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The Railroad Industry & the Need for One Big Union

By X341189

Since the mid-1990s, the major U.S. railroads (“Class Is”) have been hiring new trainmen to staff the nation’s freight trains. Passenger carriers such as Amtrak together with various metropolitan commuter railroads in cities like New York, Boston, L.A. and Chicago are also regularly seeking employees. This offers an invaluable opportunity for young activists to hire out in an industrial setting and make some money, all the while:

  • learning about the transportation industry;
  • working under and understanding a union contract;
  • becoming familiar with the great history of the class struggle on the railway;
  • taking part in the rank-and-file movement of railroad workers; and
  • joining with your fellow workers to build the One Big Union in a key sector of the economy.

The recession has eased and nearly all furloughed railroaders have been called back to work. The railroads are once again hiring in terminals all across the U.S. and Canada. Their websites are flush with job openings in all the crafts, especially in train & engine service. Since everything to do with personnel on the railroad is seniority driven, NOW is the time to hire out so you don’t get left behind and have to follow a crowd of others for your entire career.

For those who would hire out in “Transportation” the new hire usually begins work as a “brakeman” or “conductor trainee”. After a specified period of time and the requisite tests, the new hire is promoted to Conductor. Then at some point in the future, depending upon seniority and the “needs of the carrier”, the conductor will be selected to attend engine school. Following an extended (6 months- to-a-year) on-the-job training, s/he will be promoted to licensed locomotive engineer. (If “train and engine” is not your scene, the railroads are also hiring -- although not as regularly -- track maintainers, train dispatchers, signal maintainers, car inspectors, clerks, electricians, machinists, laborers and others in the shop crafts).

All “train and engine” (T&E) jobs are union jobs, paying between $30,000 and $100,000 per year with full benefits. Union membership is obligatory upon successful completion of a probationary period of usually 60-90 days upon “marking up”. The T&E employee has a choice of joining the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen (descendent of the oldest craft union in the U.S.) or the United Transportation Union (UTU), an amalgamation of four old craft unions that merged in 1969 – the Switchmen (SUNA), Trainmen (BRT), Conductors (OCA) and Firemen (BLF). Dues usually range between $70 and $120 per month. Most Locals (UTU) and Divisions (BLET) hold regular monthly membership meetings.

Railroad workers have a proud and militant tradition. National strikes have rocked the U.S. including: 1877 (the country’s first nationwide and general strike); 1894 (the Pullman Strike and boycott led by Eugene V. Debs and the American Railway Union); 1922 (the National Shopmen’s Strike); 1946 (the post WWII national strike, which together with the miners, briefly brought the nation to a standstill). In addition, countless other smaller strikes on a single carrier and/or by a single craft have taken place over the last hundred and fifty years.

The nation’s railroads are integral to the national economy. While a smaller percentage of the total freight shipped now moves by rail, the actual gross tonnage shipped on the railroad is greater than ever before. And with the introduction of new technologies – radio, computer, sensors, satellite, microprocessors, etc – and the elimination of thousands of jobs, U.S. railroaders are now by far the most “efficient” railway workers in the world on a basis of “ton-miles” per employee. Chicago is the rail center of the world, moving more tonnage through its limits than any other city. All large U.S, cities and many smaller ones have large rail terminals located somewhere in the greater metro area. And they are either currently – or soon will be – hiring workers.

Railroads move most bulk commodities that are more easily and/or inexpensively shipped by other transport modes – grain, coal, fertilizer, feed, forest products and paper, chemicals, iron ore (taconite), finished steel, automobiles, heavy machinery, etc. In addition, the fasting growing sector of railway goods carried in the last decade or so is containers. Many main lines criss-crossing the U.S. see regular shipments of “stack” trains laden with 200 or more containers. Many of these come off of ships and eventually end up on trucks to their final destination, hence the term “inter-modal”.

In the 1860s and 1870s, the various crafts on the railroad began to organize into “brotherhoods”. These organizations came into existence initially to assist their members in time of hardship. Railroading was – and of course still is -- an extremely dangerous and difficult job, and the brotherhoods pooled the resources of their memberships to assist members and their widows in times of disaster. They quickly evolved into fighting organizations to defend their members’ rights, safety and health, wages, benefits and conditions of employment. However, their fragmented nature and limited vision limited their effectiveness. Eugene V. Debs, a leader of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen (BLF), together with other railroaders soon realized the shortcomings of the railroad craft unions, and proposed a new form of union – the “industrial union”. They set about the task of building the nation’s first such union – one based upon inclusion of all members of all crafts into its ranks – the American Railway Union (ARU).

