The Armies of Labor; a Chronicle of the Organized Wage-Earners

Author: Samuel Peter Orth

Chapter VII. The Railway Brotherhoods

The solidarity and statesmanship of the trade unions reached perfection in the railway "Brotherhoods." Of these the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers* is the oldest and most powerful. It grew out of the union of several early associations; one of these was the National Protective Association formed after the great Baltimore and Ohio strike in 1854; another was the Brotherhood of the Footboard, organized in Detroit after the bitter strike on the Michigan Central in 1862. Though born thus of industrial strife, this railroad union has nevertheless developed a poise and a conservatism which have been its greatest assets in the numerous controversies engaging its energies. No other union has had a more continuous and hardheaded leadership, and no other has won more universal respect both from the public and from the employer.

* Up to this time the Brotherhoods have not affiliated with the Knights of Labor nor with the American Federation of Labor. After the passage of the eight-hour law by Congress in 1916, definite steps were taken towards affiliating the Railway Brotherhoods with the Federation, and at its annual convention in 1919 the Federation voted to grant them a charter.

This high position is largely due, no doubt, to the fact that the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers is composed of a very select and intelligent class of men. Every engineer must first serve an apprenticeship as a fireman, which usually lasts from four to twelve years. Very few are advanced to the rank of engineer in less than four years. The firemen themselves are selected men who must pass several physical examinations and then submit to the test of as arduous an apprenticeship as modern industrialism affords. In the course of an eightto twelve-hour run firemen must shovel from fifteen to twenty-five tons of coal into the blazing fire box of a locomotive. In winter they are constantly subjected to hot blasts from the furnace and freezing drafts from the wind. Records show that out of every hundred who begin as firemen only seventeen become engineers and of these only six ever become passenger engineers. The mere strain on the eyes caused by looking into the coal blaze eliminates 17 per cent. Those who eventually become engineers are therefore a select group as far as physique is concerned.

The constant dangers accompanying their daily work require railroad engineers to be no less dependable from the moral point of view. The history of railroading is as replete with heroism as is the story of any war. A coward cannot long survive at the throttle. The process of natural selection which the daily labor of an engineer involves the Brotherhood has supplemented by most rigid moral tests. The character of every applicant for membership is thoroughly scrutinized and must be vouched for by three members. He must demonstrate his skill and prove his character by a year’s probation before his application is finally voted upon. Once within the fold, the rules governing his conduct are inexorable. If he shuns his financial obligations or is guilty of a moral lapse, he is summarily expelled. In 1909, thirty-six members were expelled for "unbecoming conduct." Drunkards are particularly dangerous in railroading.

When the order was only five years old and still struggling for its life, it nevertheless expelled 172 members for drunkenness. In proven cases of this sort the railway authorities are notified, the offending engineer is dismissed from the service, and the shame of these culprits is published to the world in the Locomotive Engineers’ Journal, which reaches every member of the order. There is probably no other club or professional organization so exacting in its demands that its members be self-respecting, faithful, law-abiding, and capable; and surely no other is so summary and far-reaching in its punishments.

Today ninety per cent of all the locomotive engineers in the United States and Canada belong to this union. But the Brotherhood early learned the lesson of exclusion. In 1864 after very annoying experiences with firemen and other railway employees on the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago Railroad, it amended its constitution and excluded firemen and machinists from the order. This exclusive policy, however, is based upon the stern requirements of professional excellence and is not displayed towards engineers who are not members of the Brotherhood. Towards them there is displayed the greatest toleration and none of the narrow spirit of the "closed shop." The nonunion engineer is not only tolerated but is even on occasion made the beneficiary of the activities of the union. He shares, for example, in the rise of wages and readjustment of runs. There are even cases on record where the railroad unions have taken up a specific grievance between a nonunion man and his employer and have attempted a readjustment.

