Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way
Began in Demopolis, Alabama
The history of the advance and growth of American railroads is an episode in the saga of a people's restless urge to explore and to move on. Heeding that urge, these people expanded into the far corners of the North American Continent, moving as slow or as fast as their means of transportation allowed. This movement began in earnest only after the railroad's steel web was spun from coast-to-coast. Once the rail system was established, the great construction gangs began to settle down and maintain that which they had built. But, while the robber barons of the early railroads amassed great fortunes, their employees worked from dawn to dusk for pennies a day without insurance, vacations or means of support after years of hard work. It was these conditions that inspired early rail workers to organize collectively and form unions to protect their common interests.
One such union was the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes. The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes (BMWE) is an international union representing the workers who build and maintain the tracks, bridges, buildings and other structures on the railroads of the United States and Canada.
The BMWE was originally established in Demopolis, Alabama in 1887, by track foreman John T. Wilson and chartered under the laws of Alabama as the Order of Railroad Trackmen(ORT). Growing very slowly, , by 1890 the order's membership numbered only 628. A second organization, the Brotherhood of Railway Section Foremen of North America was organized in LaPorte, Iowa. Like the Alabama group, the Iowa union's organizing efforts were hampered by hostile employers, apathetic or intimidated employees and the restriction of membership to white foremen.
The obvious advantages of amalgamation for both small organizations led to a joint meeting in St. Louis on October 13, 1891, and a resulting merger agreement effective January 1, 1892. The new union assumed the title of Brotherhood of Railway Track Foremen of America(BRTFA). In the1896 convention, their were some significant changes in their constitution although a "whites only" policy continued. The delegates re-named the organization to Brotherhood of Railway Trackmen of America(BRTA).
In February, 1900, the BRTA affiliated with the American Federation of Labor(AFL) and was granted a juridiction that included white employees "in the Track, Bridge and Buiding, Water Supply and Fuel Departments, and Signal and Interlocking Service on all Railways of America." In 1914, there was a secession of a substantial portion of the BRTA membership who formed a rival organization, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees(BMWE). Another amalgamation occured on August 15, 1918 and the name was changed to "United Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes and Railway Shop Laborers(UBMWERSB)." The BMWE grew tremendously as a result of the nationalization of railroads during World War I. By 1920, it claimed a membership of 200,000. But many inter-union disputes in the railroad industry brought a suspension from the AFL from January1, 1920 until June 12, 1922. In an effort to resolve those annoying jurisdictional problems, the brotherhood gradually restricted its organizing field, and, reflecting this policy, in 1925 it shortened its name to the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees(BMWE).
The BMWE membership forms a cross section of American culture. Their goals, interests and political backgrounds are as diversified as their heritage. Once a union with over 350,000 members, automation, the rise of the trucking and airline industry, coupled with the policies of a conservative government, has depleted the ranks of the BMWE to under 60,000 members. Since the passage of the Staggers Rail Act of 1978, railroad management, using competition as an excuse and the anti-union climate as an ally, has been selling or abandoning the nation's rail system. Realizing that our country is losing a vital link in its transportation network, the BMWE struggles to reverse this trend. Using our rich history as a guide - drawing on the strength of the union - we confront management in the halls of Congress and the State Legislatures, through use of our newspaper the BMWE Journal, the nation's court system and at the bargaining tables.
The battle that John T. Wilson courageously fought in the face of so much opposition goes on today. Rail labor leaders continue the fight for job security, better working conditions, fair wages and benefits, improved safety conditions and elimination of massive cutbacks. The benevolent society that started with a few trackmen on a hot July day in Alabama has shown that it can meet the challenges and problems of an ever-changing industry and will continue to protects its members' rights as it moves into its second century.
Accomplishments of the Brotherhood are reflected in benefits obtained:
Right of Representation
· Rules Agreements
· Overtime Pay
· Unemployment Benefits
· Paid Vacations
· Union Shop
· Health Insurance
· Accidental Death, Dismemberment and Loss of Sight Benefits
· Job Security
· Off-Track Vehicle Accident Insurance Coverage
· Checkoff of Dues
· Dental Insurance
· Bereavement Leave
· Protection against Discrimination
· Eight-hour day
· Retirement Benefits
· Sickness benefits
· Forty-hour Week
· Holiday Pay
· Life Insurance
· Improved Wage Rates
· Travel Time and Away-From-Home Expenses
· Jury Duty Pay
· Supplemental Sickness Benefits
· Early Retiree Major Medical Benefits
· Personal Leave