Mayday is a term used in radio communications to signal being in distress. May Day on May 1st celebrates International Workers’ Day, and in particular – the Haymarket affair in Chicago. So why mention these things in a Straight Track article? Because labor is being attacked and workers’ rights are in jeopardy.
Railroad employees belong to diverse labor unions: Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLET), Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes (BMWE), International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART), International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Transportation Communications Union (TCU), etc.
When railroad unions were first formed in the 1860s, working conditions were horrible and employees anticipated being injured or killed at work. So called “agreements” at that time allowed for employees seeking to improve working conditions and pursuing rights, to be discharged for attempting to unionize. A long, hard road lay ahead.
In 1886, Chicago became the center of a national movement calling for an eight-hour work day. Labor rallies in April and May of that year had seen growing violence and a number of protesting workers killed. On May 4th, at the West Randolph Street Haymarket where protesters were gathered, a bomb killed 11 people and injured scores more. Eight protestors, based on their labor stands and without credible evidence, were convicted of the bombing. Only after public protests, and after four of the convicted men were hung and one committed suicide, three of the surviving men were granted full pardons. The Haymarket affair is considered one of the most single influential events in labor history.
It took another 22 years of labor movement before railroad employees were finally given the right to recover damages against the railroads when injured at work. And, although the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) was passed by Congress in 1908, it wasn’t until 1939 that the FELA was amended to abolish the ‘assumption of risk’ for workplace accidents in the dangerous rail industry.
Labor rights have not come quickly or been easily obtained. Labor rights, also, are not easily sustained. Over 150 years later, the fight against railroad misconduct, intimidation, retaliation and hazardous work conditions continues. Today, men and women in the rail industry are still facing many labor issues: disciplinary charges for filing an injury report, safety rules vs. ‘on-the-ground practices’, disparate treatment, agreement violations and more.
TAKE A STAND
Knowing labor history and knowing rail history is important. As Edmund Burke once said, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” Some railroads and politicians have their sights set on destroying unions. Mayday, this May Day! Support your union (attend meetings and events) and support your fellow railroad workers (report unsafe conditions, if you see something, say something). Taking a stand is not always easy, but is sometimes necessary.