The Electric Commentary

Friday, August 12, 2005

The Coyote on Railroad Labor

An excellent post. You should read the whole thing.

Beginning in the late 1930's, but really gaining momentum in the late 1940's, railroads began to replace steam locomotives with diesel engines. Diesel locomotives were more reliable, easier to maintain, easier to operate (no coal to shovel) and could go much longer distances without service (steam engines stopped frequently for more water). As this transition occurred, railroad companies very reasonably sought to eliminate the position of "fireman" on diesel trains. After all, without a boiler and coal to shovel, the fireman role was totally redundant on a diesel engine. Railroad unions were nothing if not gutsy, and in response they argued that not only would they not accept elimination of the fireman position, but they campaigned for an addition of a second fireman on diesel engines. Railroads found themselves in the position of actually having to fight a nearly successful effort to increase the number of firemen on crews. As a result, they ended up accepting the fireman role, and generations of railroad men cruised about the country on engines for the next 40 years, doing virtually nothing for their pay. Railroads were still fighting to eliminate the fireman in the 1990's. In some cases, railroads were actually forced to pay "lonesome pay" to some engineers when the firemen were removed from their crew. LOL.

When I read Atlas Shrugged I was well aware of railway labor laws already, and as a result the rather ludicrous laws that exist in said book never seemed that implausible, as it does to some. While Rand certainly doesn't shy away from hyperbole, most of the railway law in said book is based in fact:

If you have ever read Atlas Shrugged, you will find that a lot of the outrageous legislation in that story that seemed too stupid to be true actually have a basis in the history of US railroad law. Even the "railroad unification act" that seems totally over-the-top toward the end of the book is based on actual railroad law after WWI:

The Transportation Act of 1920 gave the Interstate Commerce Commission complete control over pricing, issuance of securities, expenditure of proceeds, consolidations, and the construction, use, and abandonment of facilities. The act set up a Railway Labor Board to mediate disputes. Its "recapture" provision required a portion of a company's earnings in excess of an allowable "fair return" to be diverted to railroads with relatively low earnings. Except for the most routine administration, almost everything owners might do was subject to federal regulation or dictation.

More on the transition of steam to diesel here. I am not very well versed on the subject, but apparently this specialized railroad labor law was later applied to airline pilots, with predictable results. It is interesting that the two industries covered by the RLA (railroads and airlines) have both seen every major carrier in their industry bankrupted over the last 50 years.


  • And unions accuse CEO's & corporations of being greedy...

    Power struggles too often get out of control and become more about power and self interest than their cause.

    This is why we need more independent arbitrators and more political parties. Really, the Democrats and Republicans should be required to each split into two subgroups that can think independently and actually accurately represent the nation's interests. The Reps into social conservatives/rural and entrepreneurial/business. The Dems into liberals/poor and moderates/social progressives.

    By Anonymous Scott H, at 12:01 AM  

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