The Railroads for the Railroad Men

Odon Por,
Special European Correspondent Wilshire's

Eugene V. Debs was the first man in the United States, if not in the whole world, to undertake a unification of ALL railroad employees for their mutual benefit and protection. All basic principles of the at present much discussed Industrial Unionism can be found embodied in the American Railway Union, organized by Debs with the assistance of a few others in Chicago in June, 1893. Everybody knows about the victorious Great Northern strike called by the A. R. U. and the Pullman strike of the same organization in sympathy with the suffering workers at Pullman. Everybody knows that on the occasion of the Pullman strike the government and the capitalists definitely allied against organized labor and inaugurated the Government by Injunction. Leaving Woodstock jail, Debs tried to keep alive the fighting spirit of the A. R. U., but the sleuths of the capitalists at his heels undermined all his efforts, with the result that the railroad men of America are inefficiently organized even today. But the spirit of the A. R. U. is not entirely killed out. Debs and others are keeping continually before the minds of the American railroad men the necessity of organizing into one body all skilled and unskilled workers in the employ of the railroads.

Their propaganda is being substantiated by the economic and political effects of industrial concentration and the impending technical revolution that will transform the locomotive engineers and firemen into motormen. Further the jurisdictional fights between the various craft organizations, the competition between overlapping unions leading to reciprocal scabbing, the growing number of accidents, due chiefly to overwork, the determination of the railroad corporations to save expenses on safety appliances, the increased cost of living left unbalanced by the small wage-increase benevolently granted, and the more and more evident fact, that the Grand Chiefs of the various Brotherhoods are working rather in the interest of the corporations than for the railroad men—all tend to create a certain unrest in the rank and file of the railroaders and prepare a state of mind receptive to the call for reorganization on the lines of the American Railway Union.

In view of this situation it is perhaps useful to study that form of organization which all European railroad unions are about to take. The last international congress of the railroad workers, held in Vienna, has pronounced itself in favor of the organization of great central federations and against craft unions. Even Bell, the representative of 80,000 English railroaders, has supported this resolution.

By far the most revolutionary organization of European railroad men is the Union of Italian Railroaders. I had been lately in Milan at the headquarters of this union for the purpose of studying its history, organization and tendencies, and will try to give here the rough outlines of my investigation.

After many strike struggles for improving their material conditions, the various craft unions of the Italian railroaders came to the conclusion that only a strong and unified movement could be victorious. So they called a joint congress, in 1904, where, burying the petty craft jealousies, they laid down the lines of future united action. Soon after this the Italian Government announced its intention to take over the railroads from the private companies, and amongst the new laws before Parliament was one proposing to deprive the railroad workers of their right to strike. As soon as this law came to the knolwedge of the various organizations their joint agitation committee called a passive resistance strike, which consisted in obedience to the letter of all the rules of service, with the effect that the dispatching of passenger trains and their arrival was greatly retarded and freight trains were everywhere entirely tied up. Neither the railroad companies nor the Government was able to suppress this new, formidable, but legal method of action. Finally the Government yielded and the obstruction was called off. The next cabinet introduced the same laws in an attenuated form, whereupon a general strike was called on the 16th of April, 1905. During this strike the Italian Parliament voted the State ownership of the railroads and the law which made public officials of all railroad men, i. e., practically deprived them of their right to strike. There was nothing left but to call off the general strike and face the new situation. The railroad men were defeated, but the experiences gathered in these two great movements gave them courage to continue the struggle.

In 1906 the various craft unions or the railroad men merged into one industrial union. This new organization went out in 1907 on a general strike in sympathy with some strikers who were shot down by the soldiers. The State punished the strikers most severely, and public opinion was decidedly against them. More than 20,000 strikers were punished, some were discharged, some put in jail, and the rest fined and degraded. This terrible defeat naturally caused much dissatisfaction and friction within the young organization. Two factions faced each other, the revolutionists, who proposed direct economic action for the revindication of the rights of the railroad men and the realization of better wages and the reformists, who wanted to realize the same with the aid of the various radical parliamentary groups. After the complete defeat of the latter method the organization has become since 1908 thoroughly revolutionary and has worked out a revolutionary method of action which distinguishes it from all similar organizations.

