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Good, Reliable, White Men: Railroad Brotherhoods, 1877-1917

Author(s):Taillon, Paul Michel
Reviewer(s):Friedman, Gerald

Published by EH.NET (May 2010)

Paul Michel Taillon, Good, Reliable, White Men: Railroad Brotherhoods, 1877-1917. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009. xv + 266 pp. $25 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-252-07678-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gerald Friedman, Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts.

America?s first big business, the railroads, captured the nation?s imagination with promises of the wonders to be achieved through combining organization and human ingenuity. Anticipating unimagined prosperity in an economic union stretching across a continent; some saw the framework for a more egalitarian social organization, a model for a centrally-planned socialist state. If railways were the model, their workers were the shock troops of a collectivist future. Unions of railway workers, the railway brotherhoods, were among America?s largest and most important unions in early twentieth century America. Their size, wealth, and bargaining leverage made them powerful examples, models for imitation.

Like most labor history these days, the literature on railroad workers and their unions has been divided between a ?social democratic? approach emphasizing class conflict and political action and a race-gender-monopoly (RGM) perspective that emphasizes the efforts by white male workers to inflate their own wages by restricting access to the trade. In A Generation of Boomers, for example, Shelton Stromquist explores labor unrest in the formative years of the railway brotherhoods as part of a broader study of Progressive-era politics that he continues in Reinventing “The People”: The Progressive Movement, the Class Problem, and the Origins of Modern Liberalism. This work barely overlaps Eric Arnesen?s Brotherhoods of Color which explores the struggles of African-American railway workers against pervasive racism and job discrimination fostered by white workers and their unions. For African-Americans, the rising power of the railway workers? union, celebrated by Stromquist, was an unmitigated disaster.

Debates among labor historians have settled into a familiar rut where one side bemoans and the other tries to ignore the role of racism and sexism in the origins of the American Labor Movement. One side passes judgment; the other feigns ignorance to avoid finding fault. While neither can provide a full history of the origins of the American Labor Movement, both are limited by shared assumptions that have contributed to a sterile debate. Both treat the workers? values and preferences as exogenous so that the state, employers, and even social conflict have disappeared from their view. Without a dynamic approach that views labor as one party, and the weaker one at that, to a conflict, neither can produce a full history.

Now we have Paul Michel Taillon to thank for a breakthrough book that integrates gender and race into an understanding of the politics of class consciousness on the American railroads. Stepping aside from the fruitless dispute over whether union racism and sexism constituted a mortal or venial sin, Taillon explores the role they had in class formation and the interaction of class organization, political action, and state policy. He shows how racism and sexism were constructed ideologies that provided grounds for collective action and won essential allies from state authorities.

Taillon begins with the (white male) railroad workers, the Conductors, Engineers, Firemen, and Trainmen who would form the brotherhoods that would dominate railway unionism. Without denying that these were relatively well paid workers, Taillon shows how the difficulty and danger of their work established a material basis for their collective action. Spending long periods away from home at exhausting work, the railway workers also suffered an extraordinary accident rate. In addition to the hazards of boiler explosions, derailments, and collisions, railway men would scramble atop moving cars to set brake wheels, step between cars to insert links, and run alongside and between moving cars at switching yards. The railway running-trades workers? death rate of nine per thousand around 1900 was three times that of bituminous coal mining (p. 21).

Hazardous and grueling work certainly provided a motive for railway worker militancy. But Taillon knows better than to explain the success of the railway brotherhoods. Repeated union defeats have demonstrated that grievances are never enough to establish strong unions. On the contrary, unions always need a strategy to win against resistant employers; the railway workers needed allies, no easy task against the largest businesses owned by the wealthiest people.