>From the inception of the Brotherhood, the policy of the order towards the employing railroad company has been one of business and not of sentiment. The Brotherhood has held that the relation between the employer and employee concerning wages, hours, conditions of labor, and settlement of difficulties should be on the basis of a written contract; that the engineer as an individual was at a manifest disadvantage in making such a contract with a railway company; that he therefore had a right to join with his fellow engineers in pressing his demands and therefore had the right to a collective contract. Though for over a decade the railways fought stubbornly against this policy, in the end every important railroad of this country and Canada gave way. It is doubtful, indeed, if any of them would today be willing to go back to the old method of individual bargaining, for the brotherhood has insisted upon the inviolability of a contract once entered into. It has consistently held that "a bargain is a bargain, even if it is a poor gain." Members who violate an agreement are expelled, and any local lodge which is guilty of such an offense has its charter revoked.*

* In 1905 in New York City 893 members were expelled and their charter was revoked for violation of their contract of employment by taking part in a sympathetic strike of the subway and elevated roads.

Once the practice of collective contract was fixed, it naturally followed that some mechanism for adjusting differences would be devised. The Brotherhood and the various roads now maintain a general board of adjustment for each railway system. The Brotherhood is strict in insisting that the action of this board is binding on all its members. This method of bargaining and of settling disputes has been so successful that since 1888 the Brotherhood has not engaged in an important strike. There have been minor disturbances, it is true, and several nation-wide threats, but no serious strikes inaugurated by the engineers. This great achievement of the Brotherhood could not have been possible without keen ability in the leaders and splendid solidarity among the men.

The individual is carefully looked after by the Brotherhood. The Locomotive Engineers’ Mutual Life and Accident Insurance Association is an integral part of the Brotherhood, though it maintains a separate legal existence in order to comply with the statutory requirements of many States.* Every member must carry an insurance policy in this Association for not less than $1500, though he cannot take more than $4500. The policy is carried by the order if the engineer becomes sick or is otherwise disabled, but if he fails to pay assessments when he is in full health, he gives grounds for expulsion. There is a pension roll of three hundred disabled engineers, each of whom receives $25 a month; and the four railroad brotherhoods together maintain a Home for Disabled Railroad Men at Highland Park, Illinois.

* The following figures show the status of the Insurance Association in 1918. The total amount of life insurance in force was $161,805,500.00. The total amount of claims paid from 1868 to 1918 was $41,085,183.04. The claims paid in 1918 amounted to $3,014,540.22. The total amount of indemnity insurance in force in 1918 was $12,486,397.50. The total claims paid up to 1918 were $1,624,537.61; and during 1918, $241,780.08.

The technical side of engine driving is emphasized by the "Locomotive Engineers’ Journal" which goes to every member, and in discussions in the stated meetings of the Brotherhood. Intellectual and social interests are maintained also by lecture courses, study clubs, and women’s auxiliaries. Attendance upon the lodge meetings has been made compulsory with the intention of insuring the order from falling prey to a designing minority—a condition which has proved the cause of the downfall of more than one labor union.

The Brotherhood of Engineers is virtually a large and prosperous business concern: Its management has been enterprising and provident; its treasury is full; its insurance policies aggregate many millions; it owns a modern skyscraper in Cleveland which cost $1,250,000 and which yields a substantial revenue besides housing the Brotherhood offices.

The engineers have, indeed, succeeded in forming a real Brotherhood—a "feudal" brotherhood an opposing lawyer once called them—reestablishing the medieval guild-paternalism so that each member is responsible for every other and all are responsible for each. They therefore merge themselves through self-discipline into a powerful unity for enforcing their demands and fulfilling their obligations.

The supreme authority of the Brotherhood is the Convention, which is composed of delegates from the local subdivisions. In the interim between conventions, the authorized leader of the organization is the Grand Chief Engineer, whose decrees are final unless reversed by the Convention. This authority places a heavy responsibility upon him, but the Brotherhood has been singularly fortunate in its choice of chiefs. Since 1873 there have been only two. The first of these was P. M. Arthur, a sturdy Scot, born in 1831 and brought to America in boyhood. He learned the blacksmith and machinist trades but soon took to railroading, in which he rose rapidly from the humblest place to the position of engineer on the New York Central lines. He became one of the charter members of the Brotherhood in 1863 and was active in its affairs from the first. In 1873 the union became involved in a bitter dispute with the Pennsylvania Railroad, and Arthur, whose prompt and energetic action had already designated him as the natural leader of the Brotherhood, was elected to the chieftainship. For thirty years he maintained his prestige and became a national figure in the labor world. He died suddenly at Winnipeg in 1903 while speaking at the dinner which closed the general convention of the Brotherhood.

