Letters from an old railway official (second series)/Letter 12
THE LABOR NEMESIS AND THE MANAGER.
Omaha, Neb., June 24, 1911.
My Dear Boy:—You tell me that you are conducting labor negotiations these days. As I understand it, all the old grievances have been merged; after eliminating all demands introduced for trading purposes it is simply a question of more money. This simplifies the proposition. The union gets all that it can and the general manager gives up only what he must. Simple, but barbaric. Such innocent bystanders as the public and the stockholders may get hurt in the process, but that is part of the penalty for being innocent bystanders. We are in a transition period. All the hot air fests that you are now holding are probably necessary to blow the chaff away from the wheat. Sooner or later the irrevocable law of supply and demand must operate to place the whole matter of the compensation of labor upon a more scientific basis. At present it is rather the strength of the particular union than the relative justice of its demands.
Our predecessors of two generations ago did many fine things, but they overlooked some basic propositions. Suppose that fifty or sixty years ago when a brakeman expected to be promoted to a conductor they had said: “Fine, my boy. You have the ear-marks of a conductor. You understand, of course, that we have no conductors who cannot run an engine. We will arrange, without money loss to you, for you to fire two or three years. When you assure us of your ability to run an engine we will begin to commence to talk about making you a conductor.” Later on a man with this splendid all-around training could have specialized along the line of his greatest aptitude. We would not see freight tied up in terminals waiting for firemen, with a board full of extra brakemen. There would be an elasticity of assignment that would work out for the good of all concerned. We would not have the fireman straining his back to shovel fifteen or twenty tons of coal while a different breed of cat, a brakeman, rides on the fireman’s seat and forgets to ring the bell when the train starts.
We blame the unions for expensive lack of interchangeability of function. The fault lies at the door of the official class. The master mechanic said: “This is my man.” The superintendent, and later the trainmaster, said: “This is my man.” This pleasing tenacity for so-called individuality left the company out of the reckoning. The company got it where the chicken got the axe, sweet Marie. It did not take the men long to respect the plane of cleavage which the officials had projected. So we have a number of unions with conflicting demands rather than the more enlightened self-interest of a larger body. I know that it has been fashionable to play one union against another, but the day of this is nearly passed. Just how it will all work out I do not know; perhaps it is too late to expect amalgamation. Perhaps it will come of itself when the Firemen and Enginemen absorb or replace the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, and when the Trainmen outlive the Order of Railway Conductors. Whatever the cause and whatever the existing conditions the result is plain. We have a number of forces operating to restrict the output of capable men. The economic machinery of society at large is therefore out of balance. You cannot blame the artisan, skilled or unskilled, for guarding the entrance to his craft. It is human nature, and it is right. The debatable ground, however, is as to where the entrance of the public at large should be to prevent the matter being overdone. No one labor organization can expect, in the long run, to be given preferred consideration over another; neither can the labor unions, comprising only a small percentage of the country’s population, expect indefinitely to dominate society at large.
It is useless to expect to accomplish much in the way of increased elasticity of labor as long as railway officials, through so-called departments, insist upon narrowing and specialized rigidity. Such reforms to be effective must begin at the top. It will all come out in the wash, but in the meantime the laundry bills are disproportionate and may place cleanliness far beyond godliness.
General Sherman, one of the versatile geniuses developed by our great Civil War, once said that most men consider the immediate at the expense of the remote; that a few like himself were handicapped by considering the remote rather than the immediate; that really great men, like Grant, derived their title to greatness from an ability to balance the immediate and the remote. All men are more or less a product of conditions and environment. The railroad official of today lives from hand to mouth—the hand of expediency to the mouth of rapid-fire results. When more roads are like the Pennsylvania in having the stability which admits of intelligent, far-seeing, actual control by directors and executive officers, it will be easier. The banker, from his condition and enviroment, dreads a war or a strike more than the famine and the pestilence. The former two seem to him to be avoidable, while the latter may be visitations of Providence.
