1922 Shop Strike Monongahela Railway Train Repair Shops, Brownsville Pennsylvania

As the Monongahela Railway's repair and maintenance facilities expanded during this early period of growth and prosperity, its utilization of manpower grew apace. During its first thirty years of operations, the road's work force steadily expanded and, by the 1920s, consistently numbered well over one thousand. This work force included both skilled craftsmen, such as machinists, engineers, and electricians, as well as clerks, conductors, draftsmen, and a great number of unskilled yard, shop and road crew workers.

During these early years, many of the Monongahela's more highly skilled workers were members of labor organizations that were among the oldest and most powerful trade unions in the United States. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, very few insurance companies were willing to offer policies to railway workers due to the hazardous nature of railroad employment. The fearful dangers of railroad employment were reflected in the appalling death and injury rates recorded by the Monongahela Railway during its first decades. In 1907, for example, company employees sustained eight fatal and fifty-three non-fatal injuries, with an average of 15.6 days lost per nonfatal injury reported.

In response to both frightening injury rates and their inability to secure insurance policies, skilled railroad workers sought to protect themselves and their families from the financial consequences of injury or death by forming fraternal organizations. These brotherhoods, initially focused on providing death and injury benefits to members, soon evolved into formal craft unions and began to pursue a broader range of worker interests. Their ability to affect widespread improvement in conditions was consistently limited, however, by their fragmentation along craft lines and the near absence of organization among lesser skilled workers. As a result, despite the strength of the skilled brotherhoods among the "running trades," before 1918 only about 35 percent of railroad workers were organized.

This situation changed substantially with the seizure and operation of all American railroads by the Federal Government following a proclamation by President Woodrow Wilson on 26 December 1917. This move was prompted by manpower shortages and labor discontent which, multiplied by heightened wartime demands, threatened to paralyze the nation's vital rail network. The United States Railroad Administration (U.S.R.A.) was established to operate the railroads and, in order to secure industrial peace and efficient rail operations, gave free rein to union organizing activities. As a result, between 1917 and the end of Federal control in 1920, membership in such non-operating unions as the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees and the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen exploded. The maintenance of way organization, for example, grew from 30,000 members in 1917 to over 300,000. Overall, the old running-trade brotherhoods raised their organization percentages from 80 percent to 90 percent while the newer, non-operational unions grew from approximately 30 to 80 percent representation.

At the Monongahela Railway, management's exasperation with the mounting unionization of its work force was compounded by frustration over the amount of compensation allowed the company by the U.S.R.A. during the period of federal control. The annual amount of this compensation for Federal control was established by the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1917 by calculating the average annual operating income of the Mon for the three years ending 30 June 1917. This calculation, however, greatly understated the earning capacity of the Monongahela because the first of these three years reflected operating results prior to the merger with the Buckhannon and Northern Railroad. This merger had resulted in the addition of nearly 50 percent to the Monongahela's track mileage in a region whose coal production was growing rapidly. In fact, forty new coal mines were opened along the former Buckhannon and Northern lines in the few years between late 1915 and October, 1919.

In order to remedy this situation the Mon's managers appealed to the U.S.R.A. for redress of the compensation figures calculated by the I.C.C. They argued that a more equitable figure could be developed by using average annual operating income figures for the two years prior to 30 June 1917. This appeal, however, was denied by the Director General of the railroads, much to the consternation of the railroad. At the conclusion of World War I and with the impending end of Federal control of the railroads, Congress passed the Transportation Act of 1920 which, among other things, created a Railroad Labor Board (RLB). This body was a tripartite board comprised of nine members, three from management, three from labor, and three from government. The RLB was intended to investigate and equitably settle labor disputes in the railroad industry, but the assumption of power by the pro-business Harding administration in 1921 suggested that the government appointees to the RLB would favor industry. This gave railroad management, for whom a "Return to Normalcy" meant the reversal of appalling union membership gains, an opportunity to turn back the clock on wages and organization. The Monongahela, which had suffered under what its managers believed were grossly unfair compensation allowances, was especially eager to redress the wrongs of Federal control. Thus, with the establishment of the RLB, the industry and the Monongahela headed towards the railway's only lengthy labor confrontation, the Shopmen's Strike of 1922.