When P.M. Arthur joined the engineers’ union, the condition of locomotive engineers was unsatisfactory. Wages were unstable; working conditions were hard and, in the freight service, intolerable. For the first decade of the existence of the Brotherhood, strike after strike took place in the effort to establish the right of organizing and the principle of the collective contract. Arthur became head of the order at the beginning of the period of great financial depression which followed the first Civil War boom and which for six years threatened wages in all trades. But Arthur succeeded, by shrewd and careful bargaining, in keeping the pay of engineers from slipping down and in some instances he even advanced them. Gradually strikes became more and more infrequent; and the railways learned to rely upon his integrity, and the engineers to respect his skill as a negotiator. He proved to the first that he was not a labor agitator and to the others that he was not a visionary.

Year by year, Arthur accumulated prestige and power for his union by practical methods and by being content with a step at a time. This success, however, cost him the enmity of virtually all the other trades unionists. To them the men of his order were aristocrats, and he was lord over the aristocrats. He is said to have "had rare skill in formulating reasonable demands, and by consistently putting moderate demands strongly instead of immoderate demands weakly he kept the good will of railroad managers, while steadily obtaining better terms for his men." In this practice, he could not succeed without the solid good will of the members of the Brotherhood; and this good will was possible only in an order which insisted upon that high standard of personal skill and integrity essential to a first-class engineer. Arthur possessed a genial, fatherly personality. His Scotch shrewdness was seen in his own real estate investments, which formed the foundation of an independent fortune. He lived in an imposing stone mansion in Cleveland; he was a director in a leading bank; and he identified himself with the public affairs of the city.

When Chief Arthur died, the Assistant Grand Chief Engineer, A.B. Youngson, who would otherwise have assumed the leadership for the unexpired term, was mortally ill and recommended the advisory board to telegraph Warren S. Stone an offer of the chieftainship. Thus events brought to the fore a man of marked executive talent who had hitherto been unknown but who was to play a tremendous role in later labor politics. Stone was little known east of the Mississippi. He had spent most of his life on the Rock Island system, had visited the East only once, and had attended but one meeting of the General Convention. In the West, however, he had a wide reputation for sound sense, and, as chairman of the general committee of adjustment of the Rock Island system, he had made a deep impression on his union and his employers. Born in Ainsworth, Iowa, in 1860, Stone had received a high school education and had begun his railroading career as fireman on the Rock Island when he was nineteen years old. At twenty-four he became an engineer. In this capacity he spent the following nineteen years on the Rock Island road and then accepted the chieftainship of the Brotherhood.

Stone followed the general policy of his predecessor, and brought to his tasks the energy of youth and the optimism of the West. When he assumed the leadership, the cost of living was rising rapidly and he addressed himself to the adjustment of wages. He divided the country into three sections in which conditions were similar. He began in the Western section, as he was most familiar with that field, and asked all the general managers of that section to meet the Brotherhood for a wage conference. The roads did not accept his invitation until it was reenforced by the threat of a Western strike. The conference was a memorable one. For nearly three weeks the grand officers of the Brotherhood wrangled and wrought with the managers of the Western roads, who yielded ground slowly, a few pennies’ increase at a time, until a satisfactory wage scale was reached. Similarly the Southern section was conquered by the inexorable hard sense and perseverance of this new chieftain.

The dispute with the fifty-two leading roads in the so-called Eastern District, east of the Mississippi and north of the Norfolk and Western Railroad, came to a head in 1912. The engineers demanded that their wages should be "standardized" on a basis that one hundred miles or less, or ten hours or less, constitute a day’s work; that is, the inequalities among the different roads should be leveled and similar service on the various roads be similarly rewarded. They also asked that their wages be made equal to the wages on the Western roads and presented several minor demands. All the roads concerned flatly refused to grant the demand for a standardized and increased wage, on the ground that it would involve an increased expenditure of $7,000,000 a year. This amount could be made up only by increased rates, which the Interstate Commerce Commission must sanction, or by decreased dividends, which would bring a real hardship to thousands of stockholders.

