History of the railroad

Published 16 Feb 2017

After the American Civil War, railroads became the first really big businesses in the country and though most people associate the concept of the “company store” with mine and mills, the railroads were the first of the companies to try to take back their employees earnings with forced use of facilities owned by the company. The railroads used the fact that they were that nation’s primary source of transportation to blackmail workers into taking pay cuts, doing more work for less money and when the workers tried to do something about it, as with the strike of 1877, enlisting the aid of the military to put down the strikers, killing striking workers, women and children. (Chernesky 2007)

The strike of 1877 came as a result of the railroads efforts to turn ever bigger profits in the midst of a national depression. The railroad responded to smaller profit margins by cutting the wages of workers who made more than $1 a day by ten percent. They also forced traveling railroad employees to stay in company-owned hotels during their travels. The company hotels, like the old stories of the company store, were more expensive than other places the workers might have been able to stay and essentially spent their wages before they wee even able to earn them (Chernesky 2007)

The strike began in Allegheny City (Pittsburgh) and initially efforts to detract strikers relied on the National Guard. After that didn’t work, the railroads petitioned the government to have the U.S. Army join the fight and they did. (Chernesky 2007) Military attempting to put down the strike fired wildly into the crowd killing at least one woman and three small children (Licht 1982). That was enough to spur other workers in other cities to join the strike and soon it had spread to St. Louis, Kansas City and parts of the South. In the end, though, the National Guard was able to end the strike and get the trains running again. (Chernesky 2007)

This willingness to cut wages for the workers while making huge corporate profits, to enlist the government’s help and even kill their own employees when the mood suited them did not sit well with railroad workers. Indeed, Licht wrote that while many historians thought it was the lack of railroad workers that hampered the development of the national railroad system, it was in fact the turnover in railroad workers. The jobs appeared to pay well, but the conditions were harsh and the railroad had no problem with firing workers randomly because the work was slow or because they were a perceived threat to the stability of the rail system (Licht 1982). In reviewing Licht’s work., Alex Keyssar points out that this attitude of the railroad companies that their employees were an expendable commodity helped lead to the union revolution that would occur shortly after the turn of the century (1986).
Railroad workers were fed up with the way large-scale corporations treated them and with being told to work longer and harder for the same amount of pay or less (Keyssar 1986). During the mid-1870s, railroad workers and their families were barely subsisting and some were actually starving due to the railroad’s cruel and wonton behavior in the name of profits (Chernesky 2007). Breadlines were filled with former railroad workers whose job would disappear overnight only to be replaced with younger men who would work for smaller paychecks. This behavior led to the rise of labor unions both in the railroads and in other businesses as the rest of America began to sympathize with rail workers and wonder how soon their own corporate fat cats would attempt similar activities (Chernesky 2007)

After the railroad union strike of 1877, unions took a backseat in the modern world until the 1930s and 1940s when the United Mine Workers and United Auto Workers gave rise to a new form of unionism. Spurred on by Upton Sinclairs’s “The Jungle” in 1906, and the development of the united Mine Workers in 1890, the American’s public of the Great Depression and just post-World War II was ready to see labor unions come to the forefront.
With exposes like “The Jungle”, Americans could no longer ignore the way their fellow Americans were being treated in sweat shops and manufacturing plants. And, as the war drew to a close, America was entering the golden industrial age. Instead of growing up to takeover the family farm, young men and some young women were heading off to the big city to make their fortunes working in factories. The fact that Henry Ford was also committed to making his labor force one of the most highly paid in the world simply added to the allure of the unions. Soldiers returning from war felt that they had done their service for their country and that they deserved an appropriate thank-you from their country. Many felt that thank you should be in the form of living wages and safe working conditions. The late 1940s would also see the firt strict prohibitions against child labor (“ A Curriculum…” 2207).

The reality was that factory workers had been in high demand during the war and with the flood of soldiers coming home, people were concerned about the release of the war time regulations. During the war, rationing had kept prices at a specified level and people were needed to work to feed the war machine. After the war, the need for manufactured goods plummeted and many people were afraid of a return to the pre-war depression. They were also intent on keeping the salaries and benefits that they had earned during the war and not letting the increased manpower suddenly equate to reduction in wages as it had in 1877 in the railroad strikes (Chernesky 2007).
While the white men were off at war, women and blacks had made siginifacant inroads with union activity. The Supreme Court ruled in 1940 that a sit down strike was not a violation of the Sherman Anti Trust laws and in 1942 Presidnet Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued an executive order prohibiting job discrimination based on race, color or creed in wartime industries. A year later, there were 18.5 million union workers in the Untied States (“A Curriculum” 2007)

In 1946, the key to union representation was that almost everyone knew someone who was in a union and felt that unions protected the workers. This was before the era of union greed and corruption. In the 1940s. unionization was about improving working conditions for the average and making it safe to work; it was about opposing corporate greed and making sure that everyone got a fair shake. (Link 1987) In more recent years, the image of the union as a reformer bent on protecting the worker was replaced with the image of unions as corrupt fat cats in their own right, with mob ties and an interest not in what was good for the country or for the workers, but an interest in what was good for the union. This image developed over years with union officials like Jimmy Hoffa with barely masked ties to the mob and with unions that gave up issues of worker safety in favor of higher paychecks. But the real decline of the unions came when the average worker came to see that the union was more interested in his dues than whether he was safe. Unionism in the private sector began to seriously decline in the 1980s when traditionally union sectors of the economy fell on hard tiems and the corporations pointed to the unions as part of the problem.

