walkitout (walkitout) wrote,
walkitout
walkitout

"Tangled Labor Relations"

That's a chapter title in _Railroads and American Law_. It is _sooooo_ inadequate.

Quotations to follow taking from pages 252-5.

"In May 1877 The Pennsylvania Railroad announced a second 10 percent wage reduction. Other eastern carriers soon followed suit. A spontaneous strike began on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in July and soon engulfed much of the rail network. Although the national leaders of the brotherhoods publicly took no part, the strikers successfully halted rail traffic in much of the nation. Tensions mounted, and the governors of several states summoned the militia. The strikes in some cities quickly assumed the character of riots and there was massive destruction of railroad property. Pittsburgh was the scene of a pitched battle between the militia and rioters, and there was widespread looting and burning of railroad cars and buildings. In some communities the crowds were swelled by persons who were not strikers but who harbored a deep resentment at railroad operations on city streets."

Hayes stalls as long as he can, sends federal troops out after things have calmed down, everyone hates him. Poor Hayes. "The toll exacted by the strike was staggering. More than one hundred persons were dead. Property damage in Baltimore, Chicago, St. Louis, Reading, and other communities was estimated at millions of dollars. The outcome of the strike could be seen as inconclusive. Some strikers were fired, but the practice of wage-cutting was stopped."

Nevertheless, it took them another 10 years to pass the Arbitration Act of 1888, which called for _voluntary arbitration_ and a presidential commission to investigate the causes of labor controversies. The Pullman strike of 1894 is when things finally started to change, but here's what it took to motivate people:

"Angered by an imposed wage reduction [yeah, they really learned that lesson], the employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company went on strike...To make the work stoppage effective, strikers and sympathizers forcibly blocked railroad transportation and the passage of mail through Chicago. This action in late June paralyzed much of the national rail transportation network. President Grover Cleveland ordered federal troops into Chicago, although no rioting had yet occurred, in order to ensure that trains moved. This triggered mob disturbances and destruction of hundreds of rail cars. Matters rapidly spun out of control. As violence spread from Chicago westward to California, the Cleveland administration obtained a sweeping injunction from the federal circuit court in Chicago. The court ordered union officials and all persons conspiring with them to cease hindering any train operating in interstate commerce or carrying the mail. This injunction, coupled with the military intervention, broke the strike by late July."

Debs was one of the people named, and he brought it all the way up to the Supreme Court trying to get a writ of habeas corpus (which I keep spelling wrong). Did not get it. "Speaking for a unanimous Court in the case of In re Debs (1895), Justice Brewer denied the writ and forcefully asserted federal authority "to brush away all obstructions to the freedom of interstate commerce or the transportation of the mails." Invoking the public nuisance doctrine, he declared that the government could summon military force to compel obedience to law. Brewer broadly upheld the equitable jurisdiction of the federal courts to prevent unlawful interference with commerce. He sustained injunctive relief on the basis of both the government's property interest in the mails [!!!] and the sovereign power to protect the general welfare. Rendered long after the Pullman strike had ended, the Debs opinion was most significant for placing the Supreme Court's imprimatur on the growing use of labor injunctions."

I've read _a lot_ about railroads at this point, and I know a little bit about the history of labor law. But I learned a frightening amount I _did not_ know in the last couple chapters of this book. I'd been trying to get the scoop on the WW1 government takeover of the trains -- and was still a little disappointed by Ely's coverage, because he mostly focused on the legal ramifications of it, and my interest in it is a bit more far-reaching.

In other railroad books, I read extensively about batshit crazy union work rules that were insanely expensive to the railroads. I read about how the ICC being slow and keeping things cheap made it impossible for the railroads to do basic maintenance. I read about how government bureaucrats just made crap up to "prove" that the new highways weren't taking business away from the railroads, or at least, not enough to matter. And on, and on, and on. After the Pullman strike was over, the federal government was willing to get a lot more involved in the business of railroading, but they still didn't want to own the railroads. During WW1, they gave workers huge raises -- and they ran through across the board rate increases to pay for them. They also created a superstructure of who-does-what work rules that the railroads were stuck with after the war. From one perspective, that's the government being "inefficient". From another perspective, once the government was directly engaged with the problem, the shippers whining about how rates were too high no longer made any sense -- and once they really saw who was being paid what, they knew it would be a lot cheaper to pay the workers a living wage than it would be to hire a bunch of thugs to keep them working/stop them sabotaging at starving wages.

The railroads were what tied this country together. Everyone relied upon them, one way or another. When the railroads stopped moving, it was The End of the World. When the people working on that road had the power to stop it, and the motivation to do so, chaos ensued. The issue of just what should have been done to prevent that from happening (again) was such a powerful issue that Heinlein was still getting mileage out of it in "The Roads Must Roll", decades later, in a science fiction story set in his "Future History" (unsurprisingly, Heinlein wasn't too sympathetic to the unions).

We do need to reorient our transport policy -- the non-policy we have in transport is probably second only in scale to the non-policy we have in health care. There is terrible waste, terrible social injustice and terrible cost in dollars and lives. Hopefully, we'll remember that the reason we wanted to build all those "free" highways was in part because we wanted to make for damn sure that no one -- or even many -- could ever bring all movement in this country to a halt again. Hopefully, we'll remember that we have never been able to fully replace railroads with those "free" highways -- we have to have them for the efficient movement of heavy, bulk commodities, and we could benefit by using them for more than just the heavy, bulk commodities. But most importantly, we do need to realize that it was numerous shippers grabbing the ear of the government by outshouting the carriers that _really_ led to the strikes. Obama is right to try to listen to all sides -- not both sides, all sides. It is too easy to mock that as a partisan, but the strategy is definitely the right one.
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