The unions were fully prepared for a strike which would paralyze the essential traffic supplying approximately 38,000,000 people. Through the agency of Judge Knapp of the United States Commerce Court and Dr. Neill of the United States Department of Labor, and under the authority of the Erdman Act, there was appointed a board of arbitration composed of men whose distinction commanded national attention. P.H. Morrissey, a former chief of the Conductors’ and Trainmen’s Union, was named by the engineers. President Daniel Willard of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, known for his fair treatment of his employees, was chosen by the roads. The Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, the Commissioner of Labor, and the presiding judge of the United States Commerce Court designated the following members of the tribunal: Oscar S. Straus, former Secretary of Commerce and Labor, chairman; Albert Shaw, editor of the Review of Reviews; Otto M. Eidlitz, former president of the Building Trades Association; Charles R. Van Hise, president of the University of Wisconsin; and Frederick N. Judson, of the St. Louis bar.

After five months of hearing testimony and deliberation, this distinguished board brought in a report that marked, it was hoped, a new epoch in railway labor disputes, for it recognized the rights of the public, the great third party to such disputes.

It granted the principle of standardization and minimum wage asked for by the engineers, but it allowed an increase in pay which was less by one-half than that demanded. In order to prevent similar discord in the future, the board recommended the establishment of Federal and state wage commissions with functions pertaining to wage disputes analogous to those of the public service commissions in regard to rates and capitalization. The report stated that, "while the railway employees feel that they cannot surrender their right to strike, if there were a wage commission which would secure them just wages the necessity would no longer exist for the exercise of their power. It is believed that, in the last analysis, the only solution—unless we are to rely solely upon the restraining power of public opinion—is to qualify the principle of free contract in the railroad service."*

* The board recognized the great obstacles in the way of such a solution but went on to say: "The suggestion, however, grows out of a profound conviction that the food and clothing of our people, the industries and the general welfare of our nation, cannot be permitted to depend upon the policies and dictates of any particular group of men, whether employers or employees." And this conviction has grown apace with the years until it stands today as the most potent check to aggression by either trade unions or capital.

While yielding to the wage findings of the board, P.H. Morrissey vigorously dissented from the principle of the supremacy of public interest in these matters. He made clear his position in an able minority report: "I wish to emphasize my dissent from that recommendation of the board which in its effect virtually means compulsory arbitration for the railroads and their employees. Regardless of any probable constitutional prohibition which might operate against its being adopted, it is wholly impracticable. The progress towards the settlement of disputes between the railways and their employees without recourse to industrial warfare has been marked. There is nothing under present conditions to prevent its continuance. We will never be perfect, but even so, it will be immeasurably better than it will be under conditions such as the board proposes."

The significance of these words was brought out four years later when the united railway brotherhoods made their famous coup in Congress. For the time being, however, the public with its usual self-assurance thought the railway employee question was solved, though the findings were for one year only.*

* The award dated back to May 1, 1912, and was valid only one year from that date.

Daniel Willard speaking for the railroads, said: "My acceptance of the award as a whole does not signify my approval of all the findings in detail. It is intended, however, to indicate clearly that, although the award is not such as the railroads had hoped for, nor is it such as they felt would be justified by a full consideration of all the facts, yet having decided to submit this case to arbitration and having been given ample opportunity to present the facts and arguments in support of their position, they now accept without question the conclusion which was reached by the board appointed to pass upon the matter at issue."

A comparison of these statements shows how the balance of power had shifted, since the days when railway policies reigned supreme, from the corporation to the union. The change was amply demonstrated by the next grand entrance of the railway brotherhoods upon the public stage. After his victory in the Western territory, Chief Stone remarked: "Most labor troubles are the result of one of two things, misrepresentation or misunderstanding. Unfortunately, negotiations are sometimes entrusted to men who were never intended by nature for this mission, since they cannot discuss a question without losing their temper .... It may be laid down as a fundamental principle without which no labor organization can hope to exist, that it must carry out its contracts. No employer can be expected to live up to a contract that is not regarded binding by the union."

The other railway brotherhoods to a considerable degree follow the model set by the engineers. The Order of Railway Conductors developed rapidly from the Conductors’ Union which was organized by the conductors of the Illinois Central Railroad at Amboy, Illinois, in the spring of 1868. In the following July this union was extended to include all the lines in the State. In November of the same year a call to conductors on all the roads in the United States and the British Provinces was issued to meet at Columbus, Ohio, in December, to organize a general brotherhood. Ten years later the union adopted its present name. It has an ample insurance fund* based upon the principle that policies are not matured but members arriving at the age of seventy years are relieved from further payments. About thirty members are thus annually retired. At Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the national headquarters, the order publishes The Railway Conductor, a journal which aims not only at the solidarity of the membership but at increasing their practical efficiency.

