Rail Workers – Jerry Anderton 1995

Thirty years with men operating trains and yard engines.  For the past thirty years I have been closely involved with men who operate trains and yard engines in Tennessee and neighboring states. The main portion of my service to the Norfolk-Southern was in Debutts Yard in Chattanooga, first as a yard switchman and from 1977 to 1988 as yard foreman. This promotion was due to accumulated seniority which allowed me to successfully bid on higher paying and less physically strenuous jobs as foreman. In addition, since February 1966 I have held numerous elective offices in the United Transportation Union which represents workers in all operating crafts.

As Chairman of the Local Committee of Adjustment I handled grievances and time claims for Southern Railway yardmen, foremen, trainmen, and road conductors on the TAG Railroad. Later, as President and Delegate of Local 338 I represented these same crafts as well as the larger body of trainmen on the CNO&TP between Cincinnati and Chattanooga. My current assignment with the UTU is state legislative director of Tennessee. This is a full time position that is filled by a state-wide election procedure on a four year basis. UTU membership in Tennessee includes all yardmen, foremen, trainmen, conductors, and a large portion of yard and road engineers. I have served in this capacity since February 1988.

Personal knowledge and interviews. To augment and confirm my knowledge and impressions of the rail industry, and especially the changes in conditions and attitudes of workers during the past ten years, I have interviewed Mr. Larry Jones, a road conductor on the Norfolk Southern who works between Cincinnati, Ohio and Chattanooga, Tennessee, Mr. Floyd B. Dennis, a road conductor working between Nashville, Tennessee and Birmingham, Alabama, and Mr. Kerry Steele, a yardman working in the Norfolk-Southern Debutts yard in Chattanooga.

Seniority is the most valuable asset. In the rail industry seniority is the most valuable asset. Only a very small percentage of contract employees are promoted from the ranks to official capacity. Even when this occurs the general impression is that the promotion usually results in only a slightly larger wage for increased responsibility and longer work days. The only sure way to earn more money, have greater job security, and move up to better hours and working conditions is through accumulation of seniority. As a new hire gains seniority he will be able to bid in regular assignments that are increasingly desirable as more seniority accrues. In time, depending on the rate of attrition in his seniority district, he will be able to hold positions as yard foreman and road conductor.

Before 1965 new hires “cubbed” for no pay. Prospective employees are recruited by the personal department of the railroad. Those approved are subject to a thorough physical, which now includes a drug screen. Prior to beginning work the prospective employee is given classroom style training on operating rules and work practices. This varies between one and four weeks on different properties. Those who complete this phase must then work with various assignments for about two weeks as a “cub”. This on the job training and the classroom segment is traditionally at a very low rate of pay, usually less than one half the current pay scale of regular workers. Prior to 1965 new hires received no rules training and were required to cub for a month or longer for no pay at all. All new hires are placed on the extra board upon completion of their training. They will be paid at a rate that is seventy percent of the standard rate for the first three years they work.

 Getting acceptance from “the old heads”. Help your fellow worker. The willingness of a new hire to pull his weight regardless of his assignment on the crew goes a long way toward his acceptance by the “old heads.”  An aspect of rail work is the reality that one worker may be conveniently located to perform a task that is the responsibility of someone else, either on his own crew or another.  Almost all workers are quite willing to do this since they know the favor will be returned, possibly the same day. This isn’t to speed up the work or benefit the company. but simply to make a hard job a bit less strenuous for each other. This usually isn’t explained to a new worker, we wait to see how quick he is to catch on, and how willing he is to help his fellow worker before he understands that the favor will be returned.

Road conductors and yard foreman. The road conductors and yard foremen ‘have charge of their trains or engines and all employees thereon.” This phrase is contained in the Norfolk-Southern, CSX, and almost all other railroad books of operating rules. It is a source of constant irritation to locomotive engineers who sometimes feel they should “be the boss”. As it is, the road conductor and yard foreman plan the work and are responsible for supervision and rule compliance by the rest of the crew. Some exercise their authority with an iron hand and are often difficult to please. Most, however, prefer to be “one of the guys” and are successful in getting the work done and maintaining a pleasant job environment with a spirit of friendship.

