‘The Railway Labor Act: A Barrier to Militant Unionism’ by Jack Johnstone from The Communist. Vol. 16 No. 5. May, 1937.

Railroad workers, Port Barre, Louisiana. October, 1938.

Why did rail retain its craft unions when nearly all other unionized mass industries fell under the sway of the C.I.O. and industrial unionism in the 1930s and 40s? Why are strikes so difficult on rail and why does the government have so much say in ‘arbitration,’ while workers have so little? Why are we in this situation today? Still on the books nearly one hundred years the Railway Labor Act, a product on an agreement between labor misleaders and employers, helps to explain it. First passed in 1926, it has been strengthened several times since; in 1936 the act was broadened to include airline employees. Here, C.P. leader and veteran labor organizer Jack Johnstone writes on Act’s fundamentally anti-labor history and provisions.

‘The Railway Labor Act: A Barrier to Militant Unionism’ by Jack Johnstone from The Communist. Vol. 16 No. 5. May, 1937.

Does the widespread agitation for the application of the principles of the Railroad Labor Act to other industries, led by such anti-union forces as the National Association of Manufacturers, indicate a change of policy towards labor organizations? What benefits, if any, have the railroad workers gotten as a result of the Railroad Labor Act? The act has now been in operation since 1926. One cannot view this act by itself, but rather as developing out of the period following the end of the World War. It was a period of far-reaching strike struggles involving almost every basic industry in the country, between 1918 and 1924. It saw the rise and decline of the Farmer-Labor Party movement and the beginning of a long period of class collaboration that almost wrecked the American Federation of Labor trade unions, reducing their effectiveness as fighting organizations by abandoning the strike weapon and under- taking to convince the employers that through cooperation between the workers and management all differences could be ironed out to the satisfaction and to the interest of both the employers and employees. It was particularly on the railroads that this scheme was carried out most effectively. The B. & O. plan became known internationally as the ideal plan to abolish class antagonisms. Economic crises were not going to occur again; America was entering into a long period of prosperity, etc.

‘Workers at the roundhouse of the Chicago and North Western railroad Proviso Yard, Chicago, Ill.’ 1939.

This plan, worked out first on the B. & O. railroad, was very simple. The idea was to substitute cooperation between the railroad workers and the railroad management instead of struggle. The workers were to increase their productive capacity, and in return the railroad management promised to increase wages, abolish unemployment, guarantee the railroad workers steady jobs and, with the increase in production, guarantee a steady rising standard of living. All this was to be effected without strikes, in roundtable talks between the management and the railroad union representatives.

Upon this wrong theory and in line with its false conception of the role of trade unions, the Railroad Labor Act was enacted by Congress in 1926. Its purpose was to put a check on labor rights, and eventually to illegalize strikes. This act was supported by the A. F. of L. Executive Council and pushed through Congress by the grand chiefs of the railroad brotherhoods, and the railroad management.

It was not until the strike movements began in railroads in 1928 and 1929, when the workers generally adopted militant forms of struggles in the form of hunger marches, strikes in mining, marine, textile, rubber, etc., that some progressive amendments were added to this reactionary Railroad Labor Act (in 1934 and 1935). These amendments are favorable and can be used in the interest of the workers, but they do not nullify the reactionary character and purpose of the act.

‘Workers at the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad locomotive shops in Clovis, New Mexico,’ 1935.

The National Association of Manufacturers, the Liberty League and the main anti-union forces in the country who have fought so hard against the Wagner Act, who fought so hard to elect Landon and were against every attempt of the C.I.O. to organize the workers in mass production industries, are now becoming the champions of the principles of the Railroad Labor Act and want these principles applied to other industries.

In this first series of struggles of the growing progressive movement throughout the country led by the C.I.0., the Non-Partisan League, the American Labor Party, the Farmer-Labor parties, the Communist Party, etc., political reaction received a number of decisive defeats. However, this does not mean that they have given up the fight. They have been compelled to make some changes in their tactics, to cloak their real anti-union, undemocratic, fascist policy with a progressive demagogy. The Railroad Labor Act is now labeled the Wagner Act as applied to railroad. Therefore, why not apply it to other industries with a few amendments such as incorporating the unions, compulsory arbitration, thus making strikes illegal and punishable by law?

It is a very simple program. These anti-union forces have been defeated by the workers, because the workers followed a policy of militant struggle developing the very effective new strike technique, the sit-down strike. So now they turn to Congress, to the reactionary labor leaders and politicians for help, to nullify these victories by making illegal the methods by which the workers are able to win these far- reaching victories.

The enactment of the Railroad Labor Act in 1926 did not come as a result of victorious strikes but followed a series of defeats, when organized labor was lulled to sleep by the poison of the non-strike, collaboration theory so effectively put over on the railroad workers by the general adoption of the B. & O. plan. While the Executive Council of the A. F. of L. was not as successful as the grand chiefs of the railroad brotherhoods in selling this plan to other industries, it is still their policy and they will no doubt support the attempts to fasten the principles of the Railroad Labor Act onto other industries. John P. Frey, the A. F. of L. theoretician, who labeled this B. & O. plan “the new wage theory” attempted for years to sell it to the open-shop employers and about a decade ago under- took to organize the auto industry and bring it under an A. F. of L. charter. He left for Detroit with a corps of organizers and had a meeting with Ford and other auto magnates to prove to them that the A. F. of L. would organize their men, guarantee increased production, no strikes, and that the A. F. of L. union that would be set up would be better and cheaper than the Ford company union. However, the autocrats of auto, steel and other mass production industries were then in a victorious mood. AIthough they were compelled to grant wage increases and other concessions, such as the eight-hour day in steel, etc., they had defeated the strikes in steel, railroad, marine and mining, etc. Their company unions were the only types of unions they wanted. They refused Frey’s proposal. Frey, a typical lickspittle of the most reactionary employers, therefore abandoned all at- tempts to organize the auto workers leaving them to the tender mercy of the auto company union spy system. It is these same people who refused to collaborate with the A. F. of L. Executive Council when the policy outlined by Frey was to make the unions part of the management’s efficiency apparatus, to make them as company conscious as the company union with no right to strike, who now favor the application of the Railroad Labor Act to their industry. An Act was passed during the reactionary Coolidge administration, the purpose of which was to enforce the very scheme on the railroads which Frey failed to sell to the auto industry ten years ago. Recognizing that their stubborn methods of attempting to destroy the trade unions by force and violence have failed, and that they have been compelled to recognize not only the right of workers to organize but to enter into collective bargaining with the C.I.O. trade unions, they are now seeking new methods of attack. They now want the trade unions to go back to the ruinous no-strike policy of Frey and the Executive Council of the A. F. of L. They demand that the Roosevelt administration enforce by law the principles of the reactionary Railroad Labor Act, passed by the Coolidge administration on the newly organized mass production industrial unions. No amendments to the Railroad Labor Act can make a progressive act out of it, as long as the methods of mediation or arbitration outlined in the act re- mains. Long drawn out negotiations, then mediation, then arbitration, will break down the spirit and morale of any group of workers, or force them into unprepared strikes, the result of which is defeat.

‘Former railroad man (Union Pacific), now unemployed, Omaha, Nebraska’ November, 1938.

Following are the results of the B. & O. plan applied to the railroad in- dusty and put into effect through the Railroad Labor Act. We must remember that in accepting the B. & O. plan, the railroad workers were promised a higher standard of living. Their employment was to be permanent and secure.

