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Reviewed by:
  • Good, Reliable, White Men: Railroad Brotherhoods, 1877–1917
  • David Bates
Good, Reliable, White Men: Railroad Brotherhoods, 1877–1917. By Paul Michel Taillon (Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 2009) 266. pp $75.00 cloth $25.00 paper

Since historians of the working-class experience have shifted their focus from institutions and organizations to the cultures and expressions of everyday life, the railroad brotherhoods of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have long been dismissed as the apotheosis of conservative, apolitical “business unionism,” grounded in white male privilege and lacking in class-conscious militancy. In Good, Reliable, White Men, Taillon refigures railroad brotherhoods as both vital symbols of the American sociocultural milieu and as central figures in the transformation of American politics. Indeed, though Taillon readily acknowledges their racism and sexism, he forcefully argues that railroad brotherhoods—representing as they did the literal and metaphorical engine for American territorial and technological expansion—figured prominently in the national drama of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The brotherhoods’ blend of workplace unity and fraternal ritual, their exclusion of women and racial minorities from their ranks and workplaces, and, ultimately, their involvement in politics “offer[ s] a useful window onto processes of social, cultural, and political change” during their era of dominance and “argues for their historical role in helping to propel those changes on the railroads” (9–10).

Taillon draws heavily from the “new institutionalism,” a synthetic method that links “the new labor history’s emphasis on culture and community with analysis of the labor movement both in the context of the larger political economy and in relation to other institutions” (8). Taillon’s great strength is his dexterity in weaving together the parallel (and occasionally intersecting) histories of the brotherhoods’ culture and their increasing involvement with the nation’s political economy. To balance these two levels of analysis, Taillon constructs his narrative as a series of expanding concentric circles. He begins with a discussion of workplace and home life in the railroad “running trades” before moving [End Page 473] to an examination of the fraternal character of railroad brotherhoods and their relationship to free-labor ideology and eventually reaching the heart of his subject—the centrality of railroad unions in the reordering of labor relations, and liberalism itself, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Specifically, the Erdman Act (1898), which allowed government arbitration of railroad disputes, ushered in a new era of labor militancy among the staid “business unions” of the nation’s railways. The Adamson Act (1916), which established an eight-hour day for railroad workers, served to buttress “an enduring, but not uncomplicated, alliance of labor and the Democratic Party” (202). Along the way, Taillon uses newspapers, journal articles, and speeches to deftly recount the ways in which the social culture of the brotherhoods—their fraternal character, their vicious attempts to exclude black workers from railroad employment, and their investment in an expansionist version of American masculinity—were reflections of the cultural climate of the nation itself.

The book’s only weakness is its lack of attention to alternative unionism. Although Taillon briefly brings Eugene V. Debs into the story, and he ably describes the ways in which brotherhood “women’s auxiliaries” provided a space for railroaders’ wives and daughters to mold their own gender and class consciousness, he pays little attention to the effects of the brotherhoods’ ferocious defense of white male privilege on burgeoning efforts at interracial unionization. Given that the brotherhoods themselves are the center of analysis, however, this is a minor quibble. Taillon’s strong methodological grounding and powerful narrative fuel a thoroughly convincing analysis. Good, Reliable, White Men makes a significant contribution to the history of American workers.

David Bates
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign


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