Railroad Workers’ Struggles Continue 140 Years after their First National Strike (2/2)
TRNN speaks to railroad union leaders at the commemoration of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877
Jaisal Noor: So we’re here for this 140th anniversary of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, which many people don’t know about today, but it involved at least 100,000 workers. More than a 100 people were killed. Half the US Army had to come in to put it down, and so as Bill has written about in his book, we’re here to talk about the unknown history from that period and also why it’s relevant today. So talk about the struggles that the railroad unions are experiencing now in the context of this strike that happened 140 years ago. Are there any parallels to what’s happening now to what happened in the past?
Michael Twombly: Well, there is because today there are great demands placed on locomotive engineers and conductors to work a lot of hours. Railroads are trying to get the most out of their manpower and they don’t want them to have time off. And even though employees might work 60 hours in a week, if they took two days in a row off on a weekend, they would be gently advised that they’re setting a pattern for absenteeism and that they hire full-time employees and even though you work 60 hours that week, if you refuse an assignment or you wanted a day off, you were no longer a full-time employee, and not the kind of person that they’re interested in have work for them.
Jaisal Noor: So it sounds like mostly concerns about working conditions and hours, which were things that unions fought over a century ago and more.
Michael Twombly: Well, that’s true, and the battles that were fought back in 1877 and continuing forward had a lot to do with how the labor laws in regards to railroads were formulated because after upheavals, they called it an upheaval-
Jaisal Noor: They called it a riot. They called it insurrection.
Michael Twombly: Insurrection, that’s right. It was a strike. The effect that it had on the economy, legislatures got together to prevent this sort of interruption and so eventually crafted the Railway Labor Act so that it makes it extremely difficult for rail employees to go on strike. You can eventually get there but you have to resolve your issues through binding arbitration and you have to work your way through a very long process before you would ever be permitted to seek self-help, and when you get to that point, even now, if there’s going to be any major interruption in the commerce, which there almost always is, they can put you back to work and they can assign your case to a Presidential Emergency Board, which they make recommendations. If you don’t accept them, they send them to Congress and they vote them in and you get it anyways.
So it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, for rail workers to go on strike unless a major dispute was to come confront the workers, and essentially the railroads would have to just flat out walk away or abrogate portions of the collective bargaining agreement to reach that status. And so if they went to court and asked for permission to go on strike, the judge would look at it and see whether or not it was a matter of interpretation, which would be considered a minor dispute. You’d have to resolve it through binding arbitration, or in fact if you did have a major dispute. There’re very, very few cases ever are incidences ever reach the level of major dispute today. So most everything we do is handled under through the Railway Labor Act and it’s stepped through the National Mediation Board to resolve through binding arbitration.
Jaisal Noor: And so talk about what’s your experience in the railroad union in the larger context of unions in America today, cause we know that membership has been falling over the last several decades and now we have an administration that is openly anti-union. What impact has that had on your workers?
Michael Twombly: Well, at this point, the biggest attack against us that’s looming on the horizon is Right To Work, National Right To Work legislation. At the moment, the way it’s designed it may not apply to rail workers under the Railway Labor Act, but it wouldn’t take much if they were able to get a majority in the Senate and the Congress to create Right To Work legislation that would change the Railway Labor Act as well.
And basically we view that as an attack on labor because they know that it’s not really about the unfairness of a person having to pay a fee or union dues to support their organization to speak on their behalf in collective bargaining. What they view it as is that if we can tell them that they don’t have to pay, then people will stop paying dues if they don’t have to, and they hope that enough people will drop out from paying dues that they’ll no longer be able to function financially and that the unions will go away. So it’s really an attack on trade unionism and it’s really is not all about the poor guy has to pay dues. They know that what will happen and the end result will eliminate trade unionism, and once that’s gone then they’ll have their way with labor once again, long before the unions ever arrived.
Jaisal Noor: So today in history books and textbooks, the history of labor in this country, it’s hard to find. There’s hardly any mentions of it. Most people don’t know about this strike: The Great Strike of 1877. What efforts has your union doing to educate its members about the history of the fights that have happened in the past and how that’s effecting them today?
