Rail Employees – Paul Plaganis – 1992

Rail Employees – Paul Plaganis – 1992Rail Employees – Paul Plaganis – 1992

Tower operator. For over twenty years I was a tower operator for three different railroads. As a tower operator I was in charge of controlling all switches and signals at various interlocking locations.  From the tower, I could switch trains from one trace to another.  By changing the aspects of the signals that were displayed, I was able to control the speed of oncoming trains. Although my craft is independent of the Maintenance of Way (MW) employee, our paths crossed daily. We are dependent upon each other in our daily work. Because of this interdependence, I did not need to artificially enter their group for this paper. I was already a member. I have supplemented this paper with past observations and current interviews with MW employees.

The Tower. The operator’s tower was also a meeting place for many rail employees. Maintenance of Way (MW) employees would often meet at the tower and line up their daily construction work with the operator in charge.  It was the tower operator who would determine when the MW employees could go to work on the tracks.  The “tower” was also a great place for MW employees to hide from their supervisors. As often was the case, the MW employees could count on the tower operator for a hot cup of coffee and, on occasion, a good game of cards.  They all loved to play cards with the tower operator, just to pass the time of day.

Trackmen, the bottom of the pecking order. Gandy Dancers, as they were once called (today they are called trackmen) are still an important part of the rail industry.  They are the brothers who keep the track in proper running condition.  These men live in “camp cars” that are parked near the tower during the work-week. Often these men spend more time with their fellow workers and the tower operator than with their families. Today, technology has changed the way these employees work. Boro cranes, tie injectors, and laser guided CAT tampers have replaced thousands of our brothers. On the other hand, certain things remain the same.  The MW employee is still on the bottom step of the railroad pecking order. Through it all they survive. Their rich traditions, class -consciousness, worker solidarity and the love for their job attracts them to this work like a moth to a flame.  Like the farmer who plows the field, the MW employee returns to the tracks at Spring’s first thaw and departs with the first frost.

A way of life that stays in the family. Some would say that working on the railroad is not just a job, but an adventure. I would also have to add, it’s a way of life for the MW employee.  As in both our crafts, work is passed down from father to son and to their sons. For that matter, if one wanted to work in my craft or in the maintenance of way department, you had to have a relative who worked there to begin with. It is not uncommon to have several generations of one household working on the railroad or in the same craft.

The work. Maintenance of way work is basically track rehabilitation and new track construction. This work may consist of changing out old defective rails for newer ones, replacing worn out cross ties, re-decking bridges, adjusting track alignment, and tamping low spots along the right-of-way. The end product of their daily work should be a safe high-speed rail bed for trains to operate over.

Tools and hardhats. The MW employee reports to work at sunrise.  They bring to the worksite their lunch buckets and work clothes.  The railroad supplies the tools needed for the daily work assignment.  These tools range from a simple pick ax all the way up to a high speed continuous action tamper (CAT). In between this spectrum one can find rail jacks, lining bars, sledge-hammers, blow torches and a strange array of on-track machines that resemble something that would come out of an advanced erector set. As in the construction trades, hard hats define status among the rank of the MW workers. The particular color of the hat (orange signifies worker, white identifies management), whether it is old or new, shiny or dull, can provide information about the wearer. Management typically has white, un-scuffed hard hats with the company logo on the side.

Heavy work. A rite of passage.  Seniority will often be the final arbitrator of who operates the automated machines and who is stuck doing the manual labor. As often is the case, it’s the senior men who possess the technological requirements needed to operate the automated equipment. It’s the junior employees who are relegated to doing the heavy manual labor. Physical strength and stamina are often associated with the manual jobs, and the young Turks seldom seem to mind doing it. It’s as if doing the heavy work is a right of passage from boyhood to manhood for these young workers.

A roughneck occupation. Like the construction worker, MW workers are employed in a roughneck occupation. Characteristic of these workers is that they are all male , all union members, and all employed by the railroad. They all learned their craft from the ground up, starting as common laborers, and eventually working their way up to machine operator or foreman. With greater job responsibilities come larger paychecks.

Looking, talking, and acting like a trackman. There is always some awkwardness among the new men while they get used to the seasoned workers. Occupational socialization begins as the new worker identifies himself with his occupation.  The new employee must quickly learn the language of the trade. Becoming a trackman involves a process of looking, talking, and action like a trackman.

