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            Railroad Labor and It's History

Railroad Labor Organizations, various brotherhoods and trade unions in the United States that represent about 340,000 workers on the railroads. This figure reflects a decline of some 40 percent since 1970; over the years since World War II the decline has been more than 80 percent.

Operating workers, or those engaged in engine, yard, and train service, are represented by two unions. The United Transportation Union, organized in 1969 by a merger of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen, the Order of Railway Conductors and Brakemen, and the Switchmen's Union of North America, was affiliated with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) for some 15 years, until its withdrawal in 1985. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers did not participate in the merger, although there have been recent efforts to merge both unions. Non-operating workers—those engaged in clerical and shop work and in maintenance of way—are also represented by unions, some of which have members in the nonrailroad sector of the economy. These unions are affiliated with the Railway Labor Executives' Association, which is concerned mainly with influencing legislation and with other government-related issues. In the mid-1980s, several of these unions showed an interest in merging with the United Transportation Union. Jurisdictional conflicts reflect the substantial decline in railroad employment and the curtailment of the political and economic influence of the unions.


The operating labor organizations were established originally as insurance-benefit societies because the early working conditions of railroad employees were so hazardous that private insurance companies refused to insure them. This insurance function still represents a major part of the unions' activities.

The National Protective Association of Locomotive Engineers, founded in 1855, survived for only five years. In 1863 the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, the first union organization of railroad workers, was organized. The Brotherhood of Conductors was organized in 1869; its name eventually was changed to the Order of Railway Conductors and Brakemen. In 1873 the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen was established; in 1906 it became the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen. An active leader in this union was the American socialist and labor organizer Eugene V. Debs, who assumed leadership in the 1880s. The Brotherhood of Railroad Brakemen, founded in 1883, became the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen in 1899. The Switchmen's Union of North America was organized in 1894 after an initial start as the the Switchmen's Mutual Aid Association.

During the late 19th century these railroad labor organizations were involved in many unsuccessful and violent strikes. The most prominent of these was the Pullman Strike of 1894, led by Debs under the auspices of the American Railway Union. This union represented a short-lived attempt to bring all railroad workers into one organization; it was a precursor of the industrial union movement of the 1930s. As a result of these strikes, labor relations in the railroad industry have been subject to government intervention, which included the nationalization of the industry during World War I. In 1943-44, 1946, 1948, and 1950-52 the railroad industry was seized and operated by the federal government in order to end strikes or to prevent threatened strikes. Under this intervention the railroad labor organizations retained a uniformity of work rules that has been the subject of conflict between labor and management since the post World War II period. See Trade Unions in the United States.

The Organizations Today

The conflict between the railroads and their labor organizations continues today. The unions have long been faced with declining employment, while management has confronted financial difficulties reflecting competition from other means of transportation.

Work Rules

Railroad management over the years has sought elimination or modification of standing work rules that, it argues, impede full utilization of workforces. The unions have resisted these changes, viewing them as threats to individual jobs and to the unions themselves as institutions. Since the establishment, in 1971, of a quasi-public corporation, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, or Amtrak, and the subsequent elimination of unprofitable passenger operations, the unions also have sought protection against layoffs. The railroad unions feared that another quasi-public entity, the Consolidated Rail Corporation, or Conrail, established in early 1976 to take over six bankrupt railroads in the northeast, would further reduce employment opportunities. Eleven years later, however, the government sold its stock in Conrail to the public.

To employees, the work rules represent job security, which they consider essential because of the special conditions of their work. Circumstances that gave rise to the rules include the authoritarian organization of the railroads to which workers are subject, occupational hazards, variations in the size of the workforce because of fluctuating traffic, and the nontransferability of most railroad skills to other industries. Workers have hence drawn up elaborate rules to protect against arbitrary or capricious actions by management. They have, however, been unable to stem the sharp decline in employment, resulting from technological changes in the industry.

Wage Disputes

The wage disputes over the years reflect the feeling of the workers that their wage adjustments have not been commensurate with those in other industries, and that they have been subjected to national guidelines that tend to be lower than those for industries in which wages are negotiated on a local level and the workers are not enjoined by law from striking. Railroad workers, despite guarantees under the Railway Labor Act of 1926, as amended, have effectively been thwarted from striking by congressional intervention and because of alleged dangers to the nation from such a course.


The basic legislation under which railroad labor relations are conducted was enacted in 1926. The Railway Labor Act was supported by both labor and management. This legislation was substantially revised in 1932, at which time the law prohibited the union shop (designed to eliminate the company unions organized by the railroads during the prior six-year period) and provided for the establishment of a National Railroad Adjustment Board whose main task was the arbitration of grievance disputes. In 1950 the law was changed to permit the union shop. Because the national board was deluged by grievance disputes, the law was further amended in 1970 to allow the establishment of special boards of adjustment to handle grievance disputes on individual railroads. Finally, the Northeast Rail Service Act of 1981 amended the original legislation to establish more elaborate procedures to resolve labor disputes on commuter railroads.

Labor Negotiations

In 1959 the railroads proposed significant changes in the work rules of the operating workers, alleging that most of them supported featherbedding practices. The problem was considered by a Presidential Railroad Commission whose report, issued in May 1963, failed to settle the dispute. After a series of ad hoc, or immediate, procedures failed to produce a settlement, Congress, in August 1963, approved a joint resolution that called for the arbitration of the so-called fireman-and-crew-consist issues. Six other issues were to be subject to further negotiation. The arbitration board subsequently ruled against the unions on the two issues, and the six other issues were settled by presidential intervention in April 1964. The fireman-and-crew-consist matter, however, has remained a troublesome issue.

The procedures under the Railway Labor Act have failed to provide an adequate basis for the settlement of disputes reflecting, in part, the concern of the unions over declining employment and of the railroads over competition from other forms of transportation. In addition, the deregulation of the railroad industry in the 1980s has contributed to the problems of the industry. With declining employment, the railroad unions—particularly the operating unions—have sought by negotiations with the railroads to raid each other's membership. This has resulted in severe interunion rivalry, which contributes further to instability in railroad labor negotiations.


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