Wm. Z. Foster

The Labor Movement

The National Railroad Amalgamation
Conference in the U.S.A.

(January 1923)

From International Press Correspondence, Vol. 3 No. 9, 23 January 1923, pp. 69–70.
International Press Correspondence (weekly), Vol. 3 No. 3, 26 January 1923, pp. 42–43.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2021). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

The National Railroad Amalgamation Conference, so long looked forward to by militants in all industries, has come and gone. It was a tremendous success. On Dec. 9–10, in Chicago, some 425 delegates, of all trades and callings, including smaller delegations from the four Brotherhoods, from all over the United States and Canada, came together to consider the proposition of amalgamation. They endorsed it 100%, declaring wholeheartedly for one union for the entire railroad industry. Then, organizing a committee of 100, members of which be located in all the principal railroad centers, they prepared to launch a great campaign to bring the many organizations together. It is safe to say that after the historic conference the realization of industrial unionism on the railroads, the dream of militants for a generation, now looms as a prospect of the near future.

Difficulties Overcome

The conference was held in the midst of great difficulties. Prime among, these was the shopmen’s strike, which still involves half of the railroads in the United States. The effect of this was paralyzing. With practically all the unions financially handicapped, it was impossible for them to send delegates.

Another obstacle, though not so serious as the strike situation, was the opposotion of certain officials of the International Association of Machinists and of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers who warned their membership to stay away from the conference. Many Brotherhood militants were kept away thereby, but sent assurances of support.

No Craftism: No Dualism

A remarkable feature of the conference was the overwhelming sentiment for complete amalgamation. The partial amalgamationists, those who advocate the fusing together of two or more closely affiliated trades here and there, got absolutely nowhere. The almost unanimous sentiment was for a thoroughgoing consolidation all along the line. Everyone recognized that the companies have become so militant and powerfully organized that the only way railroad workers can hope to stand against them is by complete solidarity of all trades. Federations and understandings retween the various groups will not do. There must be an organic connection between them; they must be so many departments in one all-inclusive union. Conductors, Engineers, Firemen, Trainmen, Switchmen. Trackmen, Clerks, Shopmen, and all the rest united in this opinion. The general conclusion was that craft unionism, particularly since the shopmen’s strike, is entirely out of date on the railroads and that only complete industrial unionism will suffice. When the conference voiced this conclusion it was the determined conviction of an overwhelming majority of the great rank and file of nearly all the organizations.

Another remarkable feature of the conference was the absence of dual union sentiment. Had such a meeting been held two years ago the demand for a new organization would have been practically unanimous, particularly from the more radically inclined. But in this conference not one speech was nude in favor of secession; in fact, not even a sentence was spoken in favor of quitting the old organizations. Everyone was against such a course as suicidal; the radicals especially condemned it. The conference repudiated it formally by resolution. This bespeaks nothing short of a revolution in the minds of American militants. And the significant part of it is that just now the rank and file, particularly in the shop trades, are discouraged and are tending to quit their unions as individuals or to secede in small bodies in the time-honored disastrous way that has so long cursed our movement. The conference went on record unanimously to check this tendency and to divert the attention of the demoralized rank and file towards amalgamation. This changed attitude by the militants betokens a new day for Labor in this country.

Amalgamation the Chief Issue

Seeking to avoid division in its tanks and striving to concentrate ail possible amalgamation sentiment, the conference rigidly restricted its business to the proposition of fusing the organizations into one body. Few departures were made from this policy. Chief of these was about the shopmen’s strike. The shadow of this great struggle hovered over the conference constantly, affecting its deliberations in many ways. The delegates went on record unanimously urging the striking shopmen to stand their ground and pledging all possible financial and other help to them. Another diversion was the adoption of the so-called “Chicago” resolution, calling for the amalgamation of the craft unions in all industries. A further resolution protested the suppression of amalgamation discussion in the official journals, and demanded that their columns be opened to this subject.

An amusing and highly significant phase of the conference, which was made up of at least 95% American-born delegates, was the reiteration by many delegates that one of the principal tasks confronting the movement was to interest the foreigners in amalgamation and industrial unionism. In past years radicals have insisted that it was the Americans who were almost hopelessly resistant to such ideas. This conference goes to show that when these ideas are put up to the Americans so they can understand them – in their old organizations rather than in new-fangled ones – they will take to them readily and assume their proper place of leadership in the militant wing of the labor movement.

Railroad Men and Metal Tradesmen

One of the most intricate problems confronting the conference was the guestion of what part the metal trades shop mechanics are going to play in the proposed industrial union. At the present time the heads of the metal trade unions are opposing the railroad amalgamation on the pretended grounds that if it takes place it will tear the railroad mechanics away from the contract shop men who are also members of these unions, thus greatly injuring both. But the conference refuted such contentions by adopting the principle of double affiliation. That is to say, while the railroad shop mechanics shall retain their membership in the purely metal trades unions (because they have an interest as metal workers in maintaining good conditions in the metal industry generally) they shall also be subject to the discipline of the railroad industrial union. Their negotiations with the companies shall be carried on by the general railroad union committee, and in case of a crisis they shall participate directly in general strike votes and in the strikes themselves, without the interference of the outside metal unions. A part of their dues would be sent directly to the railroad union, sufficient to defray their pro-rata share of the latter’s expenses. In reality they would be members of both the metal trades and railroad unions. The beginnings of this double affiliation system now exists in the relations bet ween the Railway Employees’ Department and the present craft unions. The virtue of the system is that it guarantees the solidarity of the shop mechanics with the railroad workers as a whole without tearing them away from the outside metal workers.

Realizing the close relationship of the metal trades and railroad unions and the great desirability of amalgamation movements proceding simultaneously in both, the conference authorized the calling of a special sub-conference of metal trades workers to initiate a general amalgamation movement in their industry. This was held on the evening of the first day of the general conference. It consisted of some thirty delegates from railroad and contract shop; all over the country. These delegates elected a provisional committee, entitled the International Committee for Amalgamation in the metal industry, and instructed it to initiate a campaign in the metal industry along lines similar to those that have proved so successful on the railroads. With these twin amalgamation movements at work, attacking the problem from all sides, and both agreeing on the double affiliation principle, it will be impossible for the reactionary leaders of the metal trades to block amalgamation in either industry.

The Campaign Ahead

The conference changed the name of the amalgamation committee from the “National Committee to Amalgamate the Sixteen Standard Railroad Organizations” to the “International Committee for Amalgamation in the Railroad Industry”. The International Committee of one hundred militants was partly chosen at the conference, some 65 being nominated and elected. The remainder will be selected by the three executive officers from the large numbers of militants who are active in the amalgamation movement, but who could not be present at the national conference.

The conference adopted a general plan of action looking forward to the calling of a general amalgamation convention, at which all railroad unions, or as many as possible of them, shall be combined into one body. Instructions were given the executive officers to push this relentlessly. The plan of this program is of the utmost importance, destined in fact to mark an epoch in American trade unionism.

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