* In 1919 the total amount of outstanding insurance was somewhat over $90,000,000.

The conductors are a conservative and carefully selected group of men. Each must pass through a long term of apprenticeship and must possess ability and personality. The order has been carefully and skillfully led and in recent years has had but few differences with the railways which have not been amicably settled. Edgar E. Clark was chosen president in 1890 and served until 1906, when he became a member of the Interstate Commerce Commission. He was born in 1856, received a public school education, and studied for some time in an academy at Lima, New York. At the age of seventeen, he began railroading and served as conductor on the Northern Pacific and other Western lines. He held numerous subordinate positions in the Brotherhood and in 1889 became its vice-president. He was appointed by President Roosevelt as a member of the Anthracite Coal Strike Commission in 1902 and is generally recognized as one of the most judicial heads in the labor world. He was succeeded as president of the order by Austin B. Garretson, who was born in Winterset, Iowa, in 1856. He began his railroad career at nineteen years of age, became a conductor on the Burlington system, and had a varied experience on several Western lines, including the Mexican National and Mexican Central railways. His rise in the order was rapid and in 1889 he became vice-president. One of his intimate friends wrote that "in his capacity as Vice-President and President of the Order he has written more schedules and successfully negotiated more wage settlements, including the eight-hour day settlement in 1916, under the method of collective bargaining than any other labor leader on the American continent."

Garretson has long served as a member of the executive committee of the National Civic Federation and in 1919 was appointed by President Wilson a member of the Federal Commission on Industrial Relations. A man of great energy and force of character, he has recently assumed a leading place in labor union activities.

In addition to the locomotive engineers and the conductors, the firemen also have their union. Eleven firemen of the Erie Railroad organized a brotherhood at Port Jervis, New York, in December, 1873, but it was a fraternal order rather than a trade union. In 1877, the year of the great railway strike, it was joined by the International Firemen’s Union, an organization without any fraternal or insurance features. In spite of this amalgamation, however, the growth of the Brotherhood was very slow. Indeed, so unsatisfactory was the condition of affairs that in 1879 the order took an unusual step. "So bitter was the continued opposition of railroad officials at this time," relates the chronicler of the Brotherhood (in some sections of the country it resulted in the disbandment of the lodges and the depletion of membership) "that it was decided, in order to remove the cause of such opposition, to eliminate the protective feature of the organization. With a view to this end a resolution was adopted ignoring strikes." This is one of the few recorded retreats of militant trade unionism. The treasury of the Brotherhood was so depleted that it was obliged to call upon local lodges for donations. By 1885, however, the order had sufficiently recovered to assume again the functions of a labor union in addition to its fraternal and beneficiary obligations. The days of its greatest hardships were over, although the historic strike on the Burlington lines that lasted virtually throughout the year 1888 and the Pullman strike in 1894 wrought a severe strain upon its staying powers. In 1906 the enginemen were incorporated into the order, and thenceforth the membership grew rapidly. In 1913 a joint agreement was effected with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers whereby the two organizations could work together "on a labor union basis." Today men operating electric engines or motor or gas cars on lines using electricity are eligible for membership, if they are otherwise qualified. This arrangement does not interfere with unions already established on interurban lines.

The leadership of this order of firemen has been less continuous, though scarcely less conspicuous, than that of the other brotherhoods. Before 1886 the Grand Secretary and Treasurer was invested with greater authority than the grand master, and in this position Eugene V. Debs, who served from 1881 to 1899, and Frank W. Arnold, who served from 1893 to 1903, were potent in shaping the policies of the Union. There have been seven grand masters and one president (the name now used to designate the chief officer) since 1874. Of these leaders Frank P. Sargent served from 1886 until 1892, when he was appointed Commissioner General of Immigration by President Roosevelt. Since 1909, William S. Carter has been president of the Brotherhood. Born in Texas in 1859, he began railroading at nineteen years of age and served in turn as fireman, baggageman, and engineer. Before his election to the editorship of the Firemen’s Magazine, he held various minor offices in local lodges. Since 1894 he has served the order successively as editor, grand secretary and treasurer, and president. To his position he has brought an intimate knowledge of the affairs of the Union as well as a varied experience in practical railroading. Upon the entrance of America into the Great War, President Wilson appointed him Director of the Division of Labor of the United States Railway Administration.