Overcoming the elements builds bonds. All of these employees have one thing in common. They all must persevere through very adverse working conditions: extreme cold, high winds, rain, snow, and heat, all must endure. An unspoken bond of respect is formed between the workers who are able to overcome the elements.

The machine-operator. Knows all the tricks of the trade.  The machine operator exudes self-confidence and self esteem.  He has many years in the field and is assumed to have acquired all the “tricks of the trade”.  It’s the younger workers who look to these employees for guidance and advice on how they should perform their tasks. They know full well that some day they will be the ones on the machines teaching the new Turks the tricks of the trade.  While the machine operators are not considered supervisors, they are unofficially responsible for training the younger employees.

 The morning ritual. No time clock here. The machine operators arrive at work first. They start up their machines and inspect them to insure that they are running properly.  While this is taking place the laborer is sent out to the nearest store to buy coffee and newspapers.  Once the machines are running and the workers have finished their coffee it is time to start working, no time clock here.

Keep the foreman out of hot water and the continuous game of cat and mouse. The workday starts when the track supervisor drives up to the work site and informs the foreman of what is expected of him and his men.  Historically, the supervisor will talk only to the foreman, and then drive off in his truck. The foreman will tell his workers what the supervisor expects, and then the workers and the foreman will decide how much of the work they will perform, for they control the process. Everyone in the gang knows that they will not achieve all the work that is expected of them; they will do just enough to keep the foreman out of hot water. In the rail industry it’s always the workers against the company, a continuous game of cat and mouse. I think they all like to play this game, both, labor and management.  How much can the workers get away with and how many times can the company catch them? The work gets done, but they all play the game.

The foreman and crew.  Mutual loyalty. The foreman in charge of the gang will shout out instructions about what he wants done today.  If and when the gang is ready, the work will start. Once on the tracks, men and machines are separated into small work groups. The jobs are neither narrowly defined nor performed under close supervision. The foreman knows his workforce and what they can achieve during the day. The foremen are all working foreman and receive extra pay. Part of their job is to lay out the daily and weekly work assignments. As often the case, the foreman will have to act as a buffer between the men and supervision. If something goes wrong, the foreman takes the heat. If the foreman is liked by the workers, the workers will insure that things go according to plan.  In turn, the foreman must protect the workers from supervision. Some days the work just goes badly. It’s important that the foreman takes the hit for it, not his workers. He understands that the workers’ attitude is crucial since management does not control the operations. In order for the work assignment to proceed smoothly, a mutual loyalty between the foreman and his men must override any sense of obligation the men have towards the company.

Like father like son. It is not uncommon to have two or three generations of one family working in the MW department. If one wants to work in my craft or in the maintenance of way department, you have to have a relative who worked there to begin with. There is much to be said in favor of this type of hiring policy.  The company knows all too well that when a father gets his son a job working with them he will often take responsibility for his son’s performance.  There is also a great deal of pressure on the son not to disgrace the family name.

The common bond. There is a special loyalty between the workers that transcends the employer employee relationship. These men take a tremendous amount of pride in producing something real and tangible. At the end of the day they see they physical evidence of what they accomplished as a group. It’s the common bond of sharing problems and experiences, danger and discomfort, job insecurity and being away from home that knits this group together. Loyalty to one another is preeminent for entry to this occupational community. Grievances between the men are usually settled without management’s involvement.  This internal discipline process prevents management from intruding into their society.

The union: We take care of our own.  For the MW worker, the union occupies a central place in their life. It is the union, not the company who is concerned with stability of employment. The union protects the workers from adverse working conditions and arbitrary hierarchical decision-making.  The union culture tends to be loose, informal, and often personal.  As the saying goes, “we take care of our own”.

The occupational community. The men see themselves as being independent from the company hierarchy. Members of this occupational community tend to prefer friendships with their fellow co-workers. Their work tasks require cooperation between the different trades within the crew. It’s this atmosphere that generates a feeling of job satisfaction that flows from the knowledge that one is an accepted member of the work gang. Without these unwritten work rules in pace, job autonomy and control of the work process would not be possible. Work autonomy and social solidarity would be replaced with class and status and the loss of autonomy that is central to this homogenous work society.

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.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply