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The Pennsylvania Railroad created the town of Altoona and remained the most important industry in the town for years. The railroad management took a paternalistic interest in the affairs of the community. As early as 1854, the railroad directors noted in their annual report of the scarcity of employee housing in Altoona and the high cost of rents in all of the non-company built houses. They believed this to be against the company's interests and sought to increase the availability of reasonably priced housing for railroad workers. [1] By 1855, the railroad labor force in Altoona amounted to nearly one thousand people. [2]

Railroad work represented the leading technology of the nineteenth century and attracted the best mechanics, engineers, artisans, and craftsmen of the day. The Altoona shops benefited from this popularity and drew ambitious people from the surrounding vicinity to the shops. These workers represented a highly skilled and motivated segment of nineteenth century society. [3]

These workers proved reluctant to form unions, but they eventually began to unionize to improve their working conditions and wages. The first union formed on the Pennsylvania Railroad was the Brotherhood of Locomotive Enginemen in 1863. Following this in 1868 came the union of Railway Conductors and Brakemen and in 1873 the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen first formed. The Switchmen's Union of North America organized in 1876 and the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen received a charter in 1883. [4]

By the early 1870s, Pennsylvania Railroad employees received wages at least equivalent to any other eastern railroad if not higher. The management provided a working environment as safe as those on any other railroad, but had little sympathy for the desire of workers to organize into unions. In 1872, the railroad management begrudgingly recognized the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers on its western lines and promised to consult with representatives from the brotherhood prior to any wage changes. This agreement soon came under pressure when the Panic of 1873 reduced railroad income. In December of 1873, Pennsylvania Railroad Director John Thomson unilaterally reduced wages by 10 percent. The locomotive engineers went out on strike. Company officials requested and received assistance from the state militias in breaking the strike. [5]

The most significant labor dispute at Altoona occurred in 1877. Because of the country's depressed economy, the Pennsylvania Railroad board of directors in June decided to enact a ten percent cut in the salary of those workers making more than one dollar per day. The directors further decided not to formally notify the workers of this decision until July. The Pennsylvania Railroad officials announced the reduction of wages on July 6 noting that the salary cuts would be retroactive to June 1, 1877. This announcement precipitated no strike on the Pennsylvania Railroad except for some workers on the New York piers. An additional grievance on the Pittsburgh Division of the Pennsylvania railroad came when the superintendent for that division reduced train crew size by one brakeman. This resulted in the train crew earning less money and doing more work. [6]

Other railroads took similar measures throughout the country. On July 11, the management of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad announced a ten percent cut in wages effective on July 16. Railroad workers began a strike on that day. The strike soon spread to other railroads which had enacted pay cuts, including the Pennsylvania Railroad. On July 19, freight crews at Pittsburgh went on strike. This rail center became a focal point for strike activity. On July 21, trains carrying soldiers to break the Pittsburgh strike passed through Altoona. The first troop train passed through unmolested by strikers except for some shouted insults and futile attempts to uncouple the cars. The strikers knocked one soldier to the ground in a scuffle with the strikers. The strikers next set about halting all freight train traffic through Altoona, but they allowed passenger trains to pass. In the afternoon, the strikers attempted to swarm over an incoming troop train, but the soldiers beat them back. The officer in charge placed a guard around the train to protect it. One striker was bayoneted in the arm while trying to uncouple the train and one soldier was beaten up by the strikers when the guard attempted to reboard the train. The strikers threw stones and exchanged shots with the soldiers; however, the train managed to pull out of the Altoona station without serious injury to either soldiers or strikers. [7]

The next morning another ten carloads of militia arrived in Altoona under the command of Brigadier General James A. Beaver. The train stopped for the soldiers to eat breakfast and obtain a heavier engine for the remainder of the trip to Pittsburgh. The strikers shut the roundhouse gates and captured a detachment of soldiers sent to open the gates. The strikers next set about disabling the engines in the roundhouse. The soldiers, finding it impossible to obtain an engine, returned to Harrisburg. [8]

The following Monday, the strikers met and pledged themselves to protect public and private property. They further requested that the Altoona shops be closed. George W. Stratton, master mechanic of the shops, agreed to this request. The strikers and shop people met that afternoon and requested management to reestablish the pre-June wage scale and not take action against any of the strikers. This request was sent to General Superintendent G. Clinton Garner, who replied that he would have to consult with the board of directors before making any such promises. State militia arrived in Altoona on July 25. On July 27, the soldiers confronted the strikers and removed them from the railroad station arresting a few of the strike leaders. This broke the strike and all men returned to work on Monday July 30, 1877. [9]