This union, embracing practically the entire 60,000 Italian railroad men, has the following inner structure.

All skilled or unskilled male and female railroad workers, belonging to any category, may become members of the union. The functions of the union are divided amongst the following bodies: the Congress of the delegates, the General Committee, the Central Executive Committee (C. E. C.), the Sections, the Groups, the Commissions of Categories, the Auditors, the Arbitrators and the members voting by referendum.

Decisions of the congress are obligatory on all members. The congress discusses the questions on the order of the day and passes judgment upon the yearly reports of the officials. Its delegates are elected by referendum vote of the membership. The General Committee is the deliberative body of the union; it is composed of five members from the C. E. C. and the secretaries of the Commissions of Categories. Its chief duty is to examine national, accepted or proposed laws that refer to railroads or railroadmen; it studies the rules of the service and the conditions of the workers and publishes the results of its investigations in the official paper of the union. It further decides upon the reports of the commissions of the Categories and of the C. E. C.

The C. E. C. is composed of fifteen members, elected by referendum. It reports the desires of the individual members and of the sections and prepares the annual financial report and the report on the activity of the union; it edits and publishes the official paper of the union, organizes the propaganda and the movements for the defense of the acquired rights and for the conquering of other rights. It executes the decisions of the Congress and the General Committee and those passed by referendum vote of the rank and file. It coordinates the functions of the Sections and Groups and transmits all special technical and craft questions to the Commission of Categories; it keeps in touch with the national and international labor organizations and, finally, attends to all work necessary for the advancement of the union.

Every locality, with at least 150 members, constitutes a Section. The Sections handle internal affairs affecting their members and the propositions which they desire to submit to the C. E. C. or other bodies of the union. They execute the orders of the C. E. C. and attend to the local propaganda. Their functions are regulated by internal rules. Their expenses of administration and propaganda are paid by the union. The members of each Section divide into Trade-Groups. Each group elects its chief, who receives the requests for admission to the union, collects the dues and distributes the official paper of the union amongst the members free of charge. The trade-groups communicate on craft questions with the Commission of Categories. These latter are consultative technical bodies. They study all the problems that concern their members in their professional faculty and pass their reports for approval or rejection, through the C. E. C., to the General Committee. There are eight Commissions of Categories within the union, each representing a group of the various crafts. Every such commission is composed of six members and has a secretary; its expenses are covered by the union and it regulates its functions by inner rules. Controversies between these commissions and the C. E. C. are settled by the General Committee.

A referendum is ordered in case of important and immediate action to be taken by the organization and for the election of the various officers. The five auditors examine the books of the union and control the work of the C. E. C. They have the right to call a congress. The three arbitrators settle the conflicts between the various bodies and their members.

Through this organic and comprehensive system of organization, with its subdivisions determined by the necessities of propaganda and the technical nature of the various crafts, all members are forced to co-operate for hte good of the whole organization as well as for the good of the single categories or the single sections. Within its fold the scabbing of one craft upon another or the using by the State of one craft against the other is impossible. The various subdivisions are so organized and the statutory duties of the members so formulated that the problems of the whole organization are not merely kept before the mind of each member, but he has to continually give his personal view and vote on every occasion. Further, every railroadman by force of the statutes has to affiliate with the local labor exchanges, which latter are the central organizations of all workers in a given district. This abolishing of all craft distinctions, this uniting into one class-organization, has co-ordinated the relations between the various categories of the railroad men, educated them to solidarity, and excited and intensified their interest in the problems of their own organization and of the whole working class. We can set it down as a law of all labor organizations that as soon as craft unionism is replaced by genuine industrial unionism larger revolutionary issues will inevitably come into play.

