Power At Odds: The 1922 National Railroad Shopmen's Strike.
The 1922 railroad shopmen's strike is the last of the great nationwide strikes of American railway workers. The strike raged in the summer of 1922, enrolled more than 400,000 men at its peak, jeopardized the nation's commerce, forced the intervention of the most powerful government and business leaders, continued to sizzle in 1923, disintegrated by 1924, but did not come to an official end until 1928. For unclear reasons, the railroad shopmen's strike has only gained the cursory attention of scholars. To be sure, the strike occurred during a decade of defeat and retrenchment for American trade unions; labor historians generally have been drawn to more dramatic and encouraging times. More important, perhaps, the strike unfolded in scores of small, out-of-the-way shop towns. Documenting and analyzing this strike is a daunting task; for the earlier great labor upheavals on American railroads, events in a Pittsburgh or Chicago serve to tell the basic stories.
Colin Davis is to be commended for accepting and meeting the challenge. He has provided a fine account of the 1922 shopmen's strike. While his overall narrative does not alter the paragraph coverage and outline of the strike available in textbooks, Davis has presented an engaging, well-researched and insightful blow-by-blow history that deserves the label, "definitive." However, his study is conclusive in an institutional way. While he brings the reader to such places as Waycross, Georgia and Ogden, Utah, describes local insurgencies and violence, relates the participation of women supporters of the strikers, and deals with racial and ethnic divides (as well as class solidarities), his is not a social history of the 1922 railway shopmen's strike. The great strength of Davis's study lies in his treatment of the strategies of and negotiations among government officials, railroad company executives and union leaders. The glimpses of worker experience that he provides make for a glass half full, to his credit; c ommunity studies that rest on the footing he has established can now be conducted to render a complete portrait.
Railroad companies created shop towns largely in rural, divisional midway points for the maintenance and repair of locomotives and freight and passenger cars. The shopmen comprised a diverse group occupationally of machinists, boilermakers, blacksmiths, sheet metal workers, electricians, carpenters, painters, apprentices, and laborers. Craft divisions and geographical isolation proved obstacles in organization and the shopmen lagged behind operating railwaymen-- locomotive engineers, firemen, brakemen, conductors, and even maintenance-of-the-way men--in the forming of unions. In 1908, leaders of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) created the Railway Employees' Department (RED) to coordinate organization of the separate craft unions in the field and to secure unified contracts covering all shopmen within and across companies. An ambitious attempt to gain system-wide agreements on the Illinois Central and railroads controlled by the Harriman financial interests met defeat in a prolonged job action between 1911-15. The forceful use of strikebreakers and injunctions manifested railroad managers' determination to counter RED.
World War I proved the great boon to railway shopmen. Increased rail traffic and severe labor shortages provided leverage the shopmen never had before and major carriers began to enter into collective bargaining with RED. The federal government then firmly boosted the organization and fortunes of the shopworkers. Officials of the Railroad Administration, an agency established to manage the nation's railroads during the national emergency, issued orders guaranteeing shopmen the right to form unions and set favorable wage and workplace standards that in effect constituted a national contract for them (an actual nationwide agreement would be reached and signed between the government and RED in September of 1920). Membership in the rail craft unions mushroomed accordingly and by the end of the First World War, the greater unionization of the trade had been achieved. The quickly gained success of the shopmen would serve as the backdrop for the great strike of 1922.
In the early l920s, railroad executives, joining with other managers of American industry, determined to reverse the government-assisted gains made by organized labor during the war. Railroad officials lobbied successfully to have control of the railroads returned to private hands; they also announced their intentions to operate free of union accords with reduced labor forces and to contract out repair work to non-union firms. More politically favorable times aided their counterattack. In 1920, Congress, with bare majorities, voted to re-privatize the nation's railroads and with Transportation Act of 1920, a new Railroad Labor Board (RLB) was established to resolve labor disputes. Newly elected President Warren G. Harding soon made conservative appointments to the RLB. With the officials of the Board annulling prior agreements and rejecting new appeals, the federated shopmen's unions under the aegis of RED called a nationwide strike for July 1,1922. The shopmen demanded a national contract re-establishing wa rtime standards and banning outside contracting and piecework systems of payment.
The strike, Davis shows, gathered the greater support of shopmen across the country, more than 80 percent of them walking off their jobs. He also documents the absolute resolve of railroad managers to maintain operations with the massive hiring of replacement workers. The arrival of strikebreakers in shop towns, guarded by company police and often reluctant local and state militia, set the stage for violent confrontations, the loss of life and destruction of property mirroring earlier great labor battles on the railroads.
The extent of the strike and its impact on the nation's economy necessitated Harding's intervention. At first, he sought compromise from both sides. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, counseling accommodation, similarly appealed to leading financiers to prevail on railroad executives to reach agreements with RED. With escalating violence and the critical curtailing of coal shipments, Harding by late August began to listen to the hard-liners in his administration. Attorney General Harry Daugherty then convinced Harding of the need for a blanket anti-trust injunction to restrain union activity. With federal marshals now in the field clamping down on meetings and picketing, unity among the shopmen across craft and company lines broke. Divisions among the railroad executives, however, also surfaced by late summer. Led by Daniel Willard, president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the more liberal-minded of company officials sought to reach separate accords with their shop employees. The agreements allowed for the reinstatement of the strikers without penalties and the return to seniority principles, but no other concessions. In some instances, workers rescinded their affiliation with their craft organization to join company unions. By the early fall, peace had returned to fifteen of the fifty-two railroads involved in the strike. The rest of the lines refused to budge, and the strike slowly collapsed in different places. The federated railroad shopmen's unions had participated in the reaching of a national agreement in 1920; by 1925, the fortunate among the shopmen worked under company-wide, largely management-dictated contracts.
Davis's treatment of the 1922 railroad shopmen's strike is especially strong in three areas. With impressive research in government archives, he provides an extraordinary look into the inner workings of the Harding administration. His discussion of divisions among Harding's advisors and the president's sincere search for a peaceful and just resolution to the crisis but ultimate decision to employ legal measures of suppression is absolutely illuminating. Davis's analysis of the Railway Employees' Department of the AFL is equally insightful. Little scholarship exists on this coordinating agency. Davis's argument that the accomodationist stance that brought success during World War I proved wanting during the 1922 strike and divided RED leaders from the rank-and-file is very persuasive. Finally, in fully documenting the determination of railroad officials to maintain operations with replacement workers, Davis provides the best treatment of the use of strikebreakers available in labor histories. Here, Davis furt her qualifies the role of African American workers in labor disputes. While railroad companies vigorously recruited blacks and other minority workers to replace the shopmen, in many instances, African Americans proved staunch unionists.
The study also has weaknesses. In his introduction, Davis offers a standard review of labor historiography as well as theories of the state; once into his narrative, he rarely stops to place the 1922 strike in scholarly or theoretical perspective. More notably, while Davis does present wonderful snippets of the strike experience at the grass roots level, in the absence of even a few extended community case studies, the deeper social history of the strike is not furnished. Why the strike exploded and persisted in certain places and not others; how past and current local Populists or Socialist politics impacted on events; the place of the strike in the Progressive Party campaign of 1924; how strikers and their supporters were mobilized and personally affected; what legacies the defeat of the strike had in communities--all these questions and issues await future research that will be well aided by Davis's commendable foundational study.
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1999|
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