History: 1900's


In 1908, the Federal Employers’ Liability Act was passed. Two years later, the 1910 Accident Reports Act was passed. A 10-hour work day and standardization of rates of pay and working conditions were won by the Railway Brotherhoods.

Unionization continued to grow in the U.S.  Shortly after the turn of the century, there were 2 million members of labor unions.  By 1910, there were over 8 million members.

In 1911, the Locomotive Inspection Act passed. Four years later, the Hours of Service Act passed. The Railroad Brotherhoods had won an 8-hour day.

In 1914, according to a report by the Commission on Industrial Relations, 35,000 workers were killed in industrial accidents and 700,000 workers were injured in the U.S.  Many of these were railroad workers.

In 1916, the United States Congress passed the Adamson Act which stipulated the work day as eight hours for interstate railroad employees. This was a labor reform rushed through Congress by the Wilson administration when four railway brotherhoods threatened a nationwide strike to get the eight-hour day and railroad companies refused to consider this demand.

In August 1916, the U.S. Congress passed the Army Appropriations Act which included clause that allowed the President to take control of any system of transportation during times of war.

Also, in 1916 the U.S. railway system reached its peak length. As we moved into the 1920s and subsequent decades, the rise in use of automobiles and airplanes contributed to a decline in ridership and mileage of track in use.

In 1918, the Railroad Yardmasters of America was established.


During World War I, the federal government took complete control of the nation’s railroads. Labor-management relations were placed under the supervision of the Federal Railroad Administration and its director general. National Boards of Adjustment were created to settle, by arbitration, all disputes which arose due to interpretation of existing agreements.

In 1920, rail employment reached a high of two million workers. Control of the railroads by the government, a measure that had been passed during World War I, also ceased that year. 


The Transportation Act of 1920 created the United States Railroad Labor Board of nine members (representing management, labor, and the public) with authority to hear and decide disputes not disposed of in conferences between representatives of the carrier and the employees. Compliance with decisions of the board was not made obligatory, making the board largely ineffective.

In 1926, the Railway Labor Act passed. It required employers, for the first time and under penalty of law, to bargain collectively and not to discriminate against their employees for joining a union. It provided also for mediation, voluntary arbitration, fact-finding boards, cooling off periods and adjustment boards.

In May 1926, A. Phillip Randolph and others organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, also known as the Wagner Act, clearly established the right of all workers to organize and to elect their representative for collective bargaining purposes. The following year the Washington Job Protection Agreement was passed.


Successful efforts to unify industrial unions continued and  in 1936  the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was formed. Other unity attempts within the railroad industry included proposed mergers between the Brotherhood of Firemen & Enginemen (BLFE) and the Brotherhood of Local Engineers (BLE) in 1942 and 1953. Both attempts failed due to BLE refusal to merge.

In the 1930s and 1940s, most U.S. railroads began to use diesel locomotives. By the 1950s, most U.S. railroads finally discontinued use of steam locomotives. Diesel engines were easier to maintain than a steam locomotive, and required only one person to operate. This meant reduced operating costs and greater reliability for the railroads.

In 1943-44, 1946, 1948, and 1950-52, the railroad industry was seized and operated by the federal government in order to end strikes or to prevent threatened strikes. Under this intervention, the railroad labor organizations retained a uniformity of work rules that has been the subject of conflict between labor and management since the post World War II period. See Trade Unions in the United States.

In 1956, the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen (BRT) reached its all-time membership peak of 217,176 members.

In 1957, the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen (BRT) affiliated with the AFL-CIO after 74 years of operating as an independent union.

In January of 1968 the presidents of the BLE, BLFE, BRT, ORCB and SUNA were invited to meet in Cleveland, Ohio, to discuss a merger. In May of 1968, each of the four unions selected a 10-man committee to draft a unification agreement and constitution suitable to all. The group labored five months before the agreement and constitution were believed to be acceptable.

A merger plan was submitted to every eligible member for a vote. The members voted overwhelmingly for the largest union merger ever in the railroad industry. The merger took effect in 1969 and created a powerful new union, the United Transportation Union (UTU), which enjoyed greater respect in the industry and increased strength at the bargaining table.

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