Taillon shows that the brotherhoods succeeded because they campaigned as republicans and citizens. They mobilized the railway workers around a platform of white masculinity, and they claimed public support because of their status as white men, a status they shared with members of the economic and political elite. In this, they defined their labor movement as an association of men, defined socially as white workingmen, honorable and respectable, entitled to defend their economic position and their dignity. Restricting membership in the brotherhoods to ?white born, of good moral character, sober and industrious? (p. 57) made their struggle against capitalists a defense of all white men and thus of traditional American values. President Theodore Roosevelt addressed the twenty-first biennial convention of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen (BLF) in 1902, the first President to address a labor union convention. He applauded the racial and gender coding of manhood, holding the BLF up as ?an object lesson in good American citizenship? (p. 3). Roosevelt credited the BLF with helping to reconcile the nation?s estranged social classes, a reconciliation rooted in a common status as white men against others.

The Brotherhoods were successful because they accepted traditional gender and racial roles. Their fraternalism was a bridge connecting the unions? social democratic political program to their racial and gender discrimination. Promoting collective action and regulation of the workplace, the Brotherhoods could easily have run afoul of ?free labor ideology? and the right to contract. Instead, they won elite allies and state support by recasting their actions as a defense of ?men? and of the dignity due white male workers. Members of the Brotherhoods were workingmen collectively defending their masculine honor and the independence due white men against the vagaries of capitalism. Not only did fraternal rituals reinforce their union solidarity, they did so by building on masculine solidarity and an ideal of white manhood that dismissed those who would not support the union as lacking ?manliness,? as ?weak, spineless, white-livered, and chicken-hearted? (p. 55). Fraternal solidarity sustained the brotherhoods? collective action, and produced as much exclusion as unity, undermined the solidarity across race and gender that might otherwise have been the Labor Movement?s creed. The Brotherhood?s racism and sexism were also crucial politically because they made possible a political strategy to achieve social democratic goals, attracting elite allies to a program of economic solidarity that could be presented as a defense of traditional American values. Rather than directly challenging capitalism, the Brotherhoods used racism and sexism to build a new Americanism that united the ?people? in defense of good working conditions and decent wages, the ?people? defined as white men.

The Brotherhood?s strategy secured real gains for railway workers. In 1898, after the Pullman strike and the American Railway Union, Congress passed the Erdman Act which protected union members from discrimination for their union involvement and provided for a system of federal arbitration of labor disputes for railways engaged in interstate commerce. The 1913 Newlands Act established a full-time Federal Board of Mediation and Conciliation; and, in 1916, the Adamson Act established the eight-hour day for railway workers. The 1926 Railway Labor Act established the right to unionize in language that prefigured the Wagner Act of 1935; and, in 1934, the Railway Retirement Act established a pension system that prefigured the Social Security Act.

Thus, the Brotherhoods provided a bridge from the reform politics of the Progressive Era to the New Deal, an entering wedge of social democracy in Progressive-era America, but a social democracy limited by racism and sexism. Would they have been as successful had they based their solidarity on a universal program of equality and opportunity? Or would they have been crushed as some more egalitarian movements were? We do not know if abandoning racial and gender equality ? and fostering racism and sexism instead of worker solidarity ? was the price that the Brotherhoods had to pay to attract members and to gain state support and employer tolerance. We do know, however, that the Brotherhoods helped to code racism and sexism into the American Labor Movement?s DNA, and to place inequality and unfairness at the heart of the American welfare state. Acceding to the identification of citizenship and honor as the prerogatives of white men, they triumphed by denying the democratic spirit and the solidarity that is Labor?s true heritage.

In time, Labor?s racism and sexism would make it impossible for American unions to campaign as champions of democracy and solidarity, ultimately denying labor critical allies and the tools to build a social movement. It was a Faustian bargain that won the Brotherhoods state support as racist and sexist institutions, a bargain that lost all meaning when society progressed. The Brotherhoods and the Labor Movement that they inspired could not practice democracy, and could not defend democracy or even themselves on the only grounds that could give them legitimacy: democracy and equality. Paul Taillon shows how racism and sexism were central to the railroad brotherhoods? success and, by implication, he shows how they have been central to the Labor Movement?s failure. His book should be widely read, not only as first-rate history but also as an object lesson for social reformers.

Gerald Friedman is Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts. He is the author of State-Making and Labor Movements. The United States and France, 1876-1914 (1998), Reigniting the Labor Movement (2008), and numerous articles on the labor history of the United States and Europe, the evolution of economic thought, and slavery in the Americas.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII