I’VE BEEN WORKIN’ ON THE RAILROAD

A communist worker describes the struggle to build militancy and overcome racism in trade unions in the 1950s-60s

By Wally Linder     

In the 1950s, in order to move the working class to the left, the US Communist Party’s (CP) policy of industrial concentration aimed to build a mass base especially in the basic industries, those areas which held the lifeblood of the country in their hands: auto, steel, electrical, railroad and so on. So in that summer of 1953, I sought a job in auto plants, in GM Tarrytown, N.Y. and Ford in New Jersey but without success, but I soon was hired on the Baltimore & Ohio where I would spend the next decade. I later discovered that the CP had a railroad section comprising 65 members in 13 party clubs on 13 different roads in various crafts. Metropolitan New York’s 90,000 railroad workers comprised the second largest rail center in the US, next to Chicago’s. As it turned out, it became among the most rewarding and exciting decades of my seventy adult years, when I started “workin’ on the railroad.”

 

I joined the country’s largest railroad union (the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks & Freight Handlers) totaling a quarter million members. Our work was essentially to unload freight from trucks and trailers backed up to railroad piers on Manhattan’s West Side waterfront and then load the freight into railroad cars resting on barges (called “floats”) tied to the piers. Tugboats then towed these barges laden with perhaps a dozen fully-loaded freight cars across the Hudson River to Jersey City freight yards, where they were coupled together into trains hundreds of cars long to be moved westward to their destinations. Similarly, we would unload the freight cars towed over from Jersey containing eastbound freight and load that into trucks and trailers, manned by Teamsters, who would then deliver the freight to Metropolitan NYC destinations.

Our role as CP members was to organize mass, militant, rank-and-file struggles, possibly become local leaders, but we were instructed not tell anyone we were communists “because that would isolate us from the [brainwashed] workers.” It was past the era of mass, open communist organizing of the 1920s and 1930s, and heavily into the Cold War period in which the CP had beat a hasty retreat from its leadership days. (I started on the railroad during the Korean War, at the height of McCarthyism.) In all my years on the railroad I never once directly told a co-worker that I was a communist, although I later learned that the company knew, the union officials knew and so did the mass of workers!

Our party club among the B&O freight handlers started slowly, becoming involved in very low-level struggles. My first challenge to the bosses occurred when I was part of a gang unloading a refrigerator car. We were forced to work ankle deep in melted ice water without protective boots (which we knew to be a rule violation). I discussed it with the rest of the gang and we told the foreman we would refuse to work without boots. I was immediately summoned before the station agent who told me I “couldn’t refuse to work. That was insubordination.” I told him the company was being “insubordinate” in not issuing us boots. Did he want us to get sick and not report to work? He smiled and told the foreman to give us boots.

This story spread around the 26th St. Freight Station. (The B&O freight operation comprised Piers 20-23, 39-40, 63-66 and the 26th St. Station, involving about 1,000 workers.) Because of that incident, workers on my shift (7 PM to 4 AM) began approaching me with grievances. We had no steward; the local’s leadership was centered downtown at Piers 20-23. My co-workers petitioned the union to appoint me a steward on that shift. This was at the end of my first year on the B&O.

Sanitary and health conditions on the railroads were abominable. One example: the “bathroom” on the end of one pier consisted of an iron bar on the edge of the pier. One would drop one’s pants, sit on the bar and crap into the Hudson River. We had no locker rooms and very few lunchrooms. This was true of most railroads in the NYC area. So our party railroad section proposed the idea of starting a movement to get a law passed in the two state legislatures guaranteeing minimum sanitation and health facilities on all roads in the area.

Alongside this was what came to be known as the weekly pay campaign. Railroad workers were paid three times a month, every ten days. While seemingly meaningless to workers paid every week or every two weeks, it wreaked havoc on railroad workers. Some pay periods would include six working days, some seven and others eight. It made it very difficult to budget one’s pay, especially when rent time rolled around. Railroad workers were always bitching about being paid so irregularly. So we seized on this apparently universal complaint, which cut across all road and craft lines — there were 23 different craft unions on the railroads at that time — in an attempt to organize a movement which would build rank-and-file unity among the tens of thousands of rail workers in the area.