Of the government and policy of the firemen’s union President Carter remarked:

"This Brotherhood may be compared to a state in a republic of railway unions, maintaining almost complete autonomy in its own affairs yet uniting with other railway brotherhoods in matters of mutual concern and in common defense. It is true that these railway brotherhoods carry the principle of home rule to great lengths and have acknowledged no common head, and by this have invited the criticism from those who believe...that only in one ’big’ union can railway employees hope for improved working condition.... That in union there is strength, no one will deny, but in any confederation of forces there must be an exchange of individual rights for this collective power. There is a point in the combining of working people in labor unions where the loss of individual rights is not compensated by the increased power of the masses of workers."

In the cautious working out of this principle, the firemen have prospered after the manner of their colleagues in the other brotherhoods. Their membership embraces the large majority of their craft. From the date of the establishment of their beneficiary fund to 1918 a total of $21,860,103.00 has been paid in death and disability claims and in 1918 the amount so paid was $1,538,207.00. The Firemen’s Magazine, established in 1876 and now published from headquarters in Cleveland, is indicative of the ambitions of the membership, for its avowed aim is to "make a specialty of educational matter for locomotive enginemen and other railroad employees." An attempt was even made in 1908 to conduct a correspondence school, under the supervision of the editor and manager of the magazine, but after three years this project was discontinued because it could not be made self-supporting.

The youngest of the railway labor organizations is the Brotherhood of Trainmen, organized in September, 1883, at Oneonta, New York. Its early years were lean and filled with bickerings and doubts, and it was not until S. E. Wilkinson was elected grand master in 1885 that it assumed an important role in labor organizations. Wilkinson was one of those big, rough and ready men, with a natural aptitude for leadership, who occasionally emerge from the mass. He preferred railroading to schooling and spent more time in the train sheds of his native town of Monroeville, Ohio, than he did at school. At twelve years of age he ran away to join the Union Army, in which he served as an orderly until the end of the war. He then followed his natural bent, became a switchman and later a brakeman, was a charter member of the Brotherhood, and, when its outlook was least encouraging, became its Grand Master. At once under his leadership the organization became aggressive.

The conditions under which trainmen worked were far from satisfactory. At that time, in the Eastern field, the pay of a brakeman was between $1.50 and $2 a day in the freight service, $45 a month in the passenger service, and $50 a month for yard service. In the Southern territory, the wages were very much lower and in the Western about $5 per month higher. The runs in the different sections of the country were not equalized; there was no limit to the number of hours called a day’s work; overtime and preparatory time were not counted in; and there were many complaints of arbitrary treatment of trainmen by their superiors. Wilkinson set to work to remedy the wage situation first. Almost at once he brought about the adoption of the principle of collective bargaining for trainmen and yardmen. By 1895, when he relinquished his office, the majority of the railways in the United States and Canada had working agreements with their train and yard service men. Wages had been raised, twelve hours or less and one hundred miles or less became recognized as a daily measure of service, and overtime was paid extra.

The panic of 1893 hit the railway service very hard. There followed many strikes engineered by the American Railway Union, a radical organization which carried its ideas of violence so far that it wrecked not only itself but brought the newer and conservative Brotherhoods to the verge of ruin. It was during this period of strain that, in 1895, P. H. Morrissey was chosen Grand Master of the Trainmen. With a varied training in railroading, in insurance, and in labor organization work, Morrissey was in many ways the antithesis of his predecessors who had, in a powerful and brusque way, prepared the ground for his analytical and judicial leadership. He was unusually well informed on all matters pertaining to railroad operations, earnings, and conditions of employment, and on general economic conditions. This knowledge, together with his forcefulness, tact, parliamentary ability, and rare good judgment, soon made him the spokesman of all the railway Brotherhoods in their joint conferences and their leader before the public. He was not afraid to take the unpopular side of a cause, cared nothing for mere temporary advantages, and had the gift of inspiring confidence.

