The railroads were once America's "leading sector" and the unions that organized the men who ran the trains were the mightiest in the land. Yet the railroads faded from view and the unions that organized those workers never earned the respect of the "new" labor historians. What is more, the 1920s, a decade associated with the beginning of the decline of the railroads, the quiescence of organized labor, and a rightward turn in politics generally, still seems to exist in a netherworld between the Progressive Era and the New Deal. Thus, for its attention to the political activism of the railroad brotherhoods and, in turn, the importance of the 1920s, Jon Huibregste's American Railroad Labor and the Genesis of the New Deal, 1919-1935 is doubly welcome.
Huibregste challenges assumptions about the 1920s and the railroad brotherhoods (and, by implication, craft unionism) by arguing for the importance of organized railroad labor in the framing of key New Deal social and labor legislation. The role of the brotherhoods may sound unexpected at first, for, after all, they had earned reputations as exclusive, conservative, and notoriously racist unions. Nevertheless, they had also become tremendously powerful by the era of World War I, when the federal government took control of the railroad industry. The brotherhoods and the rail unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor's Railway Employees' Department emerged as players in the key national debates over [End Page 159] railroad politics and labor policy during the 1920s. These debates focused on the return of the railroads to private control after the war and the ongoing efforts of the brotherhoods to replace Title III of the Transportation Act of 1920, which saddled them with unfriendly and ineffective labor-relations machinery. Diving into legislative and partisan electoral politics, the brotherhoods set about electing to Congress legislators friendly to their cause and endorsed Robert La Follete's independent challenge for the presidency in the 1924 election, the high-water mark of post-World War I progressive political action. The unions won passage of the Railway Labor Act of 1926, which in its establishment of collective-bargaining rights, set an important precedent for the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Similarly, passage of the Railroad Retirement acts of 1934 and 1935 helped clear the way for passage of the Social Security Act.
In charting their legislative and electoral political activism, Huibregste has shown how the brotherhoods stood as an important link between Progressive Era reform and the liberalism of the New Deal, with its elaboration of rational labor relations and social provision overseen by an active national state. Huibregste's book complements the work of such scholars as Ruth O'Brien, who has argued for the significance of 1920s Republican labor policy for the New Deal. Huibregste also explores the foray of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE) into labor banking and real-estate investment, another relatively unexplored aspect of creative union activism. Huibregste's narrative raises interesting questions: what were the views of rank-and-file members? How did the "new" unionism of the brotherhoods play out at the community level and how did the "grassroots" influence national calculations (if at all)? What was the nature of the political culture that animated (and possibly limited) the electoral and legislative action and labor capitalism of the railroad unions'? To be sure, Huibregste builds his argument carefully and does not overextend his sources. Similarly, he is careful to point out just where and how the brotherhoods acted with genuine political vision and when they pursued their own, more narrow interests [End Page 160] as well as when they lost the legislative initiative. In the end, Huibregste succeeds in demonstrating the relevance of organized labor—and railroad craft unionism, at that—for the coming of the most significant bundle of reform legislation in U.S. history.
Paul Michel Taillon teaches U.S. history at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and is the author of Good, Reliable...