Joined together as the Campaign for Weekly Pay and Health & Safety, it caught on among thousands of workers. Of course, the union leaders weren’t blind to this development. Finding it difficult to veto something that would guarantee a flush toilet on a railroad pier (among other things) — and not wanting it to be a rank-and-file development — they took it over as their own. As it turned out, both state legislatures passed laws essentially granting our demands and forcing the railroads to institute minimum health conditions, lunchrooms and pay us regularly, every week.

Fighting Racism in the Union

Rail workers were very pleased at the outcome, and knew who the organizers were, despite the leaderships’ claim that they had done it. We had taken some issues that really got under every worker’s skin and combined them into a mass campaign which had involved thousands of workers throughout the area. Simultaneously we had exposed the railroad bosses, putting them a bit on the defensive when they were in the midst of a defamatory campaign of their own, painting workers as “featherbedders,” in an attempt to lay off hundreds of thousands. It also involved the unity of black and white workers on the railroads, historically a racist industry in which the bosses restricted certain crafts as “white only.” In fact, at that time there were still several craft unions that barred black members altogether!

It was our CP section that had previously broken the lily-white craft of brakemen on the Pennsylvania RR. The PRR had never hired a black worker as a brakeman — a generally higher-paid, operating craft job — in its first 120 years. When we saw a Pennsy ad for brakemen, we sent down two black comrades, who were not hired. Then we sent two white comrades the same day, who were hired. The black comrades took their case to the State Commission Against Discrimination and the white comrades who were hired testified on their behalf. The Commission ruled that the Pennsy had discriminated and ordered them to hire the two black comrades. Within the year the PRR hired 200 black brakemen for the first time in its history.

This racism was prevalent throughout the industry. While there were many black freight handlers and some clerks, most had been hired for the first time during World War II when there was a labor shortage. Our union constitution barred black members, so the black workers were placed in “auxiliaries.” They took their case for “first-class citizenship” to court and won a ruling awarding them full membership. The international “asked” them if they wanted to join the all-white locals or have their own locals. With good grounds for suspicion of the white locals’ leadership, they opted for their own all-black locals. So it was that 150 such locals were created around the country.

This was the situation we faced in 1953 among the B&O freight handlers in NYC where among the 1,000 workers, 600 were in the black local and 400 in the white local. We worked on the same platforms in the same gangs under the same foremen, under the same union contract, but were in separate locals. Most workers, white and black, saw this as a disadvantage, if not wrong, and favored one multi-racial local. But few were active in the union. No one organized for it. It enabled the company, obviously, to play off white against black. Merging these two locals, with a multi-racial leadership, became a top priority for our party club, which had members in both locals. (As the civil rights movement grew nation-wide in the late 1950s, a small number of young, newly-hired black workers chose to join the previously all-white local, and were admitted, thus breaking its lily-white character. But the main job remained: to merge the two locals.)

As a steward I had developed ties among some other stewards, both black and white, among whom I raised the idea of both black and white stewards representing any worker who the company brought up on disciplinary charges. This meant that black and white stewards would be representing both black workers and white workers for the first time in the union’s history. Based on painstaking studies of previous cases, and our newfound unity, we began to win virtually every case.

We demanded that the foreman present the company’s case first (this was in front of the railroad station agent who was judge, jury and executioner.) Then we, both black and white, would cross-examine the (usually) white foreman. This hadn’t happened before either. Usually we would so wipe the floor with him, exposing all sorts of lies and contradictions in his story, that the boss was forced to end the hearing before the defendant worker ever “took the stand.” Workers were winning thousands of dollars in back pay. In addition, we would bring up five or ten workers to testify in the hearing, on company time. This also got under the bosses’ skins (and ate into their profits). Soon the number of hearings dropped to a trickle.

This result had a marked effect on the rank-and-file, especially on the black local’s leadership. For the first time they saw white stewards who they could trust. And the fact that we were winning cases led to white workers increasingly supporting the idea of one multi-racial local with a multi-racial leadership.