When Morrissey assumed the leadership of the Trainmen, their order had lost 10,000 members in two years and was about $200,000 in debt. The panic had produced unemployment and distrust, and the violent reprisals of the American Railway Union had reaped a harvest of bitterness and disloyalty. During his fifteen years of service until he retired in 1909, Morrissey saw his order rejuvenated and virtually reconstructed, the work of the men standardized in the greater part of the country, slight increases of pay given to the freight and passenger men, and very substantial increases granted to the yard men. But his greatest service to his order was in thoroughly establishing it in the public confidence.

He was succeeded by William G. Lee, who had served in many subordinate offices in local lodges before he had been chosen First Vice-Grand Master in 1895. For fifteen years he was a faithful understudy to Morrissey whose policy he has continued in a characteristically fearless and thoroughgoing manner. When he assumed the presidency of the order, he obtained a ten-hour day in the Eastern territory for all train and yard men, together with a slight increase in pay for all classes fixed on the ten-hour basis. The ten-hour day was now adopted in Western territory where it had not already been put into effect. The Southern territory, however, held out until 1912, when a general advance on all Southern railroads, with one exception, brought the freight and passenger men to a somewhat higher level of wages than existed in other parts of the country. In the following year the East and the West raised their wages so that finally a fairly level rate prevailed throughout the United States. In the movement for the eight-hour day which culminated in the passage of the Adamson Law by Congress, Lee and his order took a prominent part. In 1919 the Trainmen had $253,000,000 insurance in force, and up to that year had paid out $42,500,000 in claims. Of this latter amount $3,604,000 was paid out in 1918, one-half of which was attributed to the influenza epidemic.

Much of the success and power of the railroad Brotherhoods is due to the character of their members as well as to able leadership. The editor of a leading newspaper has recently written: "The impelling power behind every one of these organizations is the membership. I say this without detracting from the executive or administrative abilities of the men who have been at the head of these organizations, for their influence has been most potent in carrying out the will of their several organizations. But whatever is done is first decided upon by the men and it is then put up to their chief executive officers for their direction."

With a membership of 375,000 uniformly clean and competent, so well captained and so well fortified financially by insurance, benefit, and other funds, it is little wonder that the Brotherhoods have reached a permanent place in the railroad industry. Their progressive power can be discerned in Federal legislation pertaining to arbitration and labor conditions in interstate carriers. In 1888 an act was passed providing that, in cases of railway labor disputes, the President might appoint two investigators who, with the United States Commission of Labor, should form a board to investigate the controversy and recommend "the best means for adjusting it." But as they were empowered to produce only findings and not to render decisions, the law remained a dead letter, without having a single case brought up under it. It was superseded in 1898 by the Erdman Act, which provided that certain Federal officials should act as mediators and that, in case they failed, a Board of Arbitrators was to be appointed whose word should be binding for a certain period of time and from whose decisions appeal could be taken to the Federal courts. Of the hundreds of disputes which occurred during the first eight years of the existence of this statute, only one was brought under the mechanism of the law. Federal arbitration was not popular. In 1905, however, a rather sudden change came over the situation. Over sixty cases were brought under the Erdman Act in about eight years. In 1913 the Newlands Law was passed providing for a permanent Board of Mediation and Conciliation, by which over sixty controversies have been adjusted.

The increase of brotherhood influence which such legislation represents was accompanied by a consolidation in power. At first the Brotherhoods operated by railway systems or as individual orders. Later on they united into districts, all the Brotherhoods of a given district cooperating in their demands. Finally the cooperation of all the Brotherhoods in the United States on all the railway systems was effected. This larger organization came clearly to light in 1912, when the Brotherhoods submitted their disputes to the board of arbitration. This step was hailed by the public as going a long way towards the settlement of labor disputes by arbitral boards.

The latest victory of the Brotherhoods, however, has shaken public confidence and has ushered in a new era of brotherhood influence and Federal interference in railroad matters. In 1916, the four Brotherhoods threatened to strike. The mode of reckoning pay—whether upon an eight-hour or a longer day—was the subject of contention. The Department of Labor, through the Federal Conciliation Board, tried in vain to bring the opponents together. Even President Wilson’s efforts to bring about an agreement proved futile. The roads agreed to arbitrate all the points, allowing the President to name the arbitrators; but the Brotherhoods, probably realizing their temporary strategic advantage, refused point-blank to arbitrate. When the President tried to persuade the roads to yield the eight-hour day, they replied that it was a proper subject for arbitration.