B.E. Little became “Box Empty”.  How nicknames are awarded.  Nicknames seem to be more common in the rail crafts than in other occupations. This is possibly due to the long term nature of employment. A tag given a railroad man in his twenties will probably follow him throughout his life.  On the old L&N, now part of CSX, a nickname was awarded simply on the basis of the first and middle initial. R.M. Davis was immediately tagged as “Raw Meat,” B.E. Little became “Box Empty,” which is also the way bill designation applied to an empty boxcar. The foreman on the first job the employee works as a crew member has the privilege of awarding the name.  To make matters worse some of these older guys had very little imagination, but were prone to give a new man they didn’t like the looks of a name that would be embarrassing.  Raw Meat was one of the first African-American brakemen on the L&N and Box Empty had a perpetually vacant expression that makes it appear that he is either dim witted or very bored by the activities around him.

How the Southern Railway workers get their nicknames.  The Southern Railway workers, now part of the Norfolk-Southern, were much more imaginative. As a general rule no one gets a nick name until they do something to earn it.  This usually involves wrecked trains or rule infractions with interesting stories behind them. “Water boy” earned his name and a two week suspension for throwing three gallons of ice water from a passing train on the terminal superintendent. He mistakenly thought the superintendent was a co-worker with whom he had been engaging in a water throwing competition for several weeks. A young African-American introduced himself to his co-workers on his first day as a Southern switchman as being known by his “street name” of “Blue.”  The foreman told him to “forget that, we’ll give you a name if we want you to have one.” Another crewman advised that “it probably won’t be one you’ll like either.”

“Figgerheds” are good to work for. One of the most flattering names or descriptions a railroad worker can earn is “figgerhed” (figure head). This means that he possesses the ability to plan the crew’s work in a manner that produces maximum results for minimum effort. Senior brakemen and yardmen usually prefer to work for a “figgerhed” since they know they will get through the day with a minimum of effort and will not be harassed by management. The crew of a “figgerhed” is often rewarded by management with the privilege of an “early quit” (being allowed to leave work one or two hours early) upon completion of a daily assignment with no deduction in pay.

Road pay and Yard pay. Yard workers are paid by the hour with a minimum of eight hours pay a day. Road workers are paid by the mile with106 miles being considered a basic day. Overtime or “overmiles” for yard and road workers is at time and one half rate. Road runs have specific initial and final terminals. They rarely, if ever, are exactly 106 miles. Many of the interdivisional runs are in excess of two hundred fifty miles, allowing crews to earn about two and a half days pay in twelve hours which is the maximum time on duty allowed by the Federal Hours of Service law. Road workers all prefer the “hot freight,” since these trains will run straight through with no stops or pickups along the way. When the wheels stop turning a roadman’s pay stops. He may sit in a siding for hours meeting a superior train without earning a nickel. Even in yard work that all pays the same, there are preferential assignments. Most workers prefer “belt work” that removes them from direct supervision of the company and is usually less strenuous.

If you “sharpshoot” the agreement you may break the unspoken standard.  Occasionally a worker might attempt to manipulate the system in a manner that will compound his earnings or allow him to work choice jobs not normally due to his seniority status.  This can sometimes be accomplished without violating the terms of the union agreement. Even with a uniform System Work Agreement each location will develop over the years an unspoken standard of ethics. A young worker attempting to “sharp shoot” the agreement may receive friendly and private advice from an older co-worker that “we don’t usually do that here.”  A worker ignoring this message will find himself working a little harder when his foreman devises switching moves that places more work on him. Often other workers with slightly more seniority will begin to continually “roll” the sharpshooter by displacing him from his job whenever an opportunity presents.