Rank-and-File, Anti-racist Slate

At that point I tried to develop a rank-and-file slate in the predominantly white local, running on a platform of rank-and-file militancy and multi-racial unity. I approached one worker who seemed somewhat active in the local and critical of the current leadership. His first question took me unawares: “I hear that you’re supposed to be a communist.” I managed to squirm out of the conversation without ever answering it directly. In effect, I “ran like a thief.” But it was the first inkling I had that I was known to be in the CP. As I learned later, the FBI had told the railroad who told the union leaders who told the workers.

So all along workers figured I was a communist, but never really baited me about it (probably because I did a good job as a steward). We decided that I should run against a weak union officer. The local’s vice-president was an assistant foreman (they, and foremen, were allowed in the union) and a blowhard at that, generally disliked by the rank-and-file. I was elected easily. Now the present leadership had to contend with a rank-and-file-supported officer who they knew to be a communist.

I didn’t confront them frontally but rather made suggestions that contained elements of unity. I proposed we have a local paper and that all the officers write for it. They agreed, never realizing what a weapon for class-consciousness such a paper could and would become, eventually helping to turn them out of office. Some examples:

During national negotiations, workers were very dissatisfied with the demands and with the long, drawn-out course they were taking. (RR labor negotiations sometimes went on for two to three years!) The question became how to point out the international’s inadequacy in the local paper without confronting them directly. We felt we didn’t have enough strength at that point from preventing them from abolishing the paper. So we made a series of contract proposals and won a vote at a union meeting to send them to the international. Of course, we expected an answer, one that we figured would be very wishy-washy at best. It was. Then we proceeded to print both letters in the Local’s paper — ours and their answer. The contrast was self-evident, without any comment from the editor.

At another point, the railroad began a speed-up campaign. They sent “efficiency men” from Baltimore to monitor our every move and tried to order us around. We took the position that the contract said we only took orders from the foremen. This frustrated them since they were forced to issue orders through the foremen. The latter didn’t like that either, which tended to drive a wedge between them and these “outside” bosses.

Then we printed a cartoon (drawn by my nephew Alec) depicting three men in suits and ties sitting on a platform wall watching one freight handler pushing a hand truck and entitled it “Efficiency.” This drove the railroad wild. They sent a vice-president up from Baltimore to meet with the Local Chairman and the Grievance Committee (which I was on) to tell us if these “disparaging” descriptions of the railroad continued, it would lead to shippers dropping the B&O’s business and this in turn would lead to layoffs. “Do you want to lose your jobs? The railroad is already losing money.” “How much?” we asked. “$31 million last year,” was the reply. “O.K.,” we said. “We’re making $68.84 a week. You’re losing $31 million a year. Let’s change places. You take our job and make $68 bucks a week. We’ll take yours and lose the $31 million.”

The guy went nuts, saying, “Do you realize that $16 million of that $31 million is going to Chase Manhattan Bank as interest on ‘our’ debt?” Oh, we figured, so that’s where it’s going. In the next local paper we printed a report of the meeting, with the headline, “Chase Manhattan Made $16 Million in Interest Profit Off Our Labor!”

In this way we were able to “report” events without putting ourselves in a position of bringing down the full wrath of the international on our heads too soon. When the paper came out every month, and was distributed through the stewards on all the piers, work virtually ceased on the platforms as everyone, black and white, stopped to read the paper. We had a lot of cartoons and “personals” in the paper as well. The workers loved the paper and wrote to it and for it.

This was not lost on the leadership of the black local, who were somewhat nationalist but didn’t know what to think about what we were doing. We approached them and asked if they wanted to write various columns for the paper. They agreed. We proposed in our (mostly white) local that the paper become a joint effort of the two locals. The black local voted the same. So the move for merger into one multi-racial local got a big boost as the paper became the one voice of the two locals. In this way the paper was building both class-consciousness and anti-racist, multi-racial unity.

Challenging the White Local’s Leadership

By this time we figured we had built up enough strength, through the winning of hearings, grievances and the influence of the paper, to not only challenge the established local leadership, which was generally opposed to any militancy, but to beat them handily. We organized a slate for four of the top positions — president, vice-president, treasurer and recording secretary. I was nominated for president. (We didn’t feel quite strong enough to run someone for Local Chairman, the head of the Grievance Committee, and the most powerful position in the local.)

We ran a real campaign, giving out leaflets, putting up posters with our pictures at all piers, and we held lunch-hour meetings with all shifts at all piers. This bewildered the incumbent leadership. They had been in office a long time and had never been challenged at all, much less by such a “high-powered” campaign. The only card they had to play was red-baiting. But since our base worked at all piers, they were able to deflect this attack based on the militant work I had done over the years. However, the worker on our slate running for vice-president did approach me and said, “I hear you’re supposed to be a communist. But don’t tell me, I don’t want to know!” My reaction was “Whew, another obstacle overcome!” The leadership of the black local watched this contest from a distance, but many black workers openly campaigned for us among their white co-workers, especially because they knew we stood for a merger of the two locals on a multi-racial basis. The election took place at the union hall and we won by an overwhelming 2 to 1 margin.

Organizing A Strike

In January of ’61 our biggest struggle in 10 years on the railroad erupted. The railroads owned the tugboats that towed the “floats” carrying the freight cars back and forth across the Hudson between Manhattan and Jersey City. In a money-saving effort, they dieselized the tugboats. This operation now required fewer workers to man the tugs. They wanted to lay off two-thirds of the 660 tugboat workers. The latter were members of the Seafarers International Union (SIU), ruled by Paul Hall, among the most right-wing of all the union leaders in the U.S. Negotiations had been dragging on for 14 months past the contract expiration date. Finally the railroads were set to lay off the workers, who were now in position to legally strike.

Traditionally, railroad workers always respected the picket lines of other crafts. But this strike, more than any other, absolutely depended on the solidarity of the freight handlers and the Teamsters. (The latter was not a rail union.) The railroads figured they could circumvent the strikers by having the freight handlers load and unload the freight in and out of trucks and trailers and the Teamsters would then haul the freight back and forth through the tunnels under the Hudson River and over the bridges to and from the yards in Jersey. This was a strike not only against the B&O but also on all the other large roads in NYC, the NY Central and the Pennsylvania being the two biggest, richer than the B&O.

Our own union negotiations were dragging on at the same time. We in the CP saw this as an opportunity to not only organize a general strike of all the railroads in the NY Metropolitan area, but an action that would unite all railroad workers across all craft and color lines. It had never happened before. We pointed out to our locals (and to those on the NY Central where party members were also among the leadership) that if we allowed the railroads to pick off the tugboat workers, small though their number, we would be next in their “featherbedding” campaign. We campaigned up and down the waterfront, held union meetings, and called for respect for the tugboat picket lines, if and when they occurred. Most workers agreed, although many were worried; they had never been in an all-out strike on the railroad before and were also nervous about how long such a strike would last, how many paychecks they might miss. The railroads seemed like an all-powerful force to them. Who were we to oppose them in such a high-stakes battle?

We had several things going for us. All the work we had done for eight years had been embedded in the consciousness of hundreds and even thousands of workers. In our own locals, especially, the monthly newsletter had constantly embedded class-conscious ideas in the minds of the workers. Secondly, railroad workers were covered under separate laws. The railroad unemployment insurance law, under which railroad workers collected benefits, stipulated that, in the event of a legal strike, railroad workers are eligible for unemployment insurance benefits from the FIRST day of the strike. Rail strikes were few and far between. The last big one in 1946 was broken by President Truman in four days when he moved to draft all the workers into the army and then court-martial them if they refused to work! (Again this showed the potential power of this basic industry.) The bosses felt they had had little to worry about because of that threatened law. However, it gave us a little edge: we respect the tugboat workers’ picket lines and receive $51 a week, a little more than half our regular net pay.

Finally, the most important factor in our favor was something that might seem intangible and hard to estimate. It was the feeling of power that could develop when the workers saw they had actually shut down these powerful corporations for whom many had worked all their lives and hated their guts. This was something we did not understand completely going into the strike but were to come to realize as it occurred, as will be seen.

On the morning of the first day, B&O freight handlers showed up at the first shifts, 5:01 and 6:00 A.M., but there were no pickets. So they went to work. The striking tugboat workers appeared around 7:30 A.M., about two to a pier, since there were so few of them and they had hundreds of stations in the NY area to cover.

