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MofW ... Working On The Railroad

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Photograph taken about 1891 of a railroad construction gang beside an 1876-vintage locomotive near Greenville, Pennsylvania. (Credit: Bessemer and Lake Erie Railroad.)

Dj Vu : The Maintenance of Way Workers and the Maine Central Railroad, 1901

by Charles A. Scontras

In contrast with the "aristocrats" among the railroad workers such as the engineers, firemen, conductors and trainmen, the men who maintained the nation's railroad tracks were regarded as "expendable no-accounts." As the "poorest paid and hardest worked and least considered of any men on the roads," they could be found at the base of the social pyramid that profiled the distribution of status and income among railroad workers in late nineteenth century Maine and America.

To correct such social and economic disparities, the "Gandy-Dancers," as the men were called whose primary task was to look after the ribbons of steel that carried passengers and freight, turned to collective action in the 1880s and 1890s. In 1886, a year of labor upheaval in the nation, the trackmen formed their first labor organization--the Brotherhood of Railway Section Foremen of North America. It soon united with the Order of Railway Trackmen to form the International Brotherhood of Railway Track Foremen of America, essentially a social and benevolent fraternity. In 1896 the Railway Track Foremen merged with the Independent Brotherhood of Railway Trackmen of America, a more traditional trade union. Three years later (1899), that organization absorbed the United Brotherhood of Railroad Trackmen, a Canadian labor organization (founded in 1893), and, in 1900, affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. In 1902 it changed its title to that of the International Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes. It was as the Independent Brotherhood of Railway Trackmen, however, that they first took root in Waterville, Maine, in December 1900.

The dawn of the new century was not a time when workers could challenge, with impunity, the prevailing views of individualism, private property, the free market, and the "natural" economic laws which were presumed to govern it. The Brotherhood's journal, Foremen's Advocate (later called Trackmen's Advance Advocate) provided a glimpse of the climate of industrial relations in Maine and the nation at that time, for its editors "more than once" found it necessary to exercise caution in the selection of letters they included in their publication. They noted that subordinate officials of the railroads frequently scrutinized the journal to discover which of the men were violent in their opinions. Once aware of the militant members of the work force, the officials would swiftly retaliate against them. The pervasive fear of reprisals by employers for "disloyal" conduct and activities muted the angry voices of many workers and made ineffective or useless the labor organizers' appeal for militancy and collective action. Further, the Maine Conspiracy Law (1889), passed in the aftermath of the Knights of Labor movement which flashed across the state in the middle eighties, hovered over the industrial scene and reinforced a cautious stance on the part of workers relative to collective action. For a worker, such as a railroad trackman, who earned $1.25 or $1.35 a day, the penalties provided by the law appeared very intimidating:

Whosoever by threat, intimidation or force, alone or in combination with others, prevents any person from entering into or continuing in the employment of any person, firm or corporation shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than two years or by fine not exceeding five hundred dollars.

Nevertheless, many workers, driven by a mix of anger, courage, and sense of justice, placed considerations of economic security and fear of imprisonment behind them and engaged in strike activity. The trackmen, who held in their hands "the lives of all who travel(ed) by rail, from the engineer in the cab to the conductor in the rear," could be counted among those for whom the price of compliance had become intolerable, and for whom the risk of leaving their workplaces was outweighed by their hope of success in their struggle against management.

The Independent Brotherhood of Railway Trackmen of America, reinforced by their affiliation with the strong Canadian organization, launched an organizational drive during the early months of 1901. By the spring of that year, the Brotherhood claimed divisions in Bangor, Waterville, Brunswick, Lewiston and Portland. On June 10, 1901, the young Brotherhood called its maiden strike, a strike against the Maine Central Railroad. It was also the first "out and out strike the road ever had."

The Maine Central Railroad, whose 649 miles of track (within Maine) served as the "principal artery" of commerce in the state, was divided into three divisions: the Bangor Division which encompassed the area from Bangor to Vanceboro, and included the Bar Harbor and Bucksport branch; the Waterville Division which covered Waterville to Bangor, and included the Skowhegan, Dover and Foxcroft, and Belfast branches; and the Portland Division which included both the back and lower routes from Portland to Waterville, Farmington to Lewiston, Rockland and Bath branch, and the Mountain Division to Lime Ridge, Canada.

The section foremen of the Maine Central (a section consisted of three or four men and a foreman) were ordered to "put up their cars and tools in the car houses, lock the doors, turning over the keys belonging to the company to the nearest station agent after taking receipts for the same." Once they had completed those assignments, they were to notify the roadmaster as follows: "Myself and men have suspended work and will not be responsible for the company's property in our charge after 5 p.m., June 10, 1901." The orders of the national organization were communicated to the workers by the Waterville Division No. 180, which served as the Grievance Committee for the strikers. No order to return to work was to be honored unless it bore the seal of the Waterville Division.

To be continued.

Professor Charles A. Scontras formerly taught in the History and Political Science Departments at the University of Maine, Orono, Maine. He is now a Research Associate with the Bureau of Labor Education at the University of Maine. He has written a number of publications and is currently completing a volume entitled, Labor's Most Notorious Enemy, the story of the national political debut of the American Federation of Labor in 1906 and its effort to defeat Congressman Charles E. Littlefield of Maine, whom it regarded as one of the nation's leading opponents of organized labor. His works are part of a projected series to chronicle the labor movement in the state of Maine. A two-part article drawn from this article appeared in the Bangor Daily News beginning on June 30, 1986.

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