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Gordon Haskell

Fifteen Rounds to No Decision

RR Worker Is Low Man on Totem Pole

(3 May 1948)

From Labor Action, Vol. 12 No. 18, 3 May 1948, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The engineers, firemen and switchmen of the railroads of America are being slowly dragged by their union leaders to the conclusion of the latest wage and rules movement.

They say “the mills of the Gods grind slowly.” But compared to the mills of the rail labor leaders working under the Railway Labor Act, the Gods proceed with reckless speed.

One whole year has passed since the leadership of these organizations first decided to demand a much-needed revision in rules and wages. One year at the BEGINNING of which the railroad workers were behind the rest of labor in wages and conditions. One year at the BEGINNING of which they were miles behind the rising cost of living.

During this year the rest of the labor movement got one wage increase, is now about to fight it out for another one. During this whole period the rank and file enginemen and switchmen have been living on hopes and pulling in their belts.

Mock Battle

If it weren’t such a serious business for hundreds of thousands of families in America, the handling of this wage movement would look like a cheap comedy, with the audience (the rank anti file) cast in the role of the “fall guy.”

Reading the back issues of Labor, national rail labor newspaper, is like listening to one of those broadcasts of a floperoo fight. The “fighters” stagger about the ring in fond embrace, or make mighty swipes at the air. But the radio announcer reports a thrilling battle in which the champ is pounding the contender to a pulp. As one round after another goes by,the radio audience begins to wonder: How come so many blows have been dealt and so much damage done, yet the contender doesn’t seem to weaken and the fight goes on?

On May 31, 1947, Labor reported that the five operating brotherhoods had decided to re-submit to the carriers the rules program which had been abandoned (after much shouting about how necessary it was) in1946.

Twenty days later Labor reported that a meeting had been arranged for October 7 with the carriers on rules, and that a demand for higher wages was to be added.

By October 11 (five months from the opening bell) the “battle” began to warm up. The brotherhood leaders were making “firm statements” to the effect that unless the carriers came across, and promptly, they would do something or other about it. At the same time they decided to demand 30 cents an hour or $3 on the basic day, effective November 1, 1947.

From that time till this, in addition to the main event (the endless “negotiations,” “mediation,” “fact-finding”) the brotherhood chiefs have been staging a sideshow with the railroad managements: the “battle of the advertisements.”

The companies have spent thousands of dollars (which are doubtless deductible from taxes as an “operating expense”) in newspaper ads which claim that rail workers are rolling in money which they earn by “featherbedding.” And, quick to strike a blow where a blow is needed, the union chiefs have spent thousands of dues-dollars in newspaper ads which prove that rail workers have about the lowest hourly earnings of any industrial workers in the nation.

(Of course, the question might well be asked: You rail labor leaders are now proving that under your “leadership” your workers have been steadily losing ground for many years. This, it would seem, is about the most damaging admission of failure any labor leadership could make. If your whole past activity has resulted in making railroad labor “low man on the totem pole” of wages and conditions, the only honest thing you could do is to declare your bankruptcy and resign from office. How about it?)

Break Ranks

But, back to the main event. By November 8 Labor was quoting union officials to the effect that “operating workers will not brook delay on the wage question.” One week later headlines read: “Ops are Pushing for Showdown on Wages and Rules”; “Negotiations Move Into High Gear; Must Have Action Soon, Leaders Say.” That was exactly five months ago. The only people in “high gear,” it seems, were the headline writers on Labor’s staff.

Then, in November, the rail workers were treated to the usual scandal which disgraces their union movement. In the middle of negotiations, two of the participating organizations (the B of RT and the ORC) broke ranks and made a deal with the employers, leaving the remaining three to carry the fight for their original demands alone.

The word “fight” appears in the last sentence. So far it has been, as before,a good fight in Labor with the contestants still clinched in loving embrace while pawing the air with purely verbal haymakers.

From December 6 to January 24 the leaders of the three unions (engineers, firemen, switchmen) were in“mediation” with the employers. Thus forty-nine days were consumed in shadow boxing with employers who had already demonstrated clearly enough FOR EIGHT WHOLE MONTHS that they would make no concessions. Of course, the well-paid officials of both unions and companies took the holidays off from “mediation.” After all, it was only in the columns of Labor that a real fight was going on. (And that was for the benefit of the rail workers who had to work over the holidays at straight time rates, as usual.)

Three months ago mediation ended. In the meantime the union chiefs had taken a strike vote among the men, while assuring one and all that they had, really, no intention of striking. It was just one of those things you do under the Railway Labor Act to go through the motions of a fight for the benefit of the suckers who pay the freight in union dues.

Up and Down

By February 7 of this year Labor was at it again: “He’s up, he’s down, he’s up, he’s down” cries the announcer, while the contestants waltz around the ring in slow motion. By this time the proceedings had reached the stage of hearings before a President’s Emergency Board. As usual, smashing headlines appeared in the paper. “Three ‘Ops’ Present Strong Case for Pay Raises and Modern Rules”; “Much Larger Raise Held Justified by Months of Delay.” (Question: if “justified,” then why not demand a much larger pay raise?)

In the same issue of Labor, however, there appeared a small item stating that the brotherhoods had agreed to extend the deadline for the hearings to March 10 “in the public interest.” That was a good one! For eight long months the union leaders had been pleading, negotiating, mediating and who knows what all else. But even at this stage of the game they were quite willing to postpone things for days and weeks.

After all the “smashing testimony”and “telling arguments” presented be-fore the Emergency Board (any railroad man’s wife or ten-year-old kid could give all the “arguments” needed in ten minutes. One pay check and one sheaf of grocery, rent, light, etc., bills should be enough) the unions were offered just what everyone knew they would be offered: the same 15½ cents per hour offered months before, and a few insignificant rule changes.

Well, it’s been a long story, but it was a long “battle.” At the moment of writing the union leaders have “refused” to accept the Board’s proposals, have set a tentative strike date, and have again met to negotiate with the carriers. This is the fifteenth round.

Next Round Uncertain

What will happen now? Nobody knows. At least, nobody who works on the railroad knows. The engine-men and switchmen whose “leaders”have been engaged in the bloody conflict described above haven’t the slightest idea of where they stand. The odds are that the union chiefs,with heart-rending screams of protest (“we wuz robbed”) will accept the “decision,” that is, just what the Board offered. Again, probably, in the“public interest,” or some such pap. The only “interest” in which they don’t seem to be concerned at all is the interest of the men whom they are supposed to represent.

Eleven months is a long time to wait, even with a good announcer at the mike trying to keep the customers awake. While the rail workers’ wages have stood still all this time, and while their conditions are as bad as ever, the cost of living hasn’t stood still.

There is an off chance, of course, that things have gone so far that the union leaders won’t dare come before their memberships with the insulting “gains” offered. There is an off chance that they will realize that even though in the past they have been able to put on these phony shows and get away with it, this time their heads (read “salaries”) are on the block, and that they will therefore call the men out on strike.

The last railroad strike proved one thing. Despite their misleadership, once the chips are down rail workers can and will strike to a man. Last time Truman intimidated the leaders, he didn’t scare the rank and file. He knows that, the men know it, the country knows it and the brotherhood chiefs know it. That is probably the thing which scares them most. When railroad workers show the same solidarity and militancy in running their own union affairs as they showed in the rail strike of 1946 there will be no more year-long “negotiations.” They will then choose leaders who will get action, who will get results.

Rail labor need not be “low man on the totem pole” in wages and conditions. To rise in the scale, however, they need a new kind of leadership. That is one of the chief lessons of the present wage movement.

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Last updated: 3 March 2018