‘Buzzards of the Railroad Track: A Railroad Foreman’s Story’ by John Murphy from International Socialist Review. Vol. 13 No. 2 August, 1912.
MY first job was as water-boy to a foreman who was bossing a track laying job for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad in Iowa. I had gotten in wrong with the capitalist hirelings of my home town and had to “beat it,” though I was only a boy.
Sometimes I listened to the conversation of the men at work, which was carried on in an assortment of foreign languages, and from time to time would catch phrases that sounded like “two dollars,” “five dollars,” and so on. One day I asked one of these foreigners, who could speak fair English, what this talk was about. He told me his countrymen were talking about the amounts they had to give up to employment agencies in order to get a chance to work. I asked him where this money went. He answered: “You follow up this kind of job and before you are as old as I am you will know.”
Shortly afterward I quit this job and got another one, holding the level for a surfacing or track-raising gang, composed mostly of Italians. Before long I over- heard the same refrain from them—”‘two dollar,” “three dollar,” “five dollar,” and so on. They were also discussing the graft they had to give up to employment sharks. Again I changed jobs and this time I landed with a gang of 25 Austrians. One-day I saw them counting out some money behind a sand house which, one of them told me, was to be handed over to the interpreter.
“Can’t you take care of your own money?” I said.
“It for the boss,” he replied, and then explained that for this purse the boss allowed them to remain in the bunk cars on bad winter days.
Later on I learned that this graft found its way into the hands of the chief engineer. His salary was about $200 a month, but he lived in a home that was fit for a king, owned a big farm, and entertained his friends on a lavish scale.
Soon after I went to work in a packing house but finding graft even thicker there, I went back to the railroad. I was successively trucker, caller, yard checker and delivery clerk and was then made foreman of an extra-gang doing heavy work around the round house and machine shops of Council Bluffs, Iowa. My job was to break in the “green-horn” Greeks and teach them to swing heavy machinery.
No sooner would I have a gang broken in and trained to do the work that all would suddenly be laid off and I would be given another green gang; and the breaking in would have to be done all over again. After this had gone on a while it was communicated to me that these harassing tactics were likely to be kept up by the head foreman until I “gave up” to the graft fund. I also learned that my gangs were laid off because they wouldn’t come across with $6 for the interpreter, who divided up with the head foreman.
Graft and blackmail were thick everywhere. An especially hard-working gang that worked in the same yards, was composed of Italians. The interpreter’s wife was an American woman who told me one day that they would soon “get theirs,” as they wouldn’t “give up” enough. Sure enough, in a short time these Italians were laid off and a gang of Greeks got their jobs. Some of these afterwards told me that it had cost them $6 apiece for a jackpot to go to the “higher-ups.”
Graft is part of the system reaching from the head officials of the company on down. The smaller bosses learn it from the chiefs over them.
The padding of pay-rolls by foremen and interpreters became so bad а few years ago that the railroad finally adopted a new system and forced laborers who wanted jobs to go to “employment kings” in the cities and secure a button or badge before they were allowed to work or to draw their pay. One of these sharks, who did a big business in Omaha, forced foreign laborers to give up from $9 to $10 apiece for jobs. He then gave them a letter to the section boss instructing him to work them two weeks or a month and then let them go.
The best comment I ever heard on this system came from a young Greek interpreter who was unusually well educated and informed. He said: “There’s no use trying to be square on a job like this. Graft is a part of the system. Our bosses force us to produce so much more than we can consume that there are always more men than there are jobs. Where men must fight each other for a chance to work, graft and trickery is bound to spring up. You see your protection laws bar the products of our country, so your capitalists can go over there and under- sell our capitalists. The result is that foreign workers are forced upon your labor market. I notice your capitalists talk a lot about ‘patriotism’ and ‘protecting American labor,’ but it strikes me as queer that we are better treated than you are in the way of free box cars to live in, free coal, free wood, and no taxes, and we can violate your sanitary laws as we please. We Greeks came over here for the same reason that your forefathers did. The problem was the same—something to eat.”