Bloated wages and benefit programs kept the companies from being able to compete on an international market and the unions failed to be willing to compromise, still demanding more concessions as they had in the previous generation. The problem them became that major corporations, the steel companies and mines and the American automakers were laying off workers and blaming the unions for the high cost of doing business. Where the paraprofessionals of the country had once seen the unions as the protectors of the common man, they now saw them as greedy and a detriment to American society. (Avent 2003)

In addition, factory workers now are not staying in unions or are not joining them in the first place because of the perception that the union no longer does anything for them. Though collective bargaining is still a reality, many employees feel that unions rules regarding dismissals protect the lazy and those who aren’t willing to give there all to the company. Many argue that the unions have encouraged mediocrity and that no one is rewarded for hard work anymore; the only reward comes through union incentives for longevity. (Avent 2003) Furthermore, in recent years, the courts have proven that they are willing to dismantle collective bargaining agreements when it means the difference between keeping a company in business or letting them declare bankruptcy. The feeling among most American workers is that the unions can’t prevent companies from outsourcing jobs and closing plants and therefore have little to offer in the way of job security. (Avent 2003) With the Occupational Safety and Health administration (OSHA) and the fear of being sued for workplace injuries, most employers keep a safe workplace regardless of whether they have a union shop and many young workers question why a union would even be necessary.

In many ways they are right. In the midst of the Great Depression, the Wagner-Connery Act created the National Labor Relations Board, an entirely new federal agency. With its creation and the later development of OSHA, the atrocities outlines in “The Jungle” and that had previously been a hazard of working in a factory became largely a thing of the past. The NLRB provided a protection for workers that they had never had before. Although the act originally exempted railroad workers, agriculture workers, domestics and others, it has become the shining beacon of labor law today. Now, it seems that most people do not feel the need to be represented by a union because the NLRB has taken over many of the union’s former duties including fairplay and workplace safety.

The Taft-Hartley Act was originally vetoed by President Harry S. Truman, but the Congress overrode the veto to pass the act and limit the power of labor unions. The law allowed individual states to declare themselves right to work states, where union membership could not be mandatory and where an employer could refuse to recognize a union. It als eliminated the availability of secondary boycotts as a way unions could pressure employers. In a secondary boycott, strikers would boycott all products manufactured by a company regardless of whether those products were related to the strike.

These and other labor laws reflected Americas love and ahte relationship with labor unions. Though the unions were adored for their role in cleaning up working conditions, they were reviled as greedy and corruptible. In the end, Americans simply wanted to know that they were free to work safely and to earn a fair wage doing so.

The growth of modern factories changed forever the lives of the average production worker. Skilled laborers were no longer as necessary as they had once been due to the advent of mechanization and automation. With the every booming manufacturing economy, the need for a skilled craftsmen to make furniture and other items was in heavy decline.

So, the American worker adapted and became adept at manufacturing new goods. Skilled workers adopted new technologies as well, embracing the new technology and using it to earn their place in the new growing factories. Skilled workers became adept leaders and union bosses, training new employees on the technology and working in the new niches created by the factories: they became factory maintenance and setup men; they became mechanics and they changed the definition of skilled labor. Where once a craftsman, like a furniture amker would have been considered skilled labor, they made the new definition of skilled labor one who could operate in the newly automated factories and thrive in the new environment. Unskilled labor was also revised to mean those in agricultural jobs or service sector jobs that required little training.

And as the modern factory morphed through the decades, so did the definition of skilled labor. Now, men who could operated technological machinery including lathes and industrial presses became the skilled laborers. Those who had once used their hands to create an object became skilled craftsmen, marking the difference in the demarcation of the term, but keeping it for themselves.

Factory workers adopted the name skilled workers for any position that required training or know-how and designated those untrained positions as unskilled. The designation in no way changed what they did, but it made the average factory worker feel better about his lot in life. Sure, almost anyone could be trained to do the job, but he was already trained and therefore a “skilled worker” (Between Craft and Class 2007).
As more and more factory jobs were shipped away fromt eh United states, American workers once again consoled themselves with the terms, claiming that the jobs that were being shipped away were mostly unskilled labor and that American was keeping the high end factory jobs. We now know this to be untrue, but it was another way for the American worker to delude himself about his lot in life and pretend that the world had not caught up with the American industrial revolution.

Works Cited

  • “A Curriculum of United states Labor History”
  • Avent, D. R. “Power in the Workplace: The Decline of Unions in America” August, 2003
  • “Between Craft and Class”
  • Chernesky, Phil “ Railroad Strike of 1877″ , July 31, 2007.
  • Keyssar, Alex . Untitled Review “Working for the Reailroad: The Organization of Work in the Nineteenth Century” Journal of Interdisciplinary History > Vol. 16, No. 4 (Spring, 1986), pp. 752-754 < http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0022-1953%28198621%2916%3A4%3C752%3AWFTRTO%3E2.0.CO%3B2-E> July 31, 2007.
  • Link, Arthur S., William A. Link and William B. Catton, “American Epoch: A history fo the United States Since 1900″ , Sixth Ed., Alfred A. Knoopf Inc. New York, 1987.
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