We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

American Railroad Labor and the Genesis of the New Deal, 1919-1935

Jon R. Huibregtse

Publication Year: 2010

American historians tend to believe that labor activism was moribund in the years between the First World War and the New Deal. Jon Huibregtse challenges this perspective in his examination of the railroad unions of the time, arguing that not only were they active, but that they made a big difference in American Labor practices by helping to set legal precedents.

Huibregtse explains how efforts by the Plumb Plan League and the Railroad Labor Executive Association created the Railroad Labor Act, its amendments, and the Railroad Retirement Act. These laws became models for the National Labor Relations Act and the Social Security Act. Unfortunately, the significant contributions of the railroad laws are, more often than not, overlooked when the NLRA or Social Security are discussed.

Offering a new perspective on labor unions in the 1920s, Huibregtse describes how the railroad unions created a model for union activism that workers’ organizations followed for the next two decades.

Published by: University Press of Florida

About the Series

pdf iconDownload PDF (50.6 KB)


pdf iconDownload PDF (16.7 KB)


pdf iconDownload PDF (65.5 KB)

Title Page

pdf iconDownload PDF (52.1 KB)

List of Illustrations

pdf iconDownload PDF (50.1 KB)
pp. ix

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (37.9 KB)
pp. xi

The 1920s have long been described as “the Lean Years” for American workers. They followed the dynamism of the progressive era and World War I as workers and social reformers attempted to remake America. In the wake of this activism, the 1920s seemed like a retreat (either forced or voluntary) for labor. These were...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (50.7 KB)
pp. xiii-xiv

In the early stages of this project Daniel Nelson of the University of Akron offered advice and comments that helped me tremendously to clarify my argument, thinking, and prose. H. Roger Grant offered unfettered access to his personal collection of the...


pdf iconDownload PDF (50.5 KB)
pp. xv

read more

1. Introduction

pdf iconDownload PDF (83.1 KB)
pp. 1-8

According to David Montgomery, prior to World War I, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) defined the parameters of legitimate trade unionism. The government crushed radicalism during and after the war, and the AFL lost the influence that it wielded during the Wilson administration. In the years between the end of...

read more

2. Railroading Prior to World War 1

pdf iconDownload PDF (239.6 KB)
pp. 9-21

By the time that World War I began, working for railroads had lost much of its frontier quality and romance. Railroading retained some of its luster, but the hard edge was gone. Increased government regulations, improved personnel practices, and a greater drive for efficiency and safety were largely responsible for these changes. Operating...

read more

3. The Great War and its Aftermath

pdf iconDownload PDF (113.9 KB)
pp. 22-33

World War I was a watershed for the railroad unions. It brought them together in an informal alliance, led by the BLE, BLFE, BRT, and the ORC. The other unions, most of which belonged to the RED, generally followed the lead of the brotherhoods. Their members were among the most skilled, best paid workers in America and...

read more

4. Grassroots Political Organization

pdf iconDownload PDF (247.5 KB)
pp. 34-50

The election of 1920 was a reversal of traditional political strategy for railroad unions. While they had engaged in lobbying, they had generally remained outside the fray of partisan politics. As recently as 1917, the BLEJ had urged engineers not to discuss politics in division rooms. The brotherhoods had broken with tradition...

read more

5. The Road to Political Power, 1922-1924

pdf iconDownload PDF (284.5 KB)
pp. 51-64

The fight to abolish the RLB occurred in two stages. The first stage began after the shopmen’s strike of 1922 and ended with the election of Calvin Coolidge in 1924. Until the shopmen’s strike, railroad operatives took a wait-and- see approach toward the RLB, but the strike convinced them that they had to act and eliminate it. Although the...

read more

6. The Railway Labor Act

pdf iconDownload PDF (111.5 KB)
pp. 65-77

The second stage of labor’s campaign to repeal Title III of the Transportation Act, which created the RLB, began in the autumn of 1924. Although the union-sponsored Howell-Barkley Bill did not become law in the spring, the unions remained optimistic. The election of 1924 offered unions another opportunity to promote labor...

read more

7. Strengthening the Railway Labor Act

pdf iconDownload PDF (240.1 KB)
pp. 78-91

During the progressive era, industrial leaders came to rely on the national government to act as a stabilizing force in the economy. Railroad labor and management expected that the RLA would have a similar effect. Yet because the law contained major shortcomings, the unions continued their activist tactics to gain...

read more

8. Railroad Retirement and Social Security

pdf iconDownload PDF (370.0 KB)
pp. 92-105

As the Great Depression deepened, revising the Railway Labor Act of 1926 was just one of the objectives of the brotherhoods. Simultaneously, the RLEA argued that changing conditions warranted industry-wide, federally sponsored retirement insurance. They argued that developing a national pension scheme would establish...

read more

9. Railroad Unions and Labor Banks

pdf iconDownload PDF (375.5 KB)
pp. 106-122

By 1919, the term industrial democracy was firmly established in labor’s lexicon, and it animated its political activity. As explained in the previous chapters, railroad labor vigorously pursued industrial democracy through the ballot box in the interwar years. Railroad unions, particularly the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers...


pdf iconDownload PDF (174.6 KB)
pp. 123-151


pdf iconDownload PDF (88.8 KB)
pp. 153-161


pdf iconDownload PDF (81.6 KB)
pp. 163-172

About the Author

pdf iconDownload PDF (58.2 KB)

E-ISBN-13: 9780813042954
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813034652
Print-ISBN-10: 0813034655

Page Count: 208
Illustrations: 12 b&w illustrations
Publication Year: 2010

Research Areas


UPCC logo

Subject Headings

  • Railroads -- Employees -- Labor unions -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Railroads -- United States -- Employees -- History -- 20th century.
  • Railroads -- Employees -- Legal status, laws, etc. -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Working class -- United States -- History -- 20th century
  • Working class -- Political activity -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • New Deal, 1933-1939.
  • United States -- Economic conditions -- 1918-1945
  • United States -- Social conditions -- 1918-1932.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1919-1933.
  • You have access to this content
  • Free sample
  • Open Access
  • Restricted Access