As soon as we saw them start walking with their picket signs, we ran up on the platforms and the “floats” and yelled to the early shifts, “There’s pickets out there! We’ve got to walk!” Most workers didn’t hesitate. They fairly ran off the platforms, happy to be sticking their fingers up at the billion-dollar company. The pickets were amazed and delighted. As the rest of the shifts began arriving hourly, they saw the freight handlers gathered in front of the pier and realized the strike was on. Not one single worker crossed the line. This was true up and down the entire waterfront on all the railroad piers. The railroad end of the strike was complete. Within 24 hours we had shut down the entire rail freight operation in the biggest city in the country. We were amazed ourselves.

Next came the Teamsters. Freight had already been collecting on the platforms. The Teamsters who drove the trucks and trailers (and could drive them through the tunnels and over the bridges to circumvent the tugboat operation) did not work for the railroads. They were employed by freight forwarding companies who operated as middlemen between the railroads and the consignees. These freight forwarding companies would solicit the business of, say, General Electric or all the small garment manufacturers in the garment center, to ship their freight and truck it to the railroad piers, getting paid for by those outfits. Then the railroads would charge these freight forwarders to ship their freight by rail, employing us to do that loading and unloading.

One of the big freight forwarders who operated via the B&O was ABC Freight Forwarding (“ABC” = Arthur Brown Co). Herein lies a tale of real class-consciousness. The B&O freight handlers never saw the president of the railroad in Baltimore, a two billion-dollar outfit. But every day they did see Arthur Brown being chauffeured to work in his Rolls Royce, which was parked near the platform on which many of us worked. The railroad workers concluded that Brown was really the power behind the throne, that he told the railroad what to do, this richest of the rich in his Rolls Royce. We told workers that Brown was really small potatoes, his $25 million company really being subordinate to the railroad. But they were hard to convince.

When some of the workers pointed out that the Teamsters were scheduled to start taking out their trucks and trailers at 8:00 A.M., we acted quickly. (There were no pickets in front of the ABC platforms, only at the railroad piers across the street.) We told one of the two pickets in front of Pier 63 to come with us across the street on 24th St. to the ABC platform, explaining to them that if this freight went out, it could be trucked to Jersey and circumvent the strike. The tugboat strikers, seeing what we had done for them so far, figured we knew what we were doing, so one of them set up his one-man picket “line” outside the ABC platform. A few hundred railroad workers who had been gathering in front of Pier 63 followed us and stood across the street from the platform, watching. It was like street theater.

We yelled to the Teamsters on the platform getting ready to take their trucks out that there was a picket out front. These were workers who we knew quite well, having worked alongside them loading and unloading trucks for years. They immediately called a meeting on the platform right under their bosses’ noses and discussed the situation, with the railroad workers watching from across the street. They took a vote and decided unanimously to respect the lone picket. To a man they walked off the platform, their ABC trucks loaded but with no one to drive them. It had taken five minutes to shut down this million-dollar outfit, Rolls Royce boss and all. The railroad workers cheered. In that moment, they realized more than ever before the collective strength of united workers. Our unity was sky-high. This was to be, we thought, the final nail in the coffin for the divided freight-handler locals, the final step on the road to one united multi-racial local.

Broadening the Strike

Having drawn the Teamsters into the strike, the shutdown was complete. But the railroads were not through. The NY Central bosses figured another way to circumvent the tugboat operation: bring freight trains over railroad trestles across the Hudson way upstate, pull them down the east side of the river into the Mott Haven yards north of Grand Central Station in central Manhattan. They began hauling scab freight into and out of Manhattan. But again we had an answer, based on workers’ solidarity and the militant leadership of party members.

One of our 13 party clubs was among the electricians on the NY Central. There were 1,000 workers in that IBEW local, the largest railroad electricians’ local in the country. Our members were part of that local’s leadership and active among the rank-and-file. The local president knew he was working with communists and respected them (although he was never recruited). He also respected the idea of union solidarity. Our party members raised the fact in the local that scab freight was being hauled over NY Central tracks into Mott Haven in the Bronx and even into Grand Central Station. They said that if pickets showed up in front of Grand Central Station on 42nd Street, the electricians should respect the picket line. The electrician’s president agreed.