 It’s us against the company, the world, and sometimes even our own families. Rail workers have a tendency to become clannish and removed from the community, their families, and even the rest of the labor movement. A large percentage of rail workers enter the service in their early twenties and work with the same group of men till their retirement more than forty years later. During this time they will also develop strong friendships within the workplace that very well may be the only friendships they are able to sustain due to the bizarre work schedules. We are forced to be out of step with most of society by the nature and schedule of our work. It usually requires at least ten years, and often longer, before a yard worker can hold a job that has off days on the weekend when most of the civilized world is off work. Even then the job is usually on the second or third shift.   We work while most people rest and rest while others work.  Our children never know when, or even if, their father will be home. Since most of our neighbors and family members are at work or asleep during the hours available to a rail worker for recreation, if we engage in social activities at all, it’s almost always with the same people we work with. The men on the crew are usually fishing, hunting and drinking buddies. We often adopt an attitude of “it’s us against the company, the world, and sometimes even our own families.” Some workers even include the union in the mental list of entities that threaten them.

100% union.  Rail workers are covered by entirely different bodies of labor law than other industries. Instead of the National Labor Relations Act, the early Railway Labor Act governs labor-management relations in the rail industry. This is only one of many factors that set us apart from the rest of labor. Rail workers are exempt from stat worker’s compensation laws. We are covered by the Federal Employer’s Liability.  The operating crafts in the rail industry are very near unique in being the few crafts that are one hundred percent union.  While many may criticize their union, it is a rare occurrence for anyone to cross a picket line.  Crossing a line is a sure way to be remembered for the next forty years.

Slackards are not taken lightly. The traditional values of railroad men are literally based on survival in the workplace. Because of the unique dangers involved, this industry is covered by so many federal laws that predate those in other industries. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the average life expectancy of a new hire switchman was about five years. The railroads have been forced by the unions and the federal government to clean up their operating procedures and equipment standards quite a lot since then. Even at best, railroading is physically demanding and still very dangerous. We depend on each other knowing and doing their jobs to insure the safety of all. Slackards are not taken lightly.

Everyone is working harder and longer. Change in the 80s. Decisions and awards of Presidential Emergency Boards during the eighties have drastically changed work rules. The work is still essentially the same, but many distinctions between road and yard have been erased. The foreman or conductor now performs additional duties that were once the job of the head brakeman.  Everyone is working harder and longer. New employees now hold dual road-yard seniority where once they worked exclusively in one area or the other.

Like a small community.  The railroad essentially becomes the community for those who work there. The rules of society that prevail in a small community are adapted to the work place. We treat others as we hope they will treat us. When a brother is sick or injured we kick in to help him financially, cut his grass, or whatever else is needed. Above all, in spite of differences and occasional disagreements, we are brothers. Presidential Emergency Boards can’t change that.


Epilogue, 2013

Thanks for inviting me to participate in your work life project. I remember you and your class very well, it was one of my favorites. I had forgotten the paper but upon reading it I have to reflect on how much has changed in the rail industry since that time.

Women are much more numerous in the operating crafts, though still a fairly small percentage. My paper didn’t recognize their contribution and participation since there was only one woman employed in an operating craft in Tennessee at the time. She became disabled from an injury after only working about three years.

Another big change is the introduction of remote control technology. The engineer has been replaced by a device carried by the conductor and switchman on 80% of yard jobs. They control the engine movements from their position on the leads.

After graduation at the GMC I attended the Nashville School of Law. Following graduation and the bar exam I was admitted to practice before the Courts of Tennessee. I became semi-retired in February 2012 and now only accept a few cases.

Iles Minoff received his doctorate in anthropology from Princeton University. He taught at St. Xavier College in the Chicago area and taught a class in the anthropology of work at the George Meany Center for Labor Studies in the 1990s. He worked for the labor movement for 28 years, first with the Human Resources Development Institute in the early 1980s where he worked on retraining programs for displaced workers, and later for Union Privilege where, for over 20 years, he developed benefit safety net programs for union members and their families. He has a wonderful and amazing wife, three great daughters, and two, soon to be three, of the cutest grandchildren on the face of the earth.

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