Jon R. Huibregtse, American Railroad Labor and the Genesis of the New Deal, 1919-1935.
Jon R. Huibregtse, American Railroad Labor and the Genesis of the New Deal, 1919-1935 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida 2010)
IN A JULY OP-ED in the New York New York, state, United States
New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of Times, industrial relations industrial relations
Relations between the management of an industrial enterprise and its employees.
the relations between management and workers expert George Yorgakaros called for professional sports, as private cartels that provide a public good, to adapt their labour framework to the 1926 Railway Labor Act The Railway Labor Act is a United States federal law that governs labor relations in the railway and airline industries.. The Act, passed in 1926 and amended in 1936 to apply to the airline industry, seeks to substitute bargaining, arbitration and mediation for strikes as a means . This is a useful reminder that the US labour landscape is still shaped by the experience of decades long past. The passage of that act is central to American Railroad Labor and the Genesis of the New Deal. In it, historian Jon R. Huibregste argues that the railroad unions' activism of the 1920s helped establish the conditions for the New Deal of the 1930s. Claiming that the standard historiography of the New Deal largely overlooks the pivotal role of these unions, Huibregste's book credits the railroad brotherhoods as innovators in American social policy and labour law. It provides a clear account of the political activism and social policy reform of the railroad brotherhoods. However, the book leaves several important questions unanswered.
In the 1920s, while American labour reeled under the assault of business after the glory days of strikes and mobilization during World War I, the railroad unions turned to legislative and political action. Wartime rhetoric of "industrial democracy" was abandoned as capital and the state worked to expel radicals and roll back gains made by workers under the auspices of the first Red Scare In American history, the First Red Scare took place in the period 1917–1920, and was marked by a widespread fear of anarchism and communism, as well as the effects of radical political agitation in American society. and the "American Plan." Huibregste shows that the railroad brotherhoods, sometimes dismissed as conservative and insular, kept that ideology alive in pushing for further gains. The testimony he provides on the hazards of railroad life and the instability of careers provides good context for why security provisions were so urgent a priority for the unions.
During the Great War, the railroads were nationalized and unions recognized by the government railroad authority. After the war, carriers successfully prevailed on the government for legislation that turned back the clock to the prewar era. A particular concern of the brotherhoods was the weakened labour dispute arbiter created by the legislation, the Railroad Labor Board (RLB RLB Right Linebacker (pro football)
RLB Regulated Lag Ballast
RLB Rated Load Break
RLB Receive Load Balancing ), which had no authority to enforce its decisions. Huibregste sees in this setback the seeds of future success. In creating their own counterproposal coun·ter·pro·pos·al
A proposal offered to nullify or substitute for a previous one.
Noun 1. counterproposal - a proposal offered as an alternative to an earlier proposal , the Plumb Plan, the railroad brotherhoods learned to work together on matters of political advocacy. Furthermore, the newspaper they created to promote the Plumb Plan, Labor, would become an important pulpit for their reform efforts throughout the next decade.
Another way the railroad unions adapted to the postwar situation was by actively participating in partisan electoral politics. Huibregste details how, through the labour newspaper, their monthly magazines, and on the ground organizers, "railroad labor's political machine" became a force that influenced races at the Congressional, state, and federal levels. He even argues that the successful and varied organizing of railroad union leadership indicated they "had supplanted the American Federation of Labor as the leading voice of American Labor." However, this is a contention mentioned in passing, and Huibregste provides little evidence to support this claim.
Throughout the mid-1920s, the railroad brotherhoods worked tirelessly to convince legislators to repeal the Railroad Labor Board. Huibregste demonstrates that they applied political pressure to both Republicans and Democrats, and explored the possibility of a progressive third party under the leadership of Wisconsin senator Robert La Follette. While the third party option petered out after La Follette's death, railroad labour's multidimensional activism in the 1924 election season prompted even the GOP to pledge a review of the RLB and tepid support of the brotherhoods' favoured Howell-Barkley bill, which introduced direct mediation and voluntary arbitration with binding decisions. Huibregste sees the eventual passage of the Railway Labor Act as a "pioneering measure" establishing "collective bargaining collective bargaining, in labor relations, procedure whereby an employer or employers agree to discuss the conditions of work by bargaining with representatives of the employees, usually a labor union. in the railroad industry a decade before that right was generally recognized." He argues that their political efforts and the power railroad workers wielded in the US economy delivered the victory. To Huibregste, this is also a triumph for reformism re·form·ism
A doctrine or movement of reform.
re·formist n. , and political moderation over radicalism. The brotherhoods' leadership's gradualism grad·u·al·ism
1. The belief in or the policy of advancing toward a goal by gradual, often slow stages.
2. Biology rocked no boats, eschewed the radicalism of the era, and therefore triumphed, enabling the wider successes of the New Deal.