A strike, like a war, is a terrible thing to contemplate. A surrender to principle and violation of the broad laws of true altruism can be even more terrible. Last year when the Pennsylvania, backed by its directors, called the bluff of the Trainmen, there was hope in many a breast that a lesson would be learned; that the rights of the community at large would be vindicated as against the unreasonable demands of the powerful few. How quickly did the Trainmen find an excuse to back down! Their friend and adviser, the late Edward A. Moseley, shrewd and scheming, once told them that their best weapon is a threat of a strike and not the strike itself. By and by the bankers will learn these lessons and bargaining will be scientific and altruistic as well as collective and coercive.
Perhaps you are thinking that, like the minister who lectures the members present for the non-churchgoing of the absentees, I am taking too much of this out of you. We all know, as do the labor leaders, that no general manager ever went through a long strike, successful or unsuccessful, without ultimately losing his job. The directors start out with the best intentions of supporting him. As the struggle grows fiercer, the temporarily reduced earnings have a refrigerating effect on their feet. This cold storage is reflected by a message to the brain that the poor Mr. General Manager is so unfortunate; that he lacks tact. “He is so rash. He jumps right in. We told him he might go out to swim and hang his clothes on a hickory limb. We cautioned him, as all prudent mothers should, not to go near the water.” Everything in this world costs something, and nothing is more expensive than an unjust peace, a peace which leaves out of the reckoning the rights of the body politic.
One of the hopeful signs of the times is the opposition that the labor unions have offered to the exponents of so-called scientific management. Already our critics are giving indications of becoming our allies as against the hard-headed, selfish opposition of labor unions to progress. This will serve to help show the public our problems in their true light. All that we need ask is a fair hearing, and ultimately the calm judgment of the American people will decide aright.
I have no quarrel with the labor union, as such. Were I in the ranks I would belong to a union and give it my loyal support. Monopoly and combination of capital beget as a corollary a labor trust. You and I are powerless to eliminate the effect of such natural, economic forces. We can, however, help control the effect of these forces, preferably by reason. There are so many of the primal instincts and passions still extant in human nature that at times diplomacy exhausts itself and falls back upon the protection of forces offensive and defensive, active and passive.
You see that it is merely a phase of a general problem that a disproportionate amount of your time is taken up by affording an opportunity for delegates to make their lodges believe they are earning their per diem and expenses. What matters it to the locomotive engineers if their importunities cause scant attention to the unspoken rights of your clerks and trackmen? Why not figure out just what proportion of your time the different organizations are entitled to, shut off senatorial courtesy and limit debate accordingly?
Whatever you do, have your division superintendents present at your negotiations. Do not flatter yourself that your own wonderful ability will enable you to take a sound position on every question that may arise. Such deliberations are staff work and, unlike line administration, are not a one-man function. The final decision should rest with you, but in the meantime get all the light you can. Under the unit system the superintendent can be thus spared from his division to help save the company money because there is always a competent man to perform his duties, and a provision all along the line for automatic successions to meet just such incidents of service. It should be as easy for a chief assistant superintendent, familiar with the routine, to assume the superintendent’s regular duties any day as for the second dispatcher to work the first trick. When your mechanical assistant conducts his shop negotiations, by all means insist that he direct the superintendent to send in each mechanical assistant superintendent to assist in the conferences.
One reason that the labor situation has gotten away from us is because the matter has been handled on too large a scale. The tendency has been to consider the abstract possibilities rather than the concrete effort. A superintendent of a 140-mile division once recommended approval of an application for increase in wages of his milk train crew, because the men on the next division were getting as much for running only 105 miles. Investigation showed that his men were on duty less than six hours, of which the total time consumed in handling milk cans was a trifle over an hour. Each general manager is inclined to believe that his men will get the worst of it as compared with other roads. He has been inclined to yield when he should have been firm. The further away from the concrete local conditions the negotiations can be conducted the more vulnerable are the officials. The labor leaders know this, and the more divisions or the more roads they can bunch in a single negotiation or arbitration the more unwieldy becomes the proposition and the greater the gain for labor. This condition of things was partly inevitable, is now partly avoidable. Uniformity may be deadly. Standardization can be run in the ground, as was shown when a West Virginia agent of the Chesapeake & Ohio painted his wooden-leg orange color with maroon trimmings.
Affectionately, your own,
D. A. D.