History of Rail Transport in The United States - Labor

Labor

Railways changed employment in many ways. Lines with hundreds or thousands of employees developed systematic rules and procedures, not only for running the equipment but in hiring, promoting, paying and supervising employees. The railway system was adopted by all major business. Railways offered a new type of work experience in enterprises vastly larger in size, complexity and management. At first workers were recruited from occupations where skills were roughly analogous and transferable, that is, workshop mechanics from the iron, machine and building trades; conductors from stagecoach drivers, steamship stewards and mail boat captains; station masters from commerce and commission agencies; and clerks from government offices.

In response to the strikes of the 1870s and 1880s, Congress passed the Arbitration Act of 1888, which authorized the creation of arbitration panels with the power to investigate the causes of labor disputes and to issue non-binding arbitration awards. The Act was a complete failure: only one panel was ever convened under the Act, and that one, in the case of the 1894 Pullman Strike, issued its report only after the strike had been crushed by a federal court injunction backed by federal troops.

Congress attempted to correct these shortcomings in the Erdman Act, passed in 1898. This law likewise provided for voluntary arbitration, but made any award issued by the panel binding and enforceable in federal court. It also outlawed discrimination against employees for union activities, prohibited "yellow dog" contracts (employee agrees not to join a union while employed), and required both sides to maintain the status quo during any arbitration proceedings and for three months after an award was issued. The arbitration procedures were rarely used. A successor statute, the Newlands Act, passed in 1913 proved more effective, but was largely superseded when the federal government nationalized the railroads in 1917.

As railroads expanded after the Civil War, so too did the rate of accidents among railroad personnel, especially brakemen. Many accidents were associated with the coupling and uncoupling of railroad cars, and the operation of manually operated brakes (hand brakes). The rise in accidents led to calls for safety legislation, as early as the 1870s. In the 1880s, the number of on-the-job fatalities of railroad workers was second only to those of coal miners. Through that decade, several state legislatures enacted safety laws. However, the specific requirements varied among the states, making implementation difficult for interstate rail carriers, and Congress passed the Safety Appliance Act in 1893 to provide a uniform standard. The law required railroads to install air brakes and automatic couplers on all trains, and led to a sharp drop in accidents.

The Esch–Cummins Act of 1920 terminated the nationalization program and created a Railway Labor Board (RLB) to regulate wages and issue non-binding proposals to settle disputes. In 1921 the RLB ordered a twelve percent reduction in employees' wages, which led to the Great Railroad Strike of 1922, involving rail shop workers nationwide, followed by a court injunction to end the strike. Congress passed the Railway Labor Act of 1926 to rectify the shortcomings of the RLB procedures.

Read more about this topic:  History Of Rail Transport In The United States

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