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B.J. Widick

In the Trade Unions

(31 March 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 20, 31 March 1939, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The attitude of the railroad brotherhoods towards the proposal of an American Congress of Labor, which was rejected by the A.F. of L., has not been given much attention. As a matter of fact, so little is known about the railroad unions, especially among the newer C.I.O. unionists, that we herewith report briefly on them.

The “Big Four” brotherhoods which John L. Lewis wanted to hold the balance of power in the proposed A.C. of L. comprise more than 300,000 railroad workers

Largest of these is the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen with 134,000 members, according to A.F. Whitney, its president. He, by the way, is a New Dealer who plays ball with the Stalinists on occasions. We remember how he used his prestige to sneak a representative of the League .for Peace and Democracy (the Stalinist war-mongering outfit) into the United Rubber Workers convention in 1937.

Wealthiest Labor Bureaucracy in Country

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, of which Alvanley Johnston is president, estimates its membership at 60,000. It is the oldest of the Big Four, since it was founded in 1863.

An estimated 78,000 members belong to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen. It is headed by the smooth Mr. D.B. Robertson.

The fourth of the big unions, which actually operate the trains as distinguished from the “shop crafts,” is the Order of Railway Conductors with between 35,000 to 40,000 members J.A. Phillips is president.

It is considered very unlikely that these “Big Four” will give up their independence, although repeated efforts have already been made behind the scenes by both the C.I.O. and the A.F. of L. to win them over

These operating unions represent mainly the engineers, firemen, conductors, brakemen, switchmen and flagmen. They often have jurisdictional disputes, for their claims to membership overlap one another. The duplication of officials, etc., has created perhaps the largest and wealthiest labor bureaucracy in the country. Railroad union conventions are notorious for their length. Usually delegates get all expenses and good pay while attending. We recall one convention held in Cleveland that lasted over two months!

Employment and Wages Drop

In contrast to the “Casey Jones” are the “shop crafts” mentioned before. There are 17 of these, which have affiliation to the A.F. of L. The leaders of all the railroad unions except the trainmen got together in 1926 and formed the Railway Labor Executives Union to work unitedly on wage problems, etc. The Brotherhood of Trainmen cooperates closely with this committee of which George M. Harrison, president of the A.F. of L, Brotherhood of Railway and Steamship Clerks, Freight Handlers, Express and Station Employees, is chairman.

Among the main problems facing the railroad workers is the steady increase in unemployment. In the past year, for example, over 100,000 railroad workers on class one lines have lost their jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. About 943,000 are employed by the class one railway systems now, exclusive of executives, officials and staff assistants.

Wages in the industry averaged $24.24 a week in December 1938, the latest obtainable figure.

Renounce Militancy

While once the railroad workers, led by Eugene V. Debs, through the now defunct American Railway Union pulled the great and historic Pullman Strike in 1894 and established a new high note in labor militancy, strikes today are shunned like the very devil. The Transportation Act of 1929 set up government mediation, and this was succeeded in 1926 by the Railway Labor Act, which together with its amendments passed in 1934 makes it a long-drawn out and tedious process of negotiations under which strikes are “illegal”

Perhaps the conservatism of the railroad union bureaucracy was never better expressed than in a recent statement by Whitney. “In the early days we took the position that we would protect our contracts, regardless of whether they suited the rank and file at the moment, ... our members are well disciplined,” etc., etc.

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