With the onset of postwar economic recession as justification, the rail carriers applied to the RLB for considerable wage reductions in both 1921 and 1922. These requests for reduction were approved by the board at the same time that several of the railroad unions, particularly the shop craftsmen, were vigorously decrying the railroads' growing practice of contracting out. Under this practice, the railroads hired outside contractors to perform work that would normally have been performed by unionized railroad employees. The coincidence of RLB's wage reduction approvals with its disregard for union out-sourcing complaints all but destroyed the legitimacy of the board among the workers and set an ugly tone for railroad labor relations.

Amid swelling worker dissatisfaction with the inequity of the RLB, the Railway Employees' Department of the American Federation of Labor, the shop craft workers' union, voted to reject the 1922 wage reduction and strike on 1 July 1922. With the considerable financial resources of the A.F.L. and the sympathy of their fellow railway workers, the shopmen were confident in their ability to conduct and win the confrontation. They were not aware, however, of the extensive preparations the railroads had made for the battle or the degree to which the Harding government was willing to support the carriers' interests.

For months the railroads had anticipated just such a showdown and had planned thoroughly for its eventuality. A carefully conceived strategy had been developed which utilized the employment of strikebreakers, the implementation of a secret information network, and the application of government power through court injunctions to defeat any labor strikes. When the shop workers of the Monongahela left their jobs at 10:00 a.m. on 1 July 1922, joining 400,000 of their brethren in the largest single walk-out in U.S. railroad history, they were immediately confronted by a corporate/government alliance of overwhelming strength.

The initial response of the Monongahela was to announce that all workers not reporting to work would be considered permanently out of the company's employ. "It is regrettable that a considerable number of the employes of this company- not satisfied with a scale of wages established by a Government Tribunal have seen fit to withdraw from its service. All those who left their work at 10:00 o'clock this morning, and all others who fail to report for duty at their established hour of service, today, July 1, 1922, will be considered permanently out of the service of this Company."

Immediately, the Monongahela's managers were in close contact with the central coordinator of the carriers' strategy, John G. Walber, Executive Secretary of the Bureau of Information of the Eastern Railways. Walber had established a coded communications network which allowed the railroads to transmit information regarding their respective labor situations to a central clearing center via telegram.

A daily coded message was also established between each of the railroads, on one hand, and the I.C.C. and other government agencies, on the other. To facilitate this communication, the I.C.C. established a fictional "Car Service Division," to which all coded correspondence from the carriers to the government was addressed. Daily reports to the Car Service Division included such information as the number of employees out of service in each department, their percentage to the total normal workforce, the number of old employees returned, and the number of new men hired.

In order to apply further pressure to the striking shopmen, the Monongahela also espoused the uniform policy of the railroads regarding the loss of seniority by the strikers. This position held that since the workers involved had chosen to resign their positions and were no longer railway employees, they had sacrificed their seniority positions. The Monongahela made clear its position on this issue with a notice to all employees on 2 August 1922 which stated "Those men who left the service pursuant to the strike order, effective July 1, 1922, voluntarily relinquished their seniority rank, and their names have been striken (sic) from the roster. The seniority rank of employees who loyally remained in the service, and of new men, entering it, is permanently assured, and they will never be displaced in seniority by any man who joined the present strike."

This loss of seniority was a cruel blow to the striking shop workers since it disrupted the traditional means by which they could mitigate the physical demands of their work as they grew older. It was customary for specific jobs in the shops to be assigned through a bidding system under which those with the most seniority had first choice of available assignments. This allowed the older shopmen to choose less physically demanding positions and thereby remain productive despite advancing age. The loss of seniority for such veterans promised to impose severe hardships by forcing them to accept the least desirable and most strenuous jobs.

