Railroad Brotherhoods

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RAILROAD BROTHERHOODS. Along with many other pioneering labor organizations in nineteenth-century America, organizations of railroad workers took the name "brotherhoods" in token of their partly fraternal purposes. The most powerful of the railroad brotherhoods were those formed in the operating trades—those directly involved in moving trains. These included the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (founded in 1863), the Order of Railway Conductors (1868), the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen (1873), and the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen (founded in 1883 as the Brotherhood of Railroad Brakemen). Sometimes grouped along with "the Big Four" was the Switchmen's Union (1894), the men responsible for making up trains. Numerous other unions were founded to represent nonoperating railroad employees such as trackmen (1887), railway clerks (1899), and sleeping car porters (1925). Though the operating brotherhoods represented fewer than one-fifth of all railroad employees, they dominated the early history of organized labor in the railroad industry.

Workers Organize as Partners to Industry

Like a great many wage-earners in the United States' rapidly industrializing economy, railroad workers found their market position increasingly eroded by mechanization, conditions of labor surplus, recurrent recessions and depressions, and the arbitrary power of employers. Like organizations in other skilled trades, the railroad brotherhoods formed to defend the interests of men in their crafts. But the brotherhoods held themselves aloof from other categories of workers: they seldom cooperated with unions outside their industry and none joined the American Federation of Labor (AFL) until 1957.

Serving what was then the nation's central industry, the brotherhoods relied on the indispensability of their skills and the respectability of their characters. This was especially true of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE), whose members adopted "Sobriety, Truth, Justice, and Morality" as their motto. These organizations were entirely male and most of them barred blacks until the 1960s. A substantial majority of brotherhood members were native-born Protestants in a labor force that was rapidly filling with immigrants and non-Protestants.

From the brotherhoods' prideful self-image flowed a strategy of assuring loyal service in exchange for good treatment by their employers. The main aim of the newly formed BLE, Chief Grand Engineer Charles Wilson declared in 1864, was "to win the good graces of the employers through elevating the character of its members and thus raising their efficiency as workmen. The employer should be so pleased with their work that he would of his own free will provide better recognition of labor and higher pay." Similarly, the union publication of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen declared in 1887, "Railway managers and superintendents recognize in the Brotherhood a school for the mental, moral and physical improvement of its members, and consequently a better and more desirable class of men.…" Leaders like the BLE's P. M. Arthur and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen's (BLF) Frank Sargent sought partnership with the railroad companies. They regarded strikes and other adversarial actions as measures of last resort.

Most of the brotherhoods began as fraternal and mutual benefit societies, offering their members camaraderie, self-esteem, and insurance rather than the collective bargaining representation in which unions specialize. The BLF formed in 1873 "for strictly benevolent purposes" and vehemently opposed 1877's Great Strike by 100,000 rail workers; the union did not approve of its own lodges staging strikes until 1885. The Order of Railway Conductors, founded as a fraternal society in 1868, did not engage in collective bargaining until 1890.

Brotherhoods' Conservatism Is Challenged in Era of Strikes

The Great Strike of 1877 was a spontaneous, unorganized, sometimes violent walkout by railroad employees, and its collapse reinforced the conservative instincts of the brotherhoods. Cultivating harmonious relations with the railroads seemed to serve the brotherhoods well as long as the industry's expansion generated favorable terms of employment, as it did into the late 1880s. But as expansion slowed and railroad managers grew less accommodating, the brotherhoods began to feud among themselves and sometimes, though reluctantly, mounted strikes, which usually failed. In 1885 and 1886, the BLE and BLF rejected pleas to support strikes by railroad shopmen against companies run by the notorious railroad magnate Jay Gould. After bitter divisions among workers contributed to the failure of a major strike against the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy line in 1888, many brotherhood members began chafing against the policies of their leaders. By 1892, the rising calls for federation among the brotherhoods to strengthen them in battles with the railroads had developed into a more radical proposal: the creation of a new industrial union, embracing railroad workers of all skills and trades, and which would replace the autonomous brotherhoods. Finally, in 1893, Eugene V. Debs, formerly the general secretary of the BLF, took the leadership of a militant new American Railway Union (ARU).

Men left the brotherhoods in droves to join the ARU, but the organization was soon shattered by its defeat in the epic Pullman boycott and strike of 1894. The brotherhoods expelled the deserters, stitched themselves together, and went back to selling themselves to the railroads as model workers. The federal Erdman Act of 1898 brought a new order to labor-management relations in the railroad industry. It provided for voluntary arbitration of disputes, banned antiunion practices, but also allowed for court injunctions to stop strikes. Hundreds of companies signed collective bargaining agreements with the brotherhoods, which grew from an aggregate member-ship of 100,000 in 1897 to 350,000 (in a total railroad workforce of 2 million) twenty years later.

Mounting costs of living, impatience with expensive arbitration proceedings, and demands for better conditions of work pushed the brotherhoods into a brief phase of militancy in the years around World War I. In 1916, the brotherhoods' threat of a national railroad strike impelled Congress to pass the Adamson Act, giving them the eight-hour day. During the war, the Woodrow Wilson administration took over operation of the nation's rail system. Eager to retain the protections they enjoyed under federal control, the brotherhoods briefly supported the "Plumb plan" (named for the brotherhoods' chief legal counsel, Glen E. Plumb), which called for permanent nationalization of the industry. But enthusiasm for Plumb soon faded, and in the 1920s, both the industry and the brotherhoods began to shrink as alternative means of transportation took business away from the railroads.

The epitome of craft conservatism and business unionism, the railroad brotherhoods gained security and decent terms of employment for their members while steadfastly resisting efforts to organize less skilled men. Ultimately, the firemen, trainmen, switchmen, and conductors merged to form the United Transportation Union in 1969. Of the original brotherhoods, only the BLE remained an independent union in 2002.


Licht, Walter. Working for the Railroad: The Organization of Work in the Nineteenth Century. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Montgomery, David. The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865–1925. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Richardson, Reed C. The Locomotive Engineer, 1863–1963: A Century of Railway Labor Relations and Work Rules. Ann Arbor: Bureau of Industrial Relations, Graduate School of Business Administration, University of Michigan, 1963.

Stromquist, Shelton. A Generation of Boomers: The Pattern of Railroad Labor Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Eugene E.Leach

See alsoAmerican Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations .

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Railroad Brotherhoods

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