A Shameful Legacy: “Race” and the Railroad Industry in the United States

A Review of Eric Arnesen's Brotherhoods of Color: Black Railroad Workers and the Struggle for Equality

“Race” has always, historically speaking, been the Achilles Heel of the labor movement in the United States, the number one tool of the bosses and big capital to divide, contain, and crush working-class struggles.

In the history of the worker’s movement in the US there are few things as shameful as the legacy – decade-after-decade – of blatant in-your-face segregationist practices, codified discrimination, and race-hatred against African-American  railroaders. The latter story— the oppression and the resistance —is told in Eric Arnesen’s Brotherhoods of Color: Black Railroad Workers and the Struggle for Equality. Among African American rail workers who have experienced and studied this rich history, Arnesen’s book is considered the authoritative reference, the Bible really, of an important, if often overlooked, history in the overall struggle for Black and worker’s rights in the US. (In addition to Brotherhoods of Color, I would recommend Philip Foner’s classic history Organized Labor and the Black Worker 1619-1973 an extraordinarily rich and comprehensive general history that takes up these issues and much more.)

The Railway Labor Act

The passage of the Federal Railway Labor Act of 1924 (RLA) registered important advances for railroad workers in that it was the first federal legal recognition of trade unions by craft. The RLA set up collective bargaining mechanisms that facilitated legally binding contract settlements and the adjudication of grievances, in exchange for rail labor organizations submitting to drawn-out federally “supervised” procedures that in practice gave up the right to strike.

Nevertheless, these concessions to rail labor reined in somewhat the unbridled prerogatives of the rail bosses over decades of on-again, off-again class war on the US rails from the great labor uprisings of 1877 through the struggles of the American Railway Union under the leadership of the legendary Eugene V. Debs.

The American Railway Union fought for the unification of all railroad workers – regardless of craft, race or ethnicity – into one big union. It won a big victory in the 1894 Great Northern strike but fell apart after the massive defeat in the Pullman strike later that year.

Those decades saw regular combat been rail capital and rail labor over worker’s rights, decent wages and living standards, working conditions and safety, the length of the working day, health and vacation benefits, and so on. The RLA, as it became institutionalized, also reined in the violence the rail bosses and their thugs and goons, backed by state and federal cops, National Guard, and armed forces, that was periodically unleashed against rail labor.

By setting up a significant government bureaucracy to oversee the adjudication of contract settlements and grievances, Washington and the rail carriers accomplished a major political goal of buying “labor peace” in the vast national rail industry at a time the United States was rising as a world power following World War I.

Another concession in the interests of rail labor was that the RLA also established the first federally protected pension system for any category of US workers, eleven years before the passage of the Social Security Act. The Railroad Retirement Board still exists to this day parallel to the Social Security Administration (and from which I personally draw my pension as a retired locomotive engineer).

The Institutionalization of Segregation

Perhaps the most pernicious consequences of the RLA was that it froze into place existing, narrow craft categories of workers, and, within that, a system of racist discrimination and the exclusion of non-“white” workers from the legally recognized craft unions, the so-called “Brotherhoods.”

It took decades of struggle in the yards, in the streets, in state and Federal legislatures, and continually in the courts, before the system began to weaken in the 1940s, under the impact of World War II labor shortages and the entry of masses of African American workers into the labor force and the massively expanding war industries. Further pressure mounted in the 1950s, as the Civil Rights Movement began to mobilize and fight, until the whole rotten structure collapsed in ignominy after the passage of the 1964 Federal Civil Rights Act. Over the next few years, Blacks finally began to get jobs, and union membership, as locomotive engineers, firemen, conductors, brakemen and switchmen, electricians and machinists, office personnel, and other crafts beyond “their” craft as sleeping car porters, cooks, and dining car attendants. Women began to enter the operating crafts and other skilled rail jobs in relatively larger numbers in the 1980s and 1990s.

