by Robert G. Rodden

The Great Railroad Strike of 1922
(There are many articles on the web. Do a search for Great Railroad Strike of 1922 for more articles).

In the spring of 1921, with the economy in a deep slump and unemployment rising, the carriers decided the time was ripe to roll back the gains workers had made in the war years. They petitioned the Railway Labor Board for a reduction in wages. The Board, piously call on workers to bear their share "of the burden of the general economic readjustment," ordered a five to eighteen cents an hour reduction in wages. For some journeymen machinists this amounted to almost a 25% drop in family income. The Board then added insult to injury by issuing a notorious decision wiping out time-and-a-half for Sundays and holidays, a benefit won long before the war. The conflict that followed became one of the most historic and long and bitterly remembered, in the annals of the Machinists Union. The roots went deeper than disagreement over wages and work rules. Railroad executives, like their counterparts in other industries, were seeking not only to roll back wages and working conditions, but to smash unionism totally and for all time in the shop crafts. They began with a coldly calculated strategy of contracting out the work of union employees.

During the winter of 1921, the Pennsylvania Railroad laid off 8,000 workers, paying subcontractors almost $3,200,000 more than the work would have cost on their own premises. In a detailed report describing events leading to the Great Railroad Strike of 1922. GVP Pete Conlon told how such railroads as

The New York Central and Michigan Central . . . contracted their locomotive and car repairs to outside contractors at prices that have been judged by the Interstate Commerce Commission as exorbitant, thereby throwing thousands of their own men out of employment, following which the shops were closed down for several months and then leased to dummy . . . contractors.
In what was clearly an employer conspiracy, this strategy spread quickly along the far-flung web of iron rails that laced America together--from the Bangor and Aroostock to the Chicago and Great Western, from the Katy Line to the Wheeling and Lake Erie, from the Seaboard Line to the Southern Pacific.

Throughout the nation the railroad bosses unilaterally violated working conditions that supposedly had been settled by collective bargaining agreements or decisions of the Railway Labor Board. Month after frustrating month the shop craft unions tried to get the Board to act. Finally in June, 1922 the Board responded by ruling that it "had no police powers to enforce . . . decisions." Faced with this abdication of government responsibility the Railway Employees Department of the AFL mailed strike ballots to members of the six chop craft unions. Ninety-five percent came back marked "Strike"! On July 1, 79,000 Machinists joined more than 300,000 other shop craft workers in the biggest walkout in American railroad history.

At that time the operation of the nation's railroads was crucial to the economy. They had a virtual monopoly on interstate movement of freight and passengers. In 1922 there were no airlines, no interstates. The few narrow roads that connected one region to another were generally rutted and muddy. The age of the motor car had hardly begun.

Railroading was not only one of the largest and most powerful industries in America,* it was probably the most significant employer of labor. In working class neighborhoods railroad employees were envied. If there was an aristocracy of labor it surely included railroad workers.

*In Pennsylvania, for example, it is said that at one time the State Legislature did not adjourn until the speaker checked with the Pennsylvania Railroad's lobbyists to see if there was anything else they wanted done.
When the shop craft workers laid down their tools on July 1, 1922, the operating brotherhoods remained on duty and the trains continued to move. The carriers immediately began to recruit a new work force, dispatching clerks, bookkeepers and college boys on summer vacation to the shops and yards. A nationwide call went out for strikebreakers. An article in the New York Times Magazine later reported "They came a-running, these strikebreakers. Train load after train load of recruits [were] dumped into railroad towns . . . thugs, gunmen, card sharks, second story men and ex-bootleggers." The Times further noted "The railroads have put their yards in a state of siege. At many shops . . . machine guns were installed."

The workers suffered through week after week of wage less paydays. By the end of the fourth week, on July 28, President Harding stirred himself enough to propose a settlement which would have given the strikers little except their seniority rights. While the unions were ready to snatch at this slender straw, the railroads turned down the President's proposal. They issued a mealy-mouthed statement that referred to the scabs as "our loyal employees," thus converting the strike into a lockout. As the summer wore on and increasing numbers of locomotives and cars broke down because of lack of maintenance, management's solid front showed signs of cracking.

