The concept of industrial unionism is supposed to be, “everybody in, nobody out.” Despite ARU President and future socialist Eugene Debs’ opposition, just days before the Pullman Strike began, the ARU took a crucial step backward when the delegates at its first convention voted 214 to 212 to exclude Blacks from membership. Until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the operating Brotherhoods and the carriers, to their everlasting shame, collaborated in this Jim Crow tradition.
The defeat in Pullman set back the cause of industrial unionism until the rise of the CIO in the 1930s. Once again federal troops, this time dispatched by Democratic President Grover Cleveland, were essential in defeating the Pullman Strike. Debs, however, learned a crucial lesson when he came to this conclusion: “I have been a Democrat all my life, and I’m ashamed to admit it.”
The last of the triad of massive railroad strikes was the Great Shopmen’s Strike of 1922. Like its predecessors of 1877 and 1894, the strike was triggered by a carrier mandated wage cut. The cuts only effected seven of the then sixteen unions and there was no understanding about honoring picket lines. Although 400,000 workers walked out on the first day, there was not the 100% solidarity needed to win a victory. Injunctions rained down on the strikers. No federal troops this time, but federal marshals stood shoulder to shoulder with company goons to break the strike.
The strike of 1922 led to the passage of the Railway Labor Act (RLA) four years later. Perhaps the best summation of how the RLA functions comes from an inside source. In 1970, a woman named Beatrice Burgoon was the director of the Office of Labor Management Relations Service. In a revealing interview with Cornell University professor Sidney Rosen, Burgoon said “The Railway Labor Act of course, was built to delay, and this is on purpose, because the Government has never been ready to accept a nationwide railroad strike. So the RLA was passed in order to prevent such a strike, to insure continued railroad operations through a series of delaying and delaying and delaying tactics.” At the end of the delaying comes the Presidential Emergency Board, Congress, and the inevitable “National Emergency.” All the rest is so much needless theater.
1970, the year that Ms. Burgoon “spilled the beans,” was also the year that began my 38 plus year railroad career. In October of 1970 I was living in San Diego when I received a call from Frank Lovell asking me to move back to Chicago and get a job on the railroad, specifically a job organized by the United Transportation Union (UTU). Frank Lovell was a respected leader of the US Socialist Workers Party’s doing trade union work, and a veteran of the 1930’s Sailors of the Pacific Union and a participant in numerous strikes.
I moved back to Chicago and applied at a half dozen railroads, all of which had want ads in the Chicago newspapers. Three of these railroads wanted to hire me as a switchman or brakeman. The Chicago Northwestern Railroad (CNW) had two large UTU locals in Chicago and was the logical choice. Local 577 had about 800 members and local 524 about 500. I ended up at the CNW.
The reason I was asked to move back to Chicago was to work on a project called the “Right to Vote on Contracts” Committee (RTVC). The UTU was formed in 1969 as the result of a four way fusion of smaller craft unions. The UTU’s constitution did not allow a membership vote on contracts. A rank and file committee to change this deficiency began in the Milwaukee Road local 1433, located in suburban Chicago. In just two years the RTVC spread across the country and was a force at the first International (so called because it extended into Canada) UTU convention in August of 1971. The motion to include the Right to Vote on Contracts was narrowly defeated on the floor of the convention by a vote of 848 to 815. (The UTU was folded into SMART, Sheet Metal Air and Railroad Trainmen in 2011).
Even though the 1970s were the last years of the post-war economic boom, storm clouds began to appear on the horizon. Beginning around 1979 several hammer blows came crashing down on the heads of America’s working class. First came the Volcker Recession. On the railroad this brought the first major layoffs in 20 years. These layoffs went deep into my roster, but with nine years seniority I managed to keep working. However, I was forced back on the yard extra board (the list of available workers, with no regular assignment, used to fill-in “as needed.”)
In 1981 Reagan broke the Air Traffic Controllers’ strike and destroyed the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) in the process. Ironically, PATCO along with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers had both endorsed Reagan in 1980. There was a chance for organized labor to draw a line in the sand in defense of PATCO. Instead, our unions just had sand kicked in their faces.