Massive Union Growth in the US

The great labor battles of the 1930s in the United States are downplayed in history textbooks and public education. In fact, this period was marked by a huge working-class and trade union upsurge across the US. The nadir of US labor organization was in the depths of the 1931-32 Great Depression. Union membership had been reduced to 1-2% of the employed workforce. Most of that pitiful number was within the semi-moribund, very conservative AFL craft unions. By 1937-38 the number of organized workers has risen to a full 35% of the US workforce, following a few years of explosive strikes and organizing campaigns under the banner of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) movement with successful drives to organize the steel, auto, trucking, and countless other industries. Nowhere has there been recorded such a massive growth in trade-union membership in such a short period as in the United States at that time.

Unfortunately, this mass organization of the US working class in the 1930s bypassed almost completely the railroad industry and the “whites only” craft-union structure of the “Brotherhoods” that had been codified under the RLA a decade earlier. The craft structure was reinforced, with its segregationist core intact.

The CIO

The CIO did not exclude African-American workers and actively recruited them. In the course of the decade’s great labor battles, such as the Flint Sit-Down strikes of 1936-1937, the battle to organize US Steel and the entire steel industry, and much more, Black and Caucasian workers often organized, mobilized, and fought together and even politically radicalized, to an extent, together. Caucasian workers had to adjust their perspectives and outlooks and confront their prejudices to a degree as they faced the reality that African-American workers had already become a mass presence in US industry. Their numbers and concentration, as well as their evident and obvious capacity for industrial work and a fierce determination to struggle for decent-paying union jobs in the face of race prejudice and segregationist practice was becoming politically unstoppable. Race-baiting was an ever-present political tool of the bosses who fought tooth and nail against trade union advances. Many workers became conscious of these divide-and-conquer tactics and began to rethink their world outlooks.

The Women’s Emergency Brigade organized during the Flint Sit Down Strike of 1937.

Roots of the Civil Rights Movement

Brotherhoods of Color shows that the source and ultimate responsibility for the racist practices and policies that confronted Black workers throughout the 20th Century lay with the private rail carriers and the federal and state governments that catered to their needs and profits. Nevertheless, it must also be said that often these industry and state authorities used the racist and mean-spirited attitudes of the rail unions, the so-called “Brotherhoods” as a cover for inaction or hostile action against Black workers, who were fighting a permanent defensive war to preserve the relatively skilled jobs they had managed to secure.

These AFL-affiliated craft unions, legally recognized under the RLA, contained bylaws and “covenants” that openly excluded Black workers, making them essentially “white job trusts.” The “Brotherhoods” were, at times, even more racist and reactionary than the formal policies of the carriers and government bodies and agencies who regularly came under enough political and legal pressure from Black workers and their allies among labor radicals and civil rights and worker’s rights lawyers, to occasionally give lip service (and usually little else) to fair labor practices.

Brotherhoods of Color meticulously documents the legal battles doggedly fought by civil rights and worker’s rights attorneys in the generally hostile territory of the criminal justice system that predominated at that time. That system, as a whole, acted to uphold and defend – decade after decade – the prevailing system of de jure or de facto segregation and keep Black workers and their attorneys in an endless legal labyrinth. Nevertheless, working through the rigged “legal system,” trying to wring any concessions possible was the main approach of the more conservative Black and liberal organizations like the NAACP.

They took advantage of every contradiction between the fine words of US law and its sordid reality and snail’s pace when it came to race and sex discrimination. Even favorable court rulings here and there were rarely, if ever, implemented in practice. Slick government, carrier, or “Brotherhood” lawyers always managed to drag things out.