Begun in 1893, within a year, the ranks of the ARU had swelled to well over a hundred thousand members. Railroaders were joining at the rate of 2,000 per week at its peak. In its first test of strength, the new union took on the Great Northern Railway and the powerful railroad tycoon, James J. Hill (whose name is forever immortalized in the song Hallelujah I’m a Bum -- “That’s why I’m a boomin’ down Jim Hill’s mainline”). Within two weeks, the ARU had brought the “Empire Builder” to his knees. The strike ended in near total victory for the workers. The power of industrial unionism had been proven. Just few short months later, the ARU took on the Pullman Company. In solidarity with the striking workers at the Pullman Works just south of Chicago, the ARU called for a boycott of handling Pullman cars. ARU members refused to handle them in their trains. This direct action was so effective that the strike was sure to be won. In response, the carriers, Pullman and the U.S. Government conspired to break the strike, destroy the ARU and arrest and imprison its leaders. With the ARU decimated, the carriers turned their attention to negotiating with the Brotherhoods. While most of the robber barons would have preferred to operate in a strictly non-union environment, they began to see the advantages of dealing with the weak and divided craft unions of the day. By 1926, the Railway Labor Act was signed into law with the support of both craft unions and carriers, which institutionalized labor-management relations on the railroad and remains the model in use to this day.

Through mergers and affiliations, the myriad craft unions on the railroad have now been pared down to “only” thirteen or so. Some are affiliated with the AFL-CIO while others are now part of the Change-to-Win Coalition. The infighting and backstabbing, union scabbing and sweetheart deal making continues, alternating between periods of truce, merger or attempted merger of the various organizations. In this environment, it is extremely common to hear talk among rank-and-filers of the need for One Big Union, one union of all crafts, one union to represent all railroaders. Even the leadership will invoke such sentiment (between their name-calling, bashing, scabbery, and back-stabbing) from time to time: the UTU’s “Power of One” slogan during the attempted merger with the BLE in 2000-2001; the IBT’s Jimmy Hoffa with the “Teamster Umbrella” notion, and the rhetoric of a “seamless union in transportation”

It is in this context – the long and militant tradition of railroaders; the experience of industrial unionism, Eugene Debs and the ARU; the colorful history of direct action; and the glaring short-comings of craft unionism at its absolute worst – that the ideas of the IWW are more vital and relevant than ever on the railroad. The Wobblies shunning of electoral politics, reliance on self-help and direct action, the notion of the industrial union, the concept of “an injury to one is an injury to all”, the general strike – all this plays well among workers on the nation’s railroads. Railroaders today are looking for answers beyond the narrow confines of their own increasingly irrelevant craft union. They want an organization with strength and power, one capable of taking on the huge corporations, the modern day “robber barons”.

Corporate profits on the railroad today are at record levels. All through the recession – even while employment levels and tonnage handled were down by 10 to 20% -- the major carriers (all of them “Fortune 500” corporations) have been flush with cash. Yet even while they rake in the money, the carriers are pushing for expanded use of Remote Control Operations and single-employee operation of through freight. They are making concessionary demands at the bargaining table in wages, benefits and working conditions. The craft unions are not able to effectively stand up to this bullying and harassment that the carriers are meting out, not just at the bargaining table, but on a day-to-day basis in the field, where discipline is at an all-time high.

All members of the IWW who are looking for work should consider joining the struggle and hire out on the railroad. The major Class I carriers are hiring trainmen and others regularly at most rail terminals all across the country. To learn more about hiring out, check out the Railroad Retirement Board Website at www.rrb.gov and click on the link “Railroad Job Vacancies” on the lower right side of the Home Page. Scroll down and then check the links to the various railroads’ websites. Current jobs are listed on each site with directions of how to submit your application and resume on-line.

For more information about the railroad, rail unions, the movement for rail labor unity, hiring out, training, or other questions, please write to railfalcon [at ] yahoo.com.

The author is a certified locomotive engineer with 15 years on the railroad, currently a member of the BLET, and a long-time member of the IWW.