Unfortunately, this provocative argument is not developed, but merely asserted. To Huibregste, that the railroad unions' leadership provided gains for their workers is enough; it follows naturally that their strategy was best. He does not consider that, given their pivotal location in the American economy, they had the leverage to win far more for both their own members and for the broader working class. A sustained evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of 1920s railroad unionism would have added much needed perspective, here and elsewhere. This type of conservative unionism is less studied than the histories of militant unions that fought notorious strikes. While it is valuable that Huibregste has examined their strategy and tactics, he declines to connect a consideration of the brotherhoods' businesslike approach with broader questions of working-class strategy and ideology. Despite the current vogue for histories, such as Ian McKay's, that attempt to combine disparate left movements into one amorphous oppositional melange mé·lange also me·lange
A mixture: "[a] building crowned with a mélange of antennae and satellite dishes" Howard Kaplan. , there is a real need to historicize his·tor·i·cize
v. his·tor·i·cized, his·tor·i·ciz·ing, his·tor·i·ciz·es
To make or make appear historical.
To use historical details or materials. discrete actors, unions, and organizations, appreciate their differences, and evaluate what worked and what did not. The author's silence on this point is a missed opportunity.
Huibregste then turns to the efforts of the railroad brotherhoods to establish a retirement insurance plan for their workers, which he credits as a forerunner for the Roosevelt administration's eventual establishment of Social Security. "Their bill was defeated when the Supreme Court decided that establishing pensions was outside of Congress's sphere of authority, forcing its backers to base legislation on Congress's recognized powers of taxation. Huibregste argues this experience helped smooth the later passage of the Social Security Act.
The remainder of the book is somewhat puzzling. Next is a chapter on the brotherhoods' leadership's disastrous establishment of labour banks, including an unethical and calamitous ca·lam·i·tous
Causing or involving calamity; disastrous.
ca·lami·tous·ly adv. foray into Florida real estate at the height of a real estate bubble. While the subject is interesting, and reminiscent of today's labour investment funds, Huibregste does not connect this section to the rest of the book. It is unclear how exactly the chapter is supposed to develop the author's arguments. While Huibregste notes the railroad brotherhood leadership's enthusiasm for labour banking as symptomatic of a view of themselves as middle class, he stops short of a deeper exploration of that class consciousness. One possibility would be to consider this misstep as an outgrowth of their top-down orientation. As he impressively documents, the leadership was aligned to gradualism and negotiation with railroads and the state, rather than a stance more critical of capitalism. This may have contributed to an enthusiasm for the elements of elite power, such as banking. After the discussion of labour banking, the book simply ends, without a conclusion to drive home Huibregste's main arguments or suggest directions for future research.
Huibregste has done a thorough job of explaining railroad labour's political and legislative strategy in the years after World War I. However, his argument that the reforms won by labour leaders directly led to the New Deal era is not conclusively proved. That the battle over retirement legislation may have cleared the path for Social Security is not overwhelmingly persuasive. As he admits, Social Security would have been enacted anyways an·y·ways
In any case.
Adv. 1. anyways - used to indicate that a statement explains or supports a previous statement; "Anyhow, he is dead now"; "I think they're asleep; anyhow, they're quiet"; "I . While he trumpets the policy accomplishments of the brotherhoods, he does not discuss the actual impact of reforms and policy on the constituency of these leaders--railroad workers themselves. Did these reforms work to significantly impact the lives of railway workers? What were the political concerns of railway workers themselves, and did leadership take them up? How democratic were the railway brotherhoods? Was their racial exclusionism ex·clu·sion·ist
One that advocates the exclusion of another or others, as from having or exercising a right or privilege.
ex·clu controversial among members, or accepted as a foundation for white superiority and the "wages of whiteness"? The book has little to say about these issues.
These are important questions for a study of the political activism of the railroad unions. Many of them are taken up by Paul Michel Taillon in Good, Reliable White Men, his history of the brotherhoods up to and during the Great War. 7hat book highlights what Huibregste's focus on the leadership obscures: the constituency of that leadership, the 'railroader'. The reader of this book is unenlightened about how that constituency might have been constructed by class, race, gender, occupation, and status to advance certain claims on capital and the state. Despite its untapped potential, the book is a useful starting point for historians interested in railroad labour, labour activism in the 1920s, and the techniques of the era's most effective business unions.
Simon Fraser University Simon Fraser University, main campus at Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada; provincially supported; coeducational; chartered 1963, opened 1965. The Harbour Centre campus in downtown Vancouver opened in 1989.