Employed in Railroad


While employment in railroad has increased during 1937, this has not reached anywhere near the figures of 1929. So went the promise of steady employment. Together with these figures we must keep in mind the long periods of part-time work which further reduced the earnings of the railroad workers. Even during the period of the N.R.A. when unions not so well organized as the railroad workers made some gains, the railroad workers received wage cuts. For example, the U.M.W.A. won very substantial wage increases and the seven-hour day and just recently won another wage increase plus time and a half for overtime, etc. The maritime workers on the Pacific Coast won substantial increases in wages, working conditions and forced the open-shop shipowners to hire all men through the union hiring halls. The longshoremen won the six-hour day where previously the hours per work day were unlimited. Recently they again won other substantial benefits. The shipowners tried to force the principles of the Railroad Labor Act on the Maritime Federation but the maritime workers rejected it and even refused to arbitrate certain fundamental demands like the six-hour day and union hiring hall. The U.M.W.A. in 1932 was almost nonexistent in the soft coalfields; they built their union again in this period. In this same period, the Maritime Federation on the Pacific Coast was also built. For over ten years prior to this, the shipowners were in complete control of the waterfront through their Blue Book Company Union. The railroad unions during this period were much stronger than either the U.M. W.A. or the Maritime Federation. What did they gain during this period? In fact, one can ask what have the railroad workers gained since their unions adopted the ruinous, poisonous theory of class collaboration contained in the B. & O. plan and enforced through the Railroad Labor Act. One can chalk up only setbacks.

‘Brotherhood Railway Carmen of America, Brainerd, Minnesota.’

It was exactly during this period of the N.R.A. when the workers in the trade unions were mobilizing for struggle and winning some concessions that the railroad workers through the Railroad Labor Act received a 10 per cent wage deduction. The demagogy used to put over this wage cut was that the railroad management would use this added revenue to keep more railroad workers on the payroll, and it was exactly during this period that tremendous layoffs took place and two or three days per week was the general working period.

It was also during this period that the Railroad Labor Act put over the dismissal wage on the railroad workers. Here the Railroad Labor Executive Association together with the railroad management under the Railroad Labor Act recognized in principle that an unnamed number of railroad workers were to be dismissed permanently from the railroad industry. Instead of the job security promised under the B. & O. plan, the Railroad Labor Act became the instrument for intensive speed-up and unemployment. Just recently the press announcement was made that a compromise old-age pension plan had been agreed to again between the Railroad Labor Executive Association and the railroad management under the provisions of the Railroad Labor Act. This pension plan discriminates against tens of thousands of railroad workers who are being robbed of their pensions, many of whom are being punished because they dared to strike. Every railroad worker knows the terrific speed up that has been developed under the Railroad Labor Act, the lengthening of trains, reduction of train and engine crews, lack of safety devices both for the employee and the traveling public, and a host of other measures, such as consolidation, that has on the one hand reduced railroad labor to a condition of insecurity on a par with industries much less organized than the railroad industry, but on the other hand has brought greater numbers of railroad workers into their craft unions, influenced by the successes of the militant policy of the C.I.O. They are deter- mined to break these shackles set up by the Railroad Labor Act in a struggle for wage increases and the shorter workday.

‘Mexican railroad workers in Los Angeles’ 1915.

This is the Railroad Labor Act in practice. It is a product of the Coolidge reactionary administration in a reactionary period when the trade union bureaucrats had abandoned the strike weapon, when even this poisonous theory of class collaboration had penetrated deeply into the Socialist Party which had abandoned even their lip service to the Marxist theory of the class struggle in their 1924 convention. They supported this poisonous capitalist theory of class collaboration and the peaceful evolution of capitalism into socialism.

The Railroad Labor Act was not a product of militant progressive labor. It was not born in a period of militant struggle such as is taking place today. It was born in a period when labor had suffered a serious defeat. The Railroad Labor Act was a surrender to the Wall Street owners of the railroad industry. But even in this surrender railroad labor was strong enough to hold its unions together and even to strengthen them until they were strong enough and could win the wage increase demanded, the six-hour day and a national agreement.

