remain in respect to this phase of the matter. There should never again be any reliance placed upon arbitration machineries or proceedings. The workers can obtain only what they can actually take; what their position of organized strength will force the employers to give into.

What were the heavy compelling arguments which the railroad magnates marshalled to convince all and sundry? It was primarily their plea of inability to maintain earnings in face of the heavy competition from bus passenger transportation and from freight haulage by trucking. It is very true that new modern, and in many respects more competitive means of transportation) is to a large extent superseding railroad service. But this does not in the least supercede the dividends collected by the investors in railroad securities because it is the same bondholders in each case. As a matter of fact the existing bus lines are practically all owned by the railroad companies, as for example the Greyhound owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Union Pacific system and the Chicago and Northwestern having their net of bus lines in the Western territory and so forth. The truck hauling is also rapidly being gobbled up by the roads.

The railroad owners thus clip the coupons and pocket the profits from practically all of these means of transportation. But for the railroad workers the situation is an entirely different one. They have been hit, in addition to the wage cut, with heavy unemployment, and lay-offs to the extent of about 700,000 being eliminated during the last decade. Many more are on a part time working basis. Their exclusive craft position in the higher brackets is entirely gone. They face an entirely new perspective for the future.

A Class Approach Necessary

The railroad workers are being reduced from their exclusive craft position. They are now in a more direct sense on an actual class level. Their problems are ever more becoming bound up with that of their class. Only an approach, no longer from the exclusive craft position, but from a class position can hope to begin to approximate a solution. In this sense there is a gigantic change in perspective.

It means new and enormous tasks for their unions and to this we will again return in a future issue. One may say there is some slight ray of hope for future prospects, in the fact that in these recent negotiations representatives of all of the unions were brought together and acted together despite the fact of the sell-out by the officials. These latter are, of course, not only still wrapped up in the exclusive craft position of the post, but as much as ever functioning purely and simply as agents of capitalism within the ranks of labor. Hence In any consideration by the railroad workers of future problems one thing at least remains axiomatic. A struggle for conditions, a struggle to maintain or to improve their standard of living, can be carried on only hand in hand with the most determined struggle against all traces of domination by these capitalist agents.

The capitalist offensive against the working class is still in full blast all along the line. It calls for the most determined resistance. Meek submission will only bring new and more ferocious attacks. The railroad workers have an organization, divided and split up along craft lines, repeatedly betrayed by their leaders, but nevertheless a powerful organization if brought into action. It is certainly incumbent upon the railroad workers to endeavor to lead in this resistance. But this requires a fighting program.

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