Instead of standing firmly on the principle of arbitration, the President chose to go before Congress, on the afternoon of the 29th of August, and ask, first, for a reorganization of the Interstate Commerce Commission; second, for legal recognition of the eight-hour day for interstate carriers; third, for power to appoint a commission to observe the operation of the eight-hour day for a stated time; fourth, for reopening the question of an increase in freight rates to meet the enlarged cost of operation; fifth, for a law declaring railway strikes and lockouts unlawful until a public investigation could be made; sixth, for authorization to operate the roads in case of military necessity.

The strike was planned to fall on the expectant populace, scurrying home from their vacations, on the 4th of September. On the 1st of September an eight-hour bill, providing also for the appointment of a board of observation, was rushed through the House; on the following day it was hastened through the staid Senate; and on the third it received the President’s signature.* The other recommendations of the President were made to await the pleasure of Congress and the unions. To the suggestion that railway strikes be made unlawful until their causes are disclosed the Brotherhoods were absolutely opposed.

* This was on Sunday. In order to obviate any objection as to the legality of the signature the President signed the bill again on the following Tuesday, the intervening Monday being Labor Day.

Many readjustments were involved in launching the eight-hour law, and in March, 1917, the Brotherhoods again threatened to strike. The President sent a committee, including the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Labor, to urge the parties to come to an agreement. On the 19th of March, the Supreme Court upheld the validity of the law, and the trouble subsided. But in the following November, after the declaration of war, clouds reappeared on the horizon, and again the unions refused the Government’s suggestion of arbitration. Under war pressure, however, the Brotherhoods finally consented to hold their grievance in abeyance.

The haste with which the eight-hour law was enacted, and the omission of the vital balance suggested by the President appeared to many citizens to be a holdup of Congress, and the nearness of the presidential election suggested that a political motive was not absent. The fact that in the ensuing presidential election, Ohio, the home of the Brotherhoods, swung from the Republican to the Democratic column, did not dispel this suspicion from the public mind. Throughout this maneuver it was apparent that the unions were very confident, but whether because of a prearranged pact, or because of a full treasury, or because of a feeling that the public was with them, or because of the opposite belief that the public feared them, must be left to individual conjecture. None the less, the public realized that the principle of arbitration had given way to the principle of coercion.

Soon after the United States had entered the Great War, the Government, under authority of an act of Congress, took over the management of all the interstate railroads, and the nation was launched upon a vast experiment destined to test the capacities of all the parties concerned. The dispute over wages that had been temporarily quieted by the Adamson Law broke out afresh until settled by the famous Order No. 27, issued by William G. McAdoo, the Director General of Railroads, and providing a substantial readjustment of wages and hours. In the spring of 1919 another large wage increase was granted to the men by Director General Hines, who succeeded McAdoo. Meanwhile the Brotherhoods, through their counsel, laid before the congressional committee a plan for the government ownership and joint operation of the roads, known as the Plumb plan, and the American people are now face to face with an issue which will bring to a head the paramount question of the relation of employees on government works to the Government and to the general public.


Related Resources

None available for this document.

Download Options

Title: The Armies of Labor; a Chronicle of the Organized Wage-Earners

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: The Armies of Labor; a Chronicle of the Organized Wage-Earners

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: Samuel Peter Orth, "Chapter VII. The Railway Brotherhoods," The Armies of Labor; a Chronicle of the Organized Wage-Earners, ed. Jameson, J. Franklin (John Franklin), 1859-1937 in The Armies of Labor; a Chronicle of the Organized Wage-Earners Original Sources, accessed October 4, 2023,

MLA: Orth, Samuel Peter. "Chapter VII. The Railway Brotherhoods." The Armies of Labor; a Chronicle of the Organized Wage-Earners, edited by Jameson, J. Franklin (John Franklin), 1859-1937, in The Armies of Labor; a Chronicle of the Organized Wage-Earners, Original Sources. 4 Oct. 2023.

Harvard: Orth, SP, 'Chapter VII. The Railway Brotherhoods' in The Armies of Labor; a Chronicle of the Organized Wage-Earners, ed. . cited in , The Armies of Labor; a Chronicle of the Organized Wage-Earners. Original Sources, retrieved 4 October 2023, from