At this crucial point Harding's Attorney General, Harry Daugherty* presuaded

*A sleazy small-time political hack from Harding's hometown in Ohio Daugherty was later driven from office in disgrace for his role in the infamous Teapot Dome Scandal. He undoubtedly would have gone to jail had he not burned his papers and records before he went on trial.
a federal judge to issue the most sweeping injunction ever imposed on workers before or since (or that anyone could have imagined in a free society). According to the terms of this appalling ruling union officers and members were not only prohibited from striking, advising others to strike and paying strike benefits, but from assembling, picketing, mentioning the strike in union publications or even talking about it in union meetings. Students of industrial relations in America generally agree that the "Daugherty Injunction" was, and remains, the most sweeping ever laid down in a labor dispute. Since it prohibited interviews to be published in newspapers it was too much even for the largely conservative, business-minded press. The New York Times called it "manifestly absurd and incapable of execution." The New York Evening Post termed it "a blow below the belt . . . that forbids the elementary rights of free speech." And when Daugherty blared that he was using "the power of the government to prevent labor unions from destroying the open shop." The New Your World pointed out, "It is none of Mr. Daugherty's business as Attorney General whether shops are open or closed . . . If Mr. Daugherty thinks this threat will cause labor unions to abandon the lawful conduct of their affairs he has another guess coming."

The arrogance of Daugherty's injunction helped to build public sympathy for the strikers. But, when backed by the bayonets of the militia it broke the strike and destroyed the union shops. Many carriers, including the Pennsylvania Railroad, were able to keep unions off their premises for decades to come. Forced to accept the wage cuts the shopmen would not see another raise until 1941.

This decade in the railroad industry, following so closely on the heels of the disaster at American Can Company plants, speeded the sharp drop in IAM membership between 1920 and 1924. It wiped out the little that was left of the financial cushion built up during the war years. Assaulted on all sides, by the NAM and NMTA, the federal government and a solidly anti-union front in the railroad industry, the IAM's membership was pounded down year by year. One journalist observed at the time, "The wonder is not that the union now has less than 100,000 members but that it has survived at all."

With the membership increasingly demoralized by disappearing bargaining units an lost strikes, Johnston became increasingly convinced of the need for organized political action.

A Toe in the Political Waters

When delegates to the 1924 Grand Lodge Convention gathered in Detroit their mood was gloomy. Disillusioned by the failure o economic action they were ready to try political solutions. They repudiated the Presidential candidates of both major parties, denouncing the Republican candidate, Calvin Coolidge, as " The representative of special privilege" and deriding Charles Dawes, his running mate as "profane, labor-baiting demagogue." The Democratic candidate, John W. Davis, fared no better. He was dismissed with disgust as a errand boy of the Morgans, Mellons and other big money, Wall Street interests.

Historically, the IAM had banned discussion of "partisan politics" in local lodges. In the early '20's Johnston began to try to increase direct political action not only in the IAM and other railroad unions but in the AFL itself. Early in 1922 he headed a committee of railroad unions which held a Conference of Progressive Political Action (CPPA). He wanted this to be a launching pad for a third party, a labor party such as was developing in Great Britain. Failing to recruit support from the old line conservative craft unionists of the AFL, Johnston led the IAM to a third party outside the labor movement. For the first time Grand Lodge Convention delegates officially endorsed a Presidential candidate. A resolution urged all IAM lodges to support Senator Robert M. LaFollette of Wisconsin who was running as a Progressive Independent. Popularly known as "Fighting Bob," LaFollette had fought special privilege and corporate power all his life. More than anyone else he exposed the Teapot Dome scandal--the Watergate of the Harding Administration and the biggest steal of public resources to that time. LaFollette battled the giveaway of forest land and other public property and fought for direct election of senators, women's suffrage and child labor laws. He pioneered workman's compensation in Wisconsin and sponsored the Federal Employer's Liability Act, the Seaman's Act and shorter hours for railroaders. Despite IAM endorsement LaFollette carried only one state, Wisconsin. The IAM mad no further presidential endorsements until Franklin D. Roosevelt ran against Alf Landon in 1936.

The B&O Plan, 
The Great Red Scare



Comments or Suggestions? E-mail the Communications Officer
of Siouxland Lodge 1426 IAMAW
Greg Enright