Our electricians’ party club relayed this information to the freight-handler clubs on the B&O and the NY Central and again we directed some tugboat pickets across town to Grand Central Station. As soon as two of them appeared, the NY Central electricians shut all the electric power on that road and walked out. The Central (the country’s second largest railroad) was shut tight. But this didn’t just affect freight. All the commuter trains from Westchester and in Fairfield County in Connecticut, which carried 90,000 commuters a day into and out of NYC, couldn’t operate either. In a matter of days the NY Central was shut down as far west as Cleveland.

It was then that all hell broke loose. All the daily papers in NYC (and there were about ten of them then) began screaming for our scalps. We were “holding the city for ransom. Soon starvation would set in. There would be no fuel,” and so on. The editorials were calling for Kennedy (who had just been installed in the White House) to pass a law (a la Truman), call out the troops and break the strike.

But the walkout was gathering momentum. Many workers around the city realized the power of solidarity, even the potential of a general strike. We received tremendous support. So Kennedy, probably not wanting to have one of his first acts in office labeling him a strikebreaker, was not quick to break the strike frontally. He sent his Secy. of Labor, Arthur Goldberg — the lawyer who was the architect of the expulsion of the communist-led unions from the CIO in 1948 and later became a Supreme Court justice — into NYC to “mediate” the strike. He proposed that the workers return to work, that the railroads not lay off anyone at this time and that negotiations resume. Both sides accepted this and, after ten days, the strike was over.

As it turned out some time later, the SIU agreed to the layoff of “only” half (not two-thirds) of the tugboat workers, who each received $10,000 severance pay. While not a real victory, they ended up with more than they would have without this solid strike.

The fight for Job Security

Following the tugboat workers’ strike to save their jobs, we were now confronted directly with our own job security struggle on the B&O. Our progress towards uniting the black local with the mostly white local was advancing. We didn’t realize how threatened the railroad felt about dealing one united, multi-racial local with a multi-racial leadership, and communists involved to boot. It could set an example for the 150 segregated locals nationwide. The company was developing a plan to contract out all our work to the freight forwarders who were the middlemen between the shippers and the railroad. This would lay us all off permanently, thereby wiping out both our locals completely! We later found out that they were fed up with what they called “that element in New York.” Meanwhile, the national union negotiations were dragging on.

We wanted any new national contract to include situations like ours. There were already established agreements to protect workers laid off due to railroad mergers or to one company absorbing another, but they didn’t include specifically the threat of contracting work out to freight forwarders. The protected workers were either offered comparable jobs elsewhere or $10,000 severance pay (now worth upwards of $100,000). Such coverage would make it much more expensive for the railroad to get rid of us.

The union’s international convention was approaching, slated for Los Angeles in June 1963. We figured there is where we could make our last stand. Our city-wide struggles and the tugboat strike had put us in touch with other locals on the NY Central and Pennsylvania, facing the same mass layoffs. Our local’s leadership called together rank-and-file leaders from six locals, all of whom would be delegates to this convention. All six submitted identical resolutions to the convention dealing with the threat to our jobs. We planned to make a floor fight on this issue. We figured that most of the 1,300 delegates would be in the hip pocket of the international’s machine. Were we surprised!

When our resolution came up on the first day of the convention, all six delegates in our caucus took the floor to speak for it. The bureaucrats were somewhat taken aback at this. Their Resolutions Committee had recommended rejection since they were not about to add such a demand into their national contract negotiations.

A couple of hacks spoke against us. Then the chair called for a voice vote. The international president — who had been in office since 1928! — was half blind and couldn’t see to count a hand vote, therefore the voice vote. We had expected this and had prepared some friends and spouses attending as guests in the balcony to yell like hell with us on the floor when the voice vote came up. We hadn’t counted on the fact that there were many locals facing their own job security problems and would vote with us on general principle (and probably were affected by our impassioned speeches).

Our resolution clearly carried on the voice vote. The president was flabbergasted. He called for a second vote (amid cries of “No! No!”), figuring the machine would get the hint and yell louder the second time. But the fact that the first vote was being arbitrarily over-ridden this seemed to anger a lot of delegates,. So the second vote produced an even larger margin favoring our resolution.

At that point the chair “entertained a motion” to send the resolution back to committee, to be brought up later in the week. That passed and we knew what that meant: they’d bring out their big guns, buy off a number of delegates and squash it the next time around — which is what happened. This whole fight had tied up the convention for nearly half a day. Afterwards many delegates, including a number of black delegates, came up to us and thanked us for raising this issue on the convention floor.

The Jobless Fight Back — From City Hall to the White House

Our struggle at the International convention for job security won a lot of support, but it was an uphill battle. In the summer of 1963, all our jobs on the B&O were contracted out without even a whimper from the international, but we refused to take this lying down. Our campaign touched big shots from New York City’s mayor to Kennedy’s Secretary of Labor to rail baron Cyrus Eaton and his buddy Nikita Khrushchev.

I was now part of the newly-organized Progressive Labor Movement (PLM) and intent on keeping many of these laid-off rail workers together to reap some benefits from our decade of struggle. We discussed the idea of a Railroad Workers Unemployment Council to sue the railroad for severance pay (which the union had refused to negotiate), and charge the union with collusion as well, for failing to represent us. Our actions would involve demonstrations and picket lines exposing everyone we perceived to be our enemies or who stood by and did nothing.

The idea caught on. Over 200 former B&O workers — black and white — agreed to join. We formed an official organization, with regular meetings, dues, officers, a newsletter and so on and discussed all our plans and activities at each meeting. We elected two black and two white workers from our rank-and-file to comprise our four leading officers with myself as president and hired lawyer Conrad Lynn to bring suit against the B&O for severance pay and charge the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks and Freight Handlers with collusion. After years of trying to merge the separate black and white locals — the International had 150 of these segregated units — we finally had our multi-racial, merged “union.”

Our first demonstration was directed against the Chesapeake & Ohio RR (C&O), which had bought out the B&O. It turned out that the C&O was headed by none other than Khrushchev’s buddy in the U.S., Cyrus Eaton, who had become the darling of the Communist Party for his championing trade with the Soviets (from which he expected to make a pile). We figured to add a little political spice to the situation. We sent out press releases and about 100 of us picketed the C&O building in lower Manhattan with signs such as “Cyrus Fired Us” and “Khrushchev’s Buddy Is No Friend of the Workers.” (My sister took pictures.)

Our plan was to march from the C&O building to City Hall and picket the Mayor (Wagner, at the time), demanding the city do something about the firing of 1,000 black and white workers. This, remember, was a time of heightened civil rights action; the famous March on Washington led by Martin Luther King had just taken place, in which our Council had also marched with our signs.

In 1963, workers’ picket lines like these were not particularly common. When City Hall got wind of our plan to picket them, they tried to head us off at the pass. The Deputy Mayor called my house and told my wife to tell me we didn’t have to picket; they would meet with us; “tell him to call it off.” “Too late,” she gleefully told him, “they’re already on their way.” As we circled City Hall, the Deputy Mayor emerged to “greet us,” saying he would meet with our committee on behalf of the Mayor. The TV, press and radio were going crazy around us. “Who the hell were these workers?” We went inside and met with this hack for half an hour. He “pledged” the Mayor would “see what he could do.” Our Council members were hip enough to know that this meant zilch, but were happy that we at least made them uncomfortable and publicized our cause.

That night interviews with me ran on seven TV and radio stations and we were in all the papers the next day. I linked the government with the railroad and Eaton with the sellouts in Moscow as one big bunch not interested in helping workers at all.

Attacking the System

Our next action was outside Grand Central Station a couple of weeks later. Our press releases brought out NBC hotshot Gabe Pressman to interview us. I began explaining our grievance and in between each sentence brought up the relation to the government allowing this to happen, that a government representing the bosses was no damn good as far as we were concerned, and that we needed to destroy that kind of system and get a workers’ system.” Suffice it to say, we didn’t get one second on that night’s TV news. Maybe we learned a lesson about not depending on the bosses’ media.

