From The Militant, Vol. IV No. 35 (Whole No. 94), 12 December 1931, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Eastern Railway presidents and the leaders of the four Brotherhood unions held a four day conference in New York during the last week of November. A deadlock on all important questions was the immediate outcome, neither group of fering at the time to accept the other’s proposals. The Railroad Executives received a report of the conferences on November 24, but decided to defer further action until after Dec. 8, when 1,500 Railway Labor Union heads are to meet in Chicago to receive official reports on the New York conferences, and to take
up the entire railroad situation. The employers had demanded that the railroad workers voluntarily accept a 10% wage cut, and thus avoid the necessity for them to resort to action under the Railway Labor Act which would delay a decision for at least a year. The heads of the Brotherhoods, on the other hand, proposed their plans for the stabilization and increase of employment. Presumably nothing was settled at these drawn-out conferences, but in reality the railroad owners emerged victorious. Despite the failure to receive a ready consent from the Brotherhood leaders, the Railway employers are confident of enforcing at least a 10% wage cut, and feel that they will shortly have the support and agreement of the Brotherhood heads for this immediate objective.
The train service employees of the Georgia & Florida Railroad have already accepted a 10% cut beginning December 1. The publication, Business Week (12-2-31), remarks that “it is significant that this agreement was approved by the grand officers of the Big Four brotherhoods.” The railway bosses cannot but regard this as a precedent and forerunner of national railroad labor policy and are proceeding accordingly.
The Chicago and North Western Railway, one of the largest roads, on Dec. 1 proposed that its union employees accept a voluntary 15% cut; other western railroads are expected to make similar demands in the next few days. Union officials were scheduled to meet in Chicago on Dec. 8 to take up the entire railroad situation. No comment as yet has been made by the union leaders on the C.&N.W. Railway proposals. On this road there prevails the B.&O. plan, that is, between the railroads and the union employees, which in every instance, where it has been introduced, has devitalized or destroyed the character and militancy of genuine labor unionism.
On all fundamental issues involving the very existence and standards of the railroad workers, both the employed and unemployed, the Eastern Railroad owners, expressing themselves publicly through Daniel Willard, President of the Baltimore & Ohio, took a stone-like stand. Theirs was an attitude that contemplated a wreck and destruction of what remains of the railroad unions and their hard-earned rights and gains, unless the railroad workers will be able to wage an effective struggle for their maintenance.
To the proposal of union labor for a six hour day as a partial remedy for unemployment in the railroad industry, the Railway Executives categorically replied:
“We have found ourselves unable to accept your conclusion that the six hour day is necessary and that it must be instituted in order to absorb the existing number of experienced employees without reduced compensation.”
Consequently, continues President Willard’s letter, “we would be unwilling to recommend the appointment of a commission to determine the ways and meant of applying this principle to the different classes of employees.”
This declaration is plain, hard and challenging: labor shall receive no concessions; the matter can not any longer even be discussed (not even another of those long, drawn-out investigation commissions which always produce nothing for the workers). This stand of the employers in the six hour day is a direct challenge to the very existence of what remains of union railroad labor. The struggle for the six hour day and five day week, without reduction in pay is the essence and kernel of the existence and development of militant unionism in the railroad industry. All other issues – amalgamation of the unions, organization of the unorganized, preservation of seniority rights, alleviation of unemployment caused by extreme exploitation, the speed-up system and technological improvements – now group themselves around the central issue and struggle for the six hour day.
It is in the militant fight of railroad labor for the six hour day that it will be possible to arouse all the railroad workers, organized and unorganized, employed and unemployed, skilled and unskilled for a united struggle against the railway bosses. Only the rank and file of the railroad workers led by the militants and Left wingers will be ready to initiate the necessary steps in preparation for railroad struggles that will begin on single roads but which will rapidly extend their scope. Upon the supine present day union leaders, they cannot rely at all to defend their interests. These misleaders of labor will “negotiate” and sell out the rank and file.
The railroad owners feel, and rightly so, that they have allies in the ranks of labor, that is, “the labor lieutenants of the capitalist class,” in this case particularly, the heads of the Brotherhoods. They expect the latter, however they plead or pretend otherwise now, employees accept the owners’ demands for immediate wage cuts. The railroad owners know their union leaders. In addition, they are preparing swiftly for any eventualities, and that includes, as their foremost objective, the destruction of the what remains of unionized labor on the railroads. The railroad workers must have no doubts of that.