That the problem of industrially organizing the railroad man was successfully solved in Italy is attested by the fact, that this organization, conscious of its collective efficiency and power, has set for itself a revolutionary scope: The Railroads for the Railroad Men.

This revolutionary object was inspired not only by the Socialist ideal predominant amongst the Italian workers, but also by the actual conditions of the railroad system. The State which took over the railroads from the private corporations in 1905, at a tremendous cost (graft), in order to give better and cheaper service, has proved its utter incapacity for managing the railroads. The technical incompetency and deficiency of the bureaucratic administration called to run the enterprise has demoralized the whole passenger and freight traffic and caused a growing deficit in the treasury of the State. While the State has created thousands of new sinecures and highly paid offices, it has utterly neglected the technical part of the system. For instance, it failed to increase the number of trackmen and has increased instead, to an unbearable degree, the work of all the railroad men. The politicians in charge of technical duties have bought useless and antiquated material, causing besides a great financial loss and even greater confusion of the service, so that, at present, experts declare the State railroad system quite impossible to continue.

On the other hand, the industrially organized railroad men have learned, through continuous discussion of the details of the system, the principles of organizing, managing and combining its factors. Their constructive and analytic criticism disclosed all the flaws of the railroad administration, proved that the State is an uneconomic institution, and demonstrated all the details necessary to a successful reorganization of the railroads.

They indicated that they must get back, above all, their whole liberty, and that in order to secure from the railroads greater benefits for the public, they must become personally interested in the enterprise. They demonstrated that this can be attained only by leasing the State railroads to the union of the Italian railroad men. This measure would allow them to organize the administration with more liberty and with economic instead of bureaucratic criterions. They would be free of all political obligation and could, therefore, suppress the thousands of useless clerical jobs and increase the number of productive employees, securing thus a prompter, safer and cheaper service, while their duty would be to pay a certain rent for the railroads to the State and to guarantee a regular service. The State would retain for itself, in some simple form, the right of supervising the administration of the railroad, without, however, directly interfering with the administration itself. The workers would draw a certain minimum wage, would participate in the net profits of the enterprise and subscribe the necessary cash for its running expenses.

By this system every employee would realize that the more conscientiously he applied his energies, the better would the system work and the larger would be his personal income. This state of things would awake in the employees the liveliest sense of responsibility and would, at the same time, give them liberty of initiative, which is the most important psychological factor of production.

While a few years ago the Italian railroad men met from all sides with opposition, and their enslavement to the State was greated by the majority of the nation with great rejoicing, today, in view of the fact that the State has not made good and especially because the railroad men have proved their technical efficiency, moral seriousness and social consciousness, in short, because they proved responsible enough to be entrusted with the most important industry of a nation,—to-day public opinion is largely on their side. And even conservative economists of great fame, and experts in the matter like Vilfredo Pareto, have publicly declared that the only possible practical solution of the situation is—inasmuch as private ownership of the railroads is a public nuisance and the State enterprise a veritable disaster—the giving up of the State railroads to the co-operative enterprise of the organized railroad men, and that with some sense and prudence this could be realized at a small risk and surely with no such financial loss as that menacing the country at present. And Mr. Ferraris, ex-Minister of Commerce, a universally recognized authority in the matter, went even so far as stating that not only the railroads, but all State services included the postal and telegraph service, could be safely entrusted to the organized workers and employees of these services.

Through concentrated technical experience and discussion and reciprocal moral education, possible only within a great industrial organization that eliminates all secondary problems, the Italian railroad men have created within the organization itself a force that logically drove them upon the road of practical, essentially economic, revolutionary action. Thus the proletarian organization, arriving at the summit of its perfection, demonstrates its profound economic nature and social usefulness and proves itself capable to succeed the bourgeois private and statal institutions of production and exchange. The Railroads for the Railroad Men, this utopia of yesterday, has become a practical, realizable demand.

The social revolution is about to become a practical problem.