The position taken by the carriers on the issue of seniority, as well as several other issues, was validated by the RLB in a sweeping resolution handed down on 3 July 1922. If the bias of the RLB had not been clear before the strike, it became painfully obvious to the workers with the publication of this document. In addition to supporting the loss of seniority position, the RLB invited the carriers to employ strikebreakers, stating "...if it is assumed that the employees who leave the service of the carriers because of their dissatisfaction with any decisions of the Labor Board are within their rights in doing so, it must likewise be conceded that the men...who enter it anew are within their rights in accepting such employment, that they are not strike-breakers seeking to impose the arbitrary will of an employer on employees; that they have the moral as well as the legal right to engage in such service... and that they are entitled to the protection of every department and branch of the government..." This invitation was taken up with relish among the carriers, many of whom had already arranged for the importation of workers to replace those shopmen who had "resigned their positions."

The July 3rd resolution of the RLB also validated another carefully conceived strategy that was employed by the railroads to circumvent the legitimate shopmen's organizations: the formation of company unions. The resolution specified that since the members of the striking unions were no longer employees of the railroads, those unions had ceased to be legitimate representatives of the industry's workers. As such, the board was willing to meet with any organizations which represented the industry's new work force. L.F. Loree, chairman of the eastern group of carriers, announced that the roads in his region, including the Monongahela, would form new unions among the replacement workers.

As the strike progressed it became clear that the goal of the carriers was not just to sustain the wage reductions awarded by the RLB but to break the shopmen's union. In this pursuit, the carriers refused to negotiate with the union once the strike began, reminiscent of Henry Clay Frick's strategy in breaking the steel workers' union at Homestead, Pennsylvania in 1892. Indeed, a letter from D.K. Orr, Superintendent of the Monongahela to the president of the shopmen's union, seems to echo Frick's pronouncements of thirty years earlier: "This will acknowledge receipt of your letter of September 23, 1922...asking if you can arrange for a conference on behalf of the "Striking Employees" of the Monongahela Railway Company, who went out on strike July 1st, 1922: when the men formerly employed by the company left the service on July 1st, they ceased to be employes, and in accordance with the notification given in bulletins dated July 1st and August 2nd, 1922...none of those men will be re-employed by this company. I therefore, wish to advise that I am not in position to confer with you ar anyone else who purports to represent the men in question."

In fact, just weeks before this letter was written, the defeat of the shopmen was assured by the deployment of the carriers' final but decisive tactic. On 1 September 1922 U.S. Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty secured the issuance of an injunction against the strikers which was one of the most sweeping ever written. In this order Judge Wilkerson of the Chicago District Court prohibited picketing, among other things, and forbid the union's leadership from issuing any statements or orders to union members encouraging them to leave their work or persuade others to do so. This effectively ended the organized resistance of the unions and led to their immediate capitulation, As a result, instruments of surrender were concluded between the defeated shopmen and most of the nation's carriers over the next few months.

The Monongahela Railway, however, refused to accept even abject surrender from its shop workers. Instead, the company's managers refused to consider either direct negotiation with the defeated unions or mediation from leaders from the non-striking running trade brotherhoods. As of late March, 1923 the railroad had not reached an agreement with the striking shopmen and none of the men who had gone on strike had been re-hired by the company.72 In December of that year, more than a year after the conflict had been settled by the preponderance of the nation's railways, the Monongahela was one of only twenty "hard-boiled" railroads that had refused to terminate the shopmen's strike. Finally, on 25 August 1924 a memorandum of agreement between the company and the U.S. Department of Labor established the conditions by which the strike would officially end on the Monongahela. No union representative signed this agreement.

Thus, the only lengthy strike in the history of the Monongahela Railway ended in a complete victory for the company. Of the 158 employees listed on the shop employees' roster for June, 1922, only 51 had been returned to employment as of 24 August 1924, including those workers who were re-hired and subsequently left employment for various reasons. In the years following the strike the railroad carefully screened union sympathizers from its shop workforce, pursuing a policy by which any former employee applying for work was required to submit a complete service record and statement of his employment and activities since 1 July 1922. These records were then reviewed and personally approved by the Monongahela's president before the individual could be hired. Thus, the defeat of the union gave the company a degree of control over its workforce that recalled the years prior to World War I.