How supremely confident the railroad bosses are concerning the union heads, and how lightly they regard them, is put simply and bluntly by Business Week (12-2-31):
“There are 2 reasons why the labor executives could not accept the proposal for a voluntary cut in wages. One was that after sending men to Canada to stiffen the necks of the rail employees there in their fight against wage reduction, they could not let them down before the Dominion arbitration board issued its findings. The other is that, because of the temper of the men, the labor executives – regardless of what they themselves may think about a wage cut – want to compel the managements to carry the wage reduction proposal to the Board of Meditation where they will show their hand.”
What could be clearer? Already a despatch from Ottawa, Canada reports that the application of the railways (for a wage cut) has been granted”. The “Board of Conciliation” has acted; now the union heads will try to “conciliate” and convince the men that the wage cut must be accepted because of the “special conditions”. And before the “Board of Mediation” in the United States, “they will show their hand,” – the hand of agreement with the bosses’ demands.
All the other negotiations and discussions that took place at the New York conference between the Eastern Railroad Executives and the labor representatives, loom up as secondary beside the hard-boiled stand of the railroad owners for an immediate wage-cut of at least 10%. Railway Age (11-28-31) enters into details on the various phases of this conference. Above everything else, the reports demonstrate the persistent demands of the railroad bosses and the readiness to yield of the Brotherhood heads, whose spokesman was D.B. Robertson, president of the Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen.
What, briefly, are the conditions prevailing among railroad workers today? More than one-third of the employees in the industry are unemployed. Only part-time employment exists for thousands of the men. The statement of railroad labor’s situation and requirements, as set forth in the labor manifesto presented by the railroad unions to the Conference, says, in part:
“Thousands of train and engine service employees work only from four to eight months a year. Thousands of maintenance men (in the shops and on the right of way) are idle for a substantial part of the year. In the months of employment their wages equal only $1,000 per year.”
At the same time, comparing 1910 and 1930, “the employees of today handles over 50% more traffic and produces twice as much revenue over labor cost.” With this result of the speed-up system, the improvement of technique and the increased exploitation, the railroad owners still demand a wage cut from the employees. From the meek shall be taken. The railroad workers are being made right along to bear greater burdens so that the railroad barons may also receive dividends in times of capitalist crisis, not to mention their swollen profits of the past. Railroad increases in traffic rates which will “produce $125,000,000 more revenue from the same amount of labor” have been granted by the Interstate Commerce Commission, but the gluttons demand more off the backs of the workers.
Seniority rights to older railroad men in the service are gradually being pushed aside. The manifesto points out that “technological changes, reducing total volume of employment, have limited seniority protection to fewer and fewer employees.” Increased traffic cannot meet the situation. The employers would not even consider the mild proposal of the Brotherhoods for the adoption of federal legislation for retirement insurance and for elective workmen’s compensation. Indeed, the employers will give nothing that they are not compelled to. Instead of the mild Brotherhood proposals, there must be a demand, linked with the struggle for the six hour day and 5 day week with no reduction in pay, for genuine unemployment insurance, paid for entirely by the railroad and other industries and by the government, and to be administered through labor’s agencies.
To the plea of the Brotherhoods that the rights of the workers be preserved in the consolidation of the railroads that is going on apace, the Railway Employers’ Executive gave a brusque reply. President Willard stated that “the carrier presidents were not in complete accord on this question”, and hence nothing could be done about the matter.
It is a striking commentary that the union head, Robertson, could say, concerning the conferences, that there had been “no encouragement that any action would be recommended or taken by railway managements to provide any substantial measure of relief of the present intolerance conditions.” (Railway Age, 11-28-31) But the railroad president, Mr. Willard could say that “the conferences had been carried on in a fine spirit of friendship and that the discussions had been wholly devoid of any unpleasantness.” To which labor leader Robertson replied in kind in his letter to Mr. Willard: “You have listened courteously to our propositions and have discussed them to some extent ...” Thus our railroad Damon and Pythias. The exploiter of labor and the betrayer of labor have every reason to be cordial to one another. It is not they who will receive 10 and 15% wage cuts.
Railroad men! Another betrayal is being prepared for you by your leaders. The further and final destruction of your unions, built by decades of militant struggles, is being prepared for you by the bosses, joined by the false leaders of labor. Your militant resistance is the only answer.
The rank and file must build their movement around the central slogan of the six hour day and five day week, without reduction in pay. It is the main slogan for the preservation of the union and union conditions and for meeting the burning needs of all railroad workers. The Minneapolis Railroad Council, built around this central slogan, leads the way. Learn from them; work with them; unite with them to build a movement for militant railroad unionism – one that will make it possible to drive the betrayers of labor put of your ranks. Unite the ranks of railroad labor. Prepare for struggle against the bosses!
Last updated: 24.2.2013