The CIO Challenge to the AFL: A History of the American Labor Movement, 1935-1941

By Walter Galenson | Go to book overview

18
Railroad Unionism

The railway unions were already well established at the inception of the New Deal. Once one of the nation's most turbulent labor relations arenas, the scene of numerous strikes and sharp repression against workers who attempted to organize, the rail carriers, or at least a great majority of them, had become reconciled to collective bargaining. Government operation during World War I, and the twin threats of bankruptcy and nationalization, had served to tame railroad management to an extent unknown in manufacturing.

However, the situation should not be idealized. Although company unionism had been dealt a severe blow by the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Railway Act of 1926, 1 many so-called "system" unions continued in existence. It required the 1934 amendments to the Railway Labor Act, a little Wagner Act for the railroads, to break their hold. Between 1933 and 1935, national unions replaced 550 company unions on 77 Class I roads. By 1941, the company unions had all but disappeared. 2

The standard trade unions were in far from an enviable position in 1933. For most of them, membership had declined rather than risen during the 1920's, and dropped precipitously during the depression. To take the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks, the largest of the railroad unions, as an example, membership declined from 170,000 in 1921 to 60,000 in 1933. In the latter year, there were about 207,000 employees over whom this union claimed jurisdiction. The Brotherhood held contracts with only 73 Out Of 149 Class I roads, and even for the roads under contract, coverage was spotty. 3

The activities of the railroad unions were sharply circumscribed by the poor economic position of the industry. The index of freight ton-mile carried fell from 100 in 1929 to 52.3 in 1932, and by 1936 had risen only to 75.8. The recession of 1937-1938 resulted in a further decline to 64.8 in 1938, and while there was a marked improvement in the following years, operations remained below the predepression level until the advent of United

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