His words set me thinking and my observations soon led me to become a Socialist and an Industrial Unionist. I believe in political action but I saw that it was useless to preach that to the poor devils who toiled around me. Most of them were not citizens and could not be- come naturalized for years, even if they were able to pay the necessary fees. The only way these workers can secure relief is through their own power, industrially organized. In other words, by direct action.
The petty bosses of the railroad world would learn their crooked practices from their superiors. For instance, the Kansas City Railroad was once offered a bonus by a certain town if they entered it on a certain day. When they found they were going to be short of material and determined not to lose that bonus, they laid the steel on three-cornered or V-shaped ties which were made of cottonwood. Much they cared about the lives of passengers.
I wish I could tell all I know about the way the railroads stand in with officials of city and state governments. Any railroad worker can tell you things that you wouldn’t believe unless you were already on the inside. One little story will do. Four years ago I was storing freight for the C. & N. W. Railroad at Council Bluffs, when a case of whisky was stolen. A checker named Head and myself were called into the railroad agent’s office by a detective of the Council Bluffs’ force and another detective belonging to the railroad. We told them we knew nothing about the loss of the goods. Previous to this a man named Negus had been arrested for the theft but was released on bail. He went to work in a candy factory, the engineer of which told me that these detectives had visited this man and had induced him to swear that we were implicated. Head and myself were brought before a justice of the peace, a Civil War veteran. Our lawyer asked for the dismissal of the case, because of the fact that the Iowa Supreme Court had held that the evidence of a self convicted thief was not to be believed in a case of this character unless substantiated by witnesses not charged with crime. The Justice said:
“My mind is already made up. I fine one $10 and the other $20.”
We appealed to the district court. Before our trial was called I got a position in the Illinois Central shops as black- smith’s helper, but they made me get out when it was found that I had attended the trial of my friend. On the pay-day following, the boss informed me he had sent my pay-check back to Chicago and there was nothing for me. Soon after, on our way from work, we were held up by three detectives and searched, but they found nothing on us.
Then the prosecuting attorney offered to let us off on payment of $5 each, providing that we could consent to let the records show that we had pleaded guilty. This is often done, and many an ignorant and scared railroad worker has found himself blacklisted and branded for life because he has once been frightened into pleading guilty of some offence that he never committed. Needless to say, we declined this offer.
When our case finally came to trial we found that the general freight agent of the railroad was on the jury panel. Our lawyer was smart enough to see what chance this would leave for us and got our case continued until the next term of court, when we were acquitted without a dissenting vote of the jury. Head then filed suit for damages against the railroad. The railroad won with the help of the city detective, and there was nothing to do but put up with the loss of time and wages we had suffered because of a false charge. I know now, of course, that courts are for the classes and not for the masses.
The judge who presided at my friend’s trial wherein the case was taken from the jury and a verdict rendered for the railroad is now congressman from the Ninth Iowa District.
But Head and I are now marked men. We cannot hold a job after it has been discovered that we were once in a capitalist Court. I have a wife and family to support but no sooner do I land a place than I am fired off it.
An acquaintance of mine, a foreman, came to me the other day with a little friendly advice. He counseled me to go back to the Catholic Church and cease being so active for Socialism and industrial organization. Do that, he said, and he was in a position to assure me that I would be given a job at not less than $75 a month. Also, he explained, there would be a little easy money on the side—but I did not wait to listen to him any further.
The International Socialist Review (ISR) was published monthly in Chicago from 1900 until 1918 by Charles H. Kerr and critically loyal to the Socialist Party of America. It is one of the essential publications in U.S. left history. During the editorship of A.M. Simons it was largely theoretical and moderate. In 1908, Charles H. Kerr took over as editor with strong influence from Mary E Marcy. The magazine became the foremost proponent of the SP’s left wing growing to tens of thousands of subscribers. It remained revolutionary in outlook and anti-militarist during World War One. It liberally used photographs and images, with news, theory, arts and organizing in its pages. It articles, reports and essays are an invaluable record of the U.S. class struggle and the development of Marxism in the decades before the Soviet experience. It was closed down in government repression in 1918.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/isr/v13n02-aug-1912-ISR-gog-ocr.pdf