Michael Twombly: Well, through our trade journal, the Locomotive Engineer, the engineer’s journal, the president and others do op-ed pieces in there and talk about the benefits of being in the union and what it means, and talks about at different times what’s happened in the past and what people fought for to achieve the level of contracts and benefits that we have today, and try to educate the young men that are coming along now who really weren’t engaged in those fights and don’t realize that the difficulties that were involved in achieving the contracts that they have and not to take them for granted. And that takes some education, and our president, Dennis Pierce, is busy doing the best he can to do that.
Jaisal Noor: I guess one of the things that I’ve been learning about the Railroad Strike of 1877 is that there was an enormous amount of participation from the communities where the workers came from and other industries that operated in solidarity with the striking workers. Do you think that’s still an important aspect of the movement today, that relationship between workers and the communities they come from at a time when, again, there isn’t that much knowledge about labor and its importance in American history?
Michael Twombly: Well, it really doesn’t exist like it did in 1877. Railroads were much more labor intensive in those days, many more people to operate the railroad. Today through advances in all kinds of technology, the workforce has been dramatically reduced, and so in those days, a large portion of any given town where the railroad ran were employed by railroads, and every family had railroad workers in it. So if something happened to their family member, it happened to them, and so an injustice to them was an injustice to the family, and they stood up to protect them and that’s what happened in those days. A lot of those folks that were called in to try to enforce or break the strike in those days had family members that worked on the railroad, and they couldn’t bring themselves to stand up against their relatives and their families and so forth, but today there’s so few rail workers in comparison that that moral majority for railroad workers doesn’t exist today.
Jaisal Noor: And I guess the Railroad Strike of 1877 was one of the first times when people were directly confronting corporate power and corporate greed and arguing that your profits are not worth more than my livelihood and the livelihood of my community. I think in the last few years that has resurfaced in American culture with the Occupy movement and other recent labor struggles. Do you think that’s true, that again people are realizing this central conflict between corporate power and human, like actually workers, and how that is a fundamental struggle in American society today?
Michael Twombly: Well, the extreme right wing doesn’t like trade unionism because when you go to work they want to be able to do with you as they will. So they try to convince people that union is bad for them, and they try to convince people that this highly paid union worker or a higher paid union worker with benefits, you don’t have that and that’s wrong, and they shouldn’t have all that. That’s wrong to have that, and so instead of wanting to rise to the level of the trade unionists and get a better job, a higher paying job, by belonging to a trade union, they try to convince them that the thing to do is to become anti-union and take the union down so that he’ll make less or get paid on the level that the lower paid workers are.
And a lot of them … Favoritism is one of the biggest problems in companies. So a young man comes in and he can work harder, faster, and he thinks he should have the job of the older worker because he’s a better guy and he’s very willing to push the older worker aside. This is unfortunately the mentality that we face in a lot today, and that’s why a lot of young folks think that trade unionism is bad because if you go on a seniority roster you have to wait your turn to work your way up through the seniority list to get the better jobs. They want the better jobs now, and so there’s a lot of looking at themselves only in that thinking, and that’s part of the problem and so it is difficult.
One of the biggest problems that we face though is that when the big corporations that were unionized in the Northeast especially, the woolen mills and all of the shoe shops and all those companies in the Northeast, New England, they moved those companies to the South to get away from the trade unions. They left all that millions of dollars of infrastructure behind, right, so that they could get cheap labor. And then when the union trade movement caught up with them, they moved them offshore and so all the big businesses left and all the good union jobs have gone with them. And it’s unfortunate but they’ve been able to outsource, and they’ve been outsourcing since the ’40s and ’50s and taking all the good jobs from the United States so that they can make more money. And even today around the world, they’ve moved their businesses to China and other places where wages are catching up, and now they’re moving to even poorer countries in Africa and other places to do the same thing. And so eventually it’ll stop, but probably long after we’re all gone.