This legalistic road was nowhere a sufficient basis for change. It was rather more of a marker and registration for the ebb and flow of the grass-roots struggle against job discrimination and segregation which became unstoppable by the 1960s. Arnesen writes:

Just as proponents of educational desegregation learned in the 1950s, court-imposed solutions were costly, time-consuming, and imperfect. Employment discrimination cases slowly wound their way through the judicial system in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, addressing local variations as well as other obstacles that the ‘white’ craft unions threw in the way of African-American railroaders. Without a doubt, these cases established important principles that undermined the legitimacy of racist practices. In effect, though, they eroded only at a glacial pace both existing and new practices designed to thwart the job rights of black fireman and brakemen.

The struggles documented in Brotherhoods of Color became one of the mightiest rivers flowing into the ocean of the mass Civil Rights Movement emerging in the Deep South in the 1950s and 1960s. The political culmination was the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which gave the legal death knell to the segregationist practices that were institutionalized at the time of the Railway Labor Act. After the 1964 legislation the resistance of the craft unions collapsed virtually overnight and a period, sometimes fraught with tension but with steady gains, saw the beginnings of genuine job opportunities, union membership, and advances for African American workers in the freight and passenger rail industry.

Even in the period when Black workers were largely confined to crafts of sleeping car porters, cooks, and dining attendants, Black-led unions representing these workers on the job were organized. The strongest was the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) which became, under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, a powerful, prestigious organization in Black communities across the United States. The BSCP received a charter from the AFL in 1925 and, for years, unsuccessfully petitioned for the desegregation of the racist “Brotherhoods.” The BSCP was in the forefront of Black rights struggles across the US.

For example, it is not well known that the central organizer of the Montgomery Bus Boycott was E.D. Nixon, President of the Montgomery, Alabama chapter of the BSCP and the NAACP who convinced a courageous 26-year-old Martin Luther King (older prominent local preachers were reluctant to step forward) to take public leadership of what became the turning-point action that became the major spark of the mass movement across the South that soon materialized. The legendary Rosa Parks, whose conscious, well-organized decision to refuse to sit at the back of the bus set off the boycott, was a secretary at the NAACP office employed by BSCP worker and organizer E.D. Nixon.

Randolph had the courage to threaten a mass March on Washington in early 1941 demanding an end to segregation in the armed forces as well as that the massively expanding war industries hire and promote without discrimination Black workers. President Franklin Roosevelt was not happy but issued Executive Order 8802 prohibiting discrimination in war industries under federal contracts. This succeeded in get the March on Washington called off. Randolph later became the honorary chairperson for the famous 1963 March on Washington.

But the real heroes in Brotherhoods of Color are the rank-and-file workers, themselves, fighting to preserve their jobs against the carriers, the state governments, and the racist “Brotherhoods.” Arnesen gives them their voice and records their efforts, their many defeats and some victories which, when all is said and done, contributed mightily to the historic breakthroughs of the 1960s.

The overall history documented comprehensively by Arnesen does reveal clearly that all advances, small and larger, won were a byproduct of independent mass action or the threat of it from below.

Crucially, it should be emphasized that the space to do this was increased materially in the first half of the 20th Century in the World War I era, and, even more in the buildup to US entry into World War II. The centrality of the rail industry, the conversion to massive war production on the eve of World War II translated to a hunger for labor power on the railroads in particular and US industry in general. Black workers, already a massive layer of the working class in the worst, and worst-paying, jobs, and their representatives and advocates, saw the opening to fight for decent jobs, paying union-scale, in the rapidly expanding war industries. For example, during World War I thousands of Blacks were hired as construction and maintenance laborers on northern rail lines. In fact, Black GIs returning from World War II and the Korean War, and the African American nationality as a whole in these post-war periods, were in no mood for settling into the old segregationist and humiliating status quo.

Stop the Whitewashing of Our History

In my 30-year railroad career, working as a brakeman-switchman, hostler, and locomotive engineer in Chicago, Washington, DC, and New York, for first the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad and then for Amtrak, I saw a transformation in the number of African-American and then women in the operating crafts. I remember being in the cab of the locomotive in the middle of some godforsaken stretch of Illinois countryside, or pulling a 150-car coal train from Chicago’s giant Proviso Yard to the gates of a northern Indiana power plant, listening to the stories of some of the first Black engineers that the carriers were forced to hire – and the craft unions gave up trying to exclude. These brothers related to me the bullshit they had to put up with initially, even as things began to get better and prejudices began to break down.

