In 1830 there were 23 miles of railroad track in the United States. Seventy years later that
number grew by more than 190,000 miles. The railroads expanded with the help of Congressional land
grants and economic growth following the Civil War, pulling people and prosperity with them.
The men who made this travel possible were forgotten in the rush to crisscross the country.
These men would have to keep the track safe and stable for passengers and for the growing freight
traffic. As the nation grew dependent on this faster mode of transportation that replaced the stagecoach,
there was an ever-increasing demand for railroads and employees to maintain them.
The initial rush to lay rail had produced poorly laid track that could not handle the speed and
amount of traffic. The early makeshift crews gave way to other crews who could rebuild, repair and
maintain the track. These men worked from sunrise to sunset – 14.5 hours a day – with a one-hour break
in the winter and ninety minutes in the summer. There were no job guarantees and wage cuts were
forced upon them. There were no benefits for injury or death and the average pay was eighty cents a
It was these conditions that led John T. Wilson, in 1887 at the age of 26, to risk his job and
welfare to form an organization to offer some protections to his fellow maintenance workers. This new
group, the Order of Railway Trackmen, was conceived solely as a benevolent society that would offer
death and disability insurance to its members.
The industrialization of the United States brought with it great clashes between labor and
management. Anything that meant an alliance of employees was a threat to railroad owners who would
do anything possible to stop workers from organizing. Leaders were fired, workers were blacklisted, and
prospective employees were forced to sign contracts agreeing not to join a union. People were beaten
and chased out of their communities and unions could not meet in public places, but John T. Wilson
Though membership roles were fluctuating and rival organizations kept challenging the fledgling
union, Wilson continued his crusade to stand up for the trackmen’s rights. He created grievance
procedures, negotiated wage increases, and shortened the work day – all without calling a strike. It was
not easy and Wilson faced many obstacles. But, in 1900 with a membership of 1,500, the Brotherhood
joined the American Federation of Labor and ensured its dominance as the union for maintenance of
The road was still going to be rocky, however, because any advances made to this point were
shaken by Wilson’s death in 1908. The transition from Wilson’s driving leadership to new, untested
leaders would prove to be a slow one. When the United States entered World War I, rail labor got a
much-needed respite from the antagonism of management when the government took over the railroads
for the duration of the war. Once the railroads were returned to private hands in 1920, the Brotherhood
was beset with problems that ranged from financial difficulties to worker disenchantment with the
The middle of the decade brought a partial solution with the Railway Labor Act of 1926 (RLA),
which abolished the Labor Board – an entity that sided with management more often than labor – and
helped solidify collective bargaining as an accepted procedure.
Gains for the union came slowly in the way of increased membership, unity and higher pay, but
that all came to a near halt with the Great Depression. Hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost and
unions had to work to shore up what they could and negotiate minimum wage reductions instead of
The recovery from the depression brought greater government involvement in the railroad
business as legislation was passed to create retirement plans, unemployment benefits and national
minimum wage standards for additional employee protection.
The 1940s brought World War II and rail labor worked hard to support the war effort by keeping
supplies and troops moving. The government effectively prohibited strikes and kept a close watch on the
status of labor negotiations.
After the war, technological advances threatened employment levels and inflation threatened
standards of living. Once again, the union held its ground and continued to get wage increases and
improved benefits, struggling against railroad claims of decreasing profits resulting from competition
with the trucking and airline industries. This period also ushered in the beginning of a decline in BMWE
With the advent of deregulation in the 1980’s, the union’s membership continued to decline. The
1990’s brought legislative attacks from an anti-labor administration that fought to remove the safeguards
that the Brotherhood spent 100 years fighting to achieve.
As this next century begins, the need for the Brotherhood and solidarity with other rail unions is
greater than ever. The fight for job security in the face of short line spin-offs, safety in the face of
deteriorating conditions, and fair wages and benefits in the face of cutbacks continues; however, rail
labor leaders are looking at new and innovative ways to fight back from a position of strength.
In 2004, the membership of the Brotherhood voted overwhelmingly to join the International
Brotherhood of Teamsters’ Rail Conference. Under the leadership and guidance of President Freddie
Simpson, the Brotherhood begins a new era in the struggle that was started by John Wilson over one
hundred years ago. Uniting all transportation labor under one roof will provide workers with a stronger
voice and the support of other transportation workers.
The benevolent society started with a few trackmen on a hot day in Alabama. The BMWED has
since shown it can meet the challenges of an ever-changing industry and is committed more than ever to
protecting its members’ rights.
Some of the accomplishments during our Brotherhood’s first one hundred years are reflected in
the list of benefits described below.