On March 9, 1911, railroad brotherhoods in Kentucky and Tennessee went on strike to protest the hiring of Black workers. This is a prime example of the way in which skilled white workers would choose their white identity over and over again over any sense of racial solidarity across class. This continues to be a major problem in the white working class today.
Although in many ways little remembered today, the railroad brotherhoods were among the rocks of late 19th century unionization. Skilled workers by definition, these brotherhoods were generally politically conservative or neutral workers who never sought to overturn or even challenge capitalism. Rather, they sought their fair shake as men (quite explicitly) in the industrial system. Equally important was their position as not just men but white men who saw America as a place for the white man to succeed. That meant they would go to any lengths to keep their position at the peak of the labor aristocracy. There were four major brotherhoods: The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, the Order of Railway Conductors, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and the Brotherhood of Railways Trainmen. They each did very specific jobs on the trains and while they might ally when needed, they were never going to push for a broad-based union effort of all railroad workers, especially the less skilled workers who they largely held in contempt.
The brotherhoods, due to their moderate politics and positionality as skilled white men, gathered a good bit of power in American life, enough that presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt would speak at their conventions and have to listen to them when they made demands of the railroad corporations. Unlike the industrial unionism of Eugene Debs and the American Railway Union, for instance, the brotherhoods were never going to attempt a large-scale organizing the entire working class. For this reason, they could claim a respectability that gave them greater power in nation whose political class were barely comfortable with even this level of unionization.
By the early 20th century, the railroads sought to bust their unions by hiring Black firemen and brakemen. This happened at the same time that racial violence in the South was peaking, with lynching an increasingly common act. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen and the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen were furious that Black workers were getting hired in their jobs. During the 1890s, their journals began to highlight and approve of actual examples of violence against Black workers. These brotherhoods wanted the other brotherhoods to help unite to eliminate all Black workers from the trains. Perhaps ironically, the other brotherhoods rejected this because it would move toward federation and industrial unionism. Moreover, this was a more strongly felt thing among southern whites and these were national unions.
However, the brotherhoods were growing in strength in the first decade of the twentieth century. Turns out if they worked together and stood in solidarity to improve wages that it worked. Who knew! But soon after realizing that solidarity was something useful in organizing, the Firemen decided to use it for the one thing they cared about more than wages: keeping the trains white. In April 1909, the Firemen struck the Georgia Railroad over replacing white workers with Black workers. This was framed around the principle of seniority. Perhaps more than any other unions, the brotherhoods established the principle of seniority as central to American unionism. Too often, this has given cover to open racism among white workers. But that wasn’t good enough here. They wanted a dual seniority system that gave first priority to the oldest white fireman over any Black fireman. The issue went to arbitration and to the shock of the brotherhoods, the arbiters ruled that the Georgia Railroad could continued employing Black firemen and use its existing seniority system, but it had to pay Black workers the same as whites.
These issues continued to fester among southern white railroad workers. In January 1911, the Cincinnati, New Orleans, and Texas Pacific Railroad assigned three Black firemen to run trains between Chattanooga and Oakdale, Tennessee. These were long-term senior firemen. Like in the Georgia case, management felt it was in fact running according to the accepted seniority system. The brotherhoods felt it was a violation because white workers always should have seniority rights over Black workers. Finally, on March 9, 250 white firemen and 100 white engineers struck over the issue. They stayed off the job for over three weeks. Because they had a lot of sympathizers among white workers throughout the railroads, this small number of workers were able to effectively shut down the line. What solidarity meant in this case was local white residents in the towns along the rail line taking shots at Black workers they saw as the train passed and attacking crews, both white and Black, as they passed.
Once again, since the brotherhoods had won federal arbitration as a way of settling conflicts without the maximum strikes of, say, the Pullman Strike, that is where this race strike ended up. The Firemen demanded that Black firemen be fired. Unlike in Georgia, the arbitrators in this case attempted to create a compromise that ultimately helped the brotherhoods make the job more white. Black firemen could now not be assigned to more than half the passenger or good freight runs and the total percentage of Black firemen could not exceed what it was at the beginning of 1911.
Black firemen did fight back against these decisions that laid the way for the job becoming all-white. Between small Black unions and the use of litigation to try and open jobs along the railroad, this was part of the struggle for Black worker rights. The Railway Men’s Benevolent Industrial Association became a nascent industrial federation of skilled Black rail workers in 1915. But it simply did not have the political clout or power of the white brotherhoods. And with the brotherhoods now using their bargaining power instead of relying on arbitration to keep all these jobs for whites, it was a losing battle for Black rights on the railroads.
The reality of American labor history is that white workers have consistently chosen their white identity over their class identity, or perhaps more precisely, they have not been able to see any real difference between their racial and class identities. America was for white men. Period. And threats to that became a zero-sum game that allowed for no compromise with Black workers. Both the state and, ultimately, the railroads themselves, were indifferent enough to the fate of Black skilled workers to let this slowly happen. Like everything else in American history, without looking at race, we simply can’t understand the nation properly.
I borrowed from Paul Michael Taillon, Good, Reliable White Men: Railroad Brotherhoods, 1877-1917 in the writing of this post.
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