It would be very educational and useful if our unions today would confront this blot on our history and dignity as organizations of labor. This is long overdue. And not only for moral reasons.

I maintain that we need to know the history of our unions if we are going to transform them into instruments of struggle for the coming battles facing the working class in the United States today, in this new gilded age of obscene social inequality and squalid oligarchy in the United States.

This whitewashing of history really slapped me across the face when I received in the mail in 2013 a booklet celebrating the 150th Anniversary of my union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), which is now a division of the Teamsters Union, and its predecessors the Brotherhood of the Footboard (founded in 1863) and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. There was not a single word in that small book about the segregationist, “whites only” bylaws and “covenants” that prevailed for 100 years!

I had once personally confronted BLET President Dennis Pierce about this, in a friendly way, when he attended a retirement party thrown by our Division 11 in New York City. Brother Pierce told me he was “appalled” at what he saw in the archives, including “whites only” covenants, but when I asked him why the history booklet sent to each member, glorifying the history of our union, there was not a single word on the decades-long blatant racism he fell back on the lame and cowardly rationalization that to include it in the 150th anniversary booklet and literature would be “divisive”! As if the real “division” were not the racist practices themselves.

Old Lessons, Current Realities

While the legacy of racist discrimination in the railroad industry – and in US social relations in general – have been dealt heavy blows in the past several decades, race hatred and demagogy remain a reference point for ultra-rightist forces and their allies (who are invariably anti-union) and a cutting-edge component in the current social and political polarization in US politics. These voices are trying to get a hearing for their reactionary viewpoints in the working class and our greatly weakened trade-union movement.

Since the financial crisis and so-called Great Recession of 2007-08 there were subsequent devastating attacks on the value of labor, employment, wages, and living standards under both Democratic and Republican White Houses and Congresses. The relative and slight uptick in GDP numbers today (famously manipulated and manipulatable), the balloon of the stock market, and slight increases in industrial production and manufacturing have been typically hyped by President Donald Trump – “this is the greatest economy in the history of America.” The actual economic figures (which are always “readjusted”) are significant and interesting mainly around the question of their sustainability. One key question: What will be the unintended consequences of the unfolding clashes over trade and tariffs between the United States, China, and the European Union? What will be the spillover effects, economically and politically, in Asia, Canada, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa?

Another curious fact that stands out for now is that wages for working people continue to stagnate and trend downward, with minor exceptions, despite the official low unemployment figures. Labor shortages in fast-food and other large-scale wholesale and retail operations such as Amazon, Walmart, and so on, along with militant drives by unorganized workers to fight for $15 an hour, have forced these outfits to grant some wage concessions.

Similarly, rank-and-file teachers, almost independent of their weak unions, forced state house to grant some wage relief (that is raises) with no strings attached in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona.

Brotherhoods of Color is well-written and comprehensive. I recommend it not only for its rich evocation of the past but because it contains many lessons for rail and other US workers of whatever “race” or skin tone, for the present and future. Workers, who are being drawn into today’s struggles and will by the millions be drawn into the giant, inevitable class battles that lay ahead in the USA.

Ike Nahem is a longtime anti-imperialist and socialist activist. He is the coordinator of Cuba Solidarity New York and a founder of the New York-New Jersey July 26 Coalition. He was a central organizer of the March 25-26, 2017 National Conference for the Full Normalization of US-Cuba Relations, held in New York City. Nahem is a retired Amtrak Locomotive Engineer and member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, a division of the Teamsters Union. His writings have been published online in Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, MRZine, Pambazuka News, ZNet, and various Cuban online journals. Comment and criticism can be sent to ikenahem@mindspring.com. Read other articles by Ike.