The weaknesses of railroad labor are in its leadership. This leadership in the Railroad Labor Executive Association while it formulated the main demands around which the membership of the twenty-one railroad brotherhoods are ready and willing to unite and fight to enforce, shows no evidence or willingness to lead such a struggle. The grand chiefs formulated the wage demands which were accepted by their rank and file. The grand chiefs formulated the Crosser six-hour day amendment to the Adamson eight-hour law now before Congress which has been endorsed generally by their rank and file. The grand chiefs of the fifteen of the twenty-one brotherhoods agree that wage proceedings should be handled in joint national conference while the five train service brotherhoods withdrew and presented their wage demands as a group.

Elkhart, Indiana railway workers, 1930.

Both the grand chiefs and the membership know that a wage demand of 20 cents per hour or 20 per cent increase or a six-hour day cannot be won through individual craft or groups of craft negotiations and action, or by separating these demands, placing the wage demands before the railroad management, the six-hour day, etc., before the Congress, one economic, the other legislative. The miners and the longshoremen would never have won the shorter work day by merely legislative action or mediation. They went on strike for it. It requires national joint negotiation and united national action of the twenty-one brotherhoods to win these demands through a national agreement. A child knows this, and when the grand chiefs, while endorsing the six-hour day, refuse to present this major demand to the railroad management and then split ranks on presenting (jointly) the wage demand which they had themselves formulated, then they are not honest or sincere. When this is followed by an insidious campaign in the unions to try and show the workers that the rail roads are poor and cannot really pay the wage increase asked and when they came out openly in the public press proposing to withdraw the six-hour day and other very good progressive railroad legislation in order to be able better to trade with the railroad management, it becomes very apparent that they have taken leadership of these popular immediate demands of the railroad workers with no intention of fighting for them. The same old B. & O. swindle is being perpetrated and the apparatus of the Railroad Labor Act is the method by which it is being carried out.

These anti-union forces see very clearly how effective the Railroad Labor Act has been in holding back railroad labor from aggressive struggle. This is made easier by a leadership incapable as well as unwilling to lead a struggle in the interest of the railroad workers, who by their actions have made it very clear to the railroad management that they do not intend to fight for the demands they raised. The purpose of this was to try and head off any progressive movement below that might take leadership into its own hands. They are liable to be mistaken in this for in almost every main railroad center the local unions are pro- testing and demanding action and results.

Burning of Union Depot, Pittsburgh, PA during Great railroad strike of 1877.

Progressive labor is not moving back to the period of the Railroad Labor Act. They have broken away from the reactionary splitting policy of Frey, Green, Woll and Company, which for a long period had such a disastrous effect upon organized labor and the workers’ movement in general. However, the fascist reactionaries like to sugarcoat their bait. The present method of trying to put a progressive mantle over the railroad labor act must be exposed. It is the most suitable piece of legislation the reactionary forces feel they can use in order to continue their attack against progress. They are now trying to fasten this on the workers of mass production industries and through this nullify the victories won. They are in the hope that they can win in this manner, divert this progressive movement away from the path it is now traveling— which is leading these newly organized mass industrial unions in the direction of building their own political party, the Farmer-Labor Party—and head them back into the safe channels of the old two-party system.

There were a number of journals with this name in the history of the movement. This ‘The Communist’ was the main theoretical journal of the Communist Party from 1927 until 1944. Its origins lie with the folding of The Liberator, Soviet Russia Pictorial, and Labor Herald together into Workers Monthly as the new unified Communist Party’s official cultural and discussion magazine in November, 1924. Workers Monthly became The Communist in March, 1927 and was also published monthly. The Communist contains the most thorough archive of the Communist Party’s positions and thinking during its run. The New Masses became the main cultural vehicle for the CP and the Communist, though it began with with more vibrancy and discussion, became increasingly an organ of Comintern and CP program. Over its run the tagline went from “A Theoretical Magazine for the Discussion of Revolutionary Problems” to “A Magazine of the Theory and Practice of Marxism-Leninism” to “A Marxist Magazine Devoted to Advancement of Democratic Thought and Action.” The aesthetic of the journal also changed dramatically over its years. Editors included Earl Browder, Alex Bittelman, Max Bedacht, and Bertram D. Wolfe.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/communist/v16n05-may-1937-The-Communist.pdf

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