Shortly afterwards the Council organized a demonstration at the White House which taught us another lesson: as all-powerful as the government and rulers might seem, they are scared as hell of workers. Since our severance-pay suit legally involved regulations related to the Interstate Commerce Commission, we decided we should picket the Federal government in an attempt to draw attention to its role in our being denied justice. In the fall, we mobilized 80 of our members to drive to Washington in a 20-car motorcade to picket the White House.

As we started marching with our highly charged political signs directed at Kennedy, we discovered he was at his “compound” in Hyannis, Mass. This incensed a lot of these unemployed workers. With no particular goal in mind, I said, “Well, the Labor Department is walking distance from here, why don’t we go over and picket there as well.” Everyone agreed, so in a Saturday-deserted Washington, we trooped a few blocks and “set up shop” again. Barely 20 minutes had elapsed when an official-looking guy appears and asks us what we wanted. We asked him who he was and he says, “Under Secretary of Labor.” This surprised us a little but we proceeded to relate our case. He then said, “Wait here; I’ll be right back.”

Five minutes later he returns and, to our amazement, says, “Secy. of Labor Wirtz will see a five-person committee.” We couldn’t believe our ears. But the “best” was yet to come. The Under-Secretary escorts us upstairs and ushers us into Wirtz’s office, a huge conference room with a score of empty chairs around a long conference table, filled with a lot of notebooks and half-filled water glasses. Obviously some meeting had been going on.

Kennedy’s man Wirtz then explained that the national railroad labor negotiations were taking place (to which we had originally directed our convention resolutions) and when he “heard about our plight” he had asked the union representatives of the 23 railroad crafts and the representatives of the nations’ railroads to retire to adjacent rooms while he talked to us! We couldn’t believe it. Here were 80 rank-and-filers who had come to march at the White House and by sheer accident had picketed the Labor Department, and now were holding up the national negotiations because somehow we might have represented some hitch in the plans they were cooking up. Imagine if we had had the strength to organize 5,000 railroad workers to picket the place, or, better yet, invade it!

Although, after explaining our case for about half an hour and getting the usual reply of “I’ll see what I can do,” our Council members were happy to feel that our trip to D.C. had gotten what they interpreted to be a little recognition. And a few months later, when Kennedy was assassinated, most of our members’ reaction was, “So what. He didn’t do anything for us.”

It was during some of these picketing actions that fall that an article appeared, written by the nationally syndicated anti-labor columnist Victor Riesel, in the now-defunct N.Y. Journal-American (a Hearst paper) that “exposed” PLM as an agent of China and Che Guevara, out to start guerrilla warfare in the U.S. Among other “examples” cited was the “fact” that ten years ago I had been sent to “infiltrate” the railroad and was a threat to the national security in this industry vital to the country’s “defense.” Most of the Council members had seen the article and rather than cowed by it were incensed. I had already told them about PLM, had shown them PL Magazine (Challenge hadn’t started yet), some with articles about our struggles. Their immediate reaction was to go picket the Journal-American, but that never came off. Some of them began to think that maybe capitalism wasn’t the best system after all.

Final Lessons

The following year our suit finally went before a millionaire judge. (It was in the course of this trial that word came out inadvertently from one of the company lawyers that the railroad had moved to contract out its N.Y. freight operation because of “that element in N.Y.” It was from this that we concluded that they just didn’t want to deal with a multi-racial union led by communists.) The judge actually questioned the union lawyers about why the union hadn’t even raised our case with management as we had demanded — we were also charging the union with collusion in not negotiating protection for us. The union lawyers were flustered and couldn’t drum up too much of an excuse. This exchange led many of us to think we might actually win something from this judge. But those hopes were soon dashed when his decision came down that, “unfortunately,” the company was within its rights to do what it did, without compensation. “Better luck next time.”

This was probably the final blow to our Council which gradually dissolved after that, our demand (which had been holding us together) having been defeated. Most of the workers had found other jobs, at GM in Tarrytown, Ford in Jersey, the Transit Authority, Otis Elevator and so on. But it left the door open for me to point about how rotten this system was, and that we needed “a worker’s system.”

Wally Linder is a life-long industrial worker, a former member of the Communist Party USA and a founding member of the Progressive Labor Party

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