Rail unions born to fight discrimination

April 12, 2013

John Previsich

By John Previsich, Assistant President/General Secretary & Treasurer – 

Discipline’s roots in the rail industry reach back nearly 150 years. Following the Civil War, the industry was expanding at a breakneck speed, with Congress and the American public being hornswoggled on a continual basis by the robber barons of the day.

From the “every other tie” strategy of Union Pacific to Southern Pacific’s importation of Chinese laborers by the boatload, the railroads were in a race for territory that required not only the rapid expansion of employees and track, but also the need for experienced managers at every level.

Where, in that era, could a company find management expertise that was familiar with a widely spread work force that was largely self-supervised while in the field? There was really only one source and, interestingly enough, that source fit almost perfectly into the requirements of the time.

The country was awash with ex-military personnel newly released from their Civil War obligations, both enlisted men and officers, most of whom were looking for work anywhere they could find it. Once hired into the railroad industry, the new employees helped to define discipline and labor practices that mirrored those of their former military careers and that continue to influence railroad labor relations into the modern era.

The “command and control” environment implemented by the railroads adopted the terms general manager and general chairman (authority figures similar to a military officer), investigations and hearings (court martial), firings and dismissal (dishonorable discharge).

Such procedures were intended to provide an orderly process for fair handling of employee issues, but instead they proved to be a poor substitute for due process, and employees were too often on the receiving end of unfair and discriminatory job practices. Consequently, it wasn’t long before the employees’ fraternal associations blossomed into full-fledged collective bargaining organizations.

The unions fought long and hard from the waning years of the 19th century all of the way through World War I to obtain the collective bargaining rights to which our members were entitled and the due- process handling of discipline and grievances they deserved.

Such battles promoted an adversarial relationship between the employees and railroad, with unfair labor practices and service interruptions a common occurrence.

The railroads were the primary mode of transport for people and goods in that era and such interruptions had an enormous impact on the economic vitality of the country and the day-to-day convenience of the newly prosperous and mobile population.

As a result, the voting population grew weary of the continual turmoil and demanded that something be done to stabilize the industry.

During that era, unlike today, when the voters spoke Congress listened. The result, passed in 1926, was the Railway Labor Act, the law that to this day still governs the handling of disputes in our industry.

In my next column, we will explore the relevance of the Railway Labor Act to modern times and how it affects our members in today’s world.

To read Brother Previsich’s earlier article on discipline, go to www.utu.org and click on “Leadership Messages.”