By mid-August, the strike was broken throughout the country. The most serious rioting on the Pennsylvania Railroad system occurred in Pittsburgh where a fire started by the mob did more than one-half million dollars damage to railroad property. Eventually, more than 1,200 carloads of scrap metal from the Pittsburgh fire was sent to Altoona for melting down. On March 29, 1880, the Pennsylvania Railroad's board of directors decided to restore wages to the compensation allowed before June 1, 1877. [10]

The Pennsylvania Railroad regulated railroad workers' lives in Altoona. A bell manufactured by the Meneely company of West Troy, New York, had been installed in the first erecting house in 1851 to signal workers when to begin and end work. This bell, purportedly, was a half-size replica of the Liberty Bell. The company used this bell to signal work and rest periods until 1895. In the morning at 6:00 a.m., the bell and later a whistle or horn blew to wake up the community. At ten to 7:00 a.m. another whistle blew which gave the workers time to walk to their work stations by 7:00 a.m. at which time a whistle blew and work began. The bell and later whistle blew at noon, ten to one, and one o'clock to signal the start and end of lunch time. The closing signals were at five and again at six for those working later schedules. [11]

By 1877, most of the shop did tasks on a "piece work" system. This meant that old locomotives were dismantled, new ones assembled, new passenger cars and freight cars built and painted at so much a piece. The work method operated in the following manner when building a passenger car. A twelve-man gang would be responsible for the erection and completion of the car's outside. Two men worked on each end of the car and four men worked on each side. The work crew selected one man to act as foreman and be responsible for the work. Part of the foreman's responsibility included making sure that each of the crew members did their share of the work. He reported any slacker to superiors for disciplinary action. These crews usually completed the outside work of a freight car in six days with some crews completing work in five days. Passenger cars took slightly longer to finish. [12]

Work in the shops was long, arduous, and difficult. One worker, Samuel Vauclain, began working at the Altoona shops at sixteen years of age. On his first day on the job, he turned bolts, repaired locomotive water pumps, cut keyway slots in pistons, and smoothed iron shafts with hand tools. This final job eventually resulted in the wearing down of the palms of his hands to the tendons. By the age of twenty, Vauclain was in charge of a work crew. [13]

Pennsylvania Railroad management developed an apprenticeship program in 1871 for those selected to be future supervisors. The only qualifications for this program were that the person selected needed a degree from a college or technical school and be recommended by one of the company's general officers. The management apprentice spent four and one-half years working in various departments including the erecting shop, vise shop, blacksmith shop, boiler shop, machine shop, air brake shop, car shop, roundhouse, shop clerk's office, test department, iron foundry, motive power offices, drafting department, and firing on a locomotive. Throughout this apprenticeship, the individual received grades and frequent evaluations. Once they served the apprenticeship work, the person became eligible for the position of inspector. From here the person could rise through the various grades of inspectors to the positions of assistant master mechanic, assistant engineer of motive power, assistant road foreman of engines, master mechanic, or superintendent of motive power. [14]

in 1889, the Pennsylvania Railroad issued orders to general foremen and master mechanics on how to manage shop affairs. These people kept a daily log of the hours worked by each man and rate of pay. Normally, company management did not permit work at night nor on Sunday. [15]

The Pennsylvania Railroad in order to prevent the development of strong unions made an effort to provide for the employees' needs. By 1904, the railroad relief department offered the employees insurance which had benefits in case of sickness, accident, or death. Also, the railroad management offered each employee the benefits of the Pennsylvania Railroad Pension Fund. Upon employment with the Pennsylvania Railroad, the company began setting aside a certain amount of money each pay period to cover the employee's pension. This was done without a tax or contribution by the employee. In addition, they offered the employee a chance to invest in the Pennsylvania Employees' Savings Fund. Here, an employee could voluntarily place up to $100 a month in a savings account earning three and one-half percent interest. The employee could keep up to $5,000 in the account. [16]

In 1908, in an effort to deal with Pennsylvania Railroad's upper management, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Engineers requested to negotiate directly with general manager of the Pennsylvania Railroad matters which affected union employees. Railroad officials insisted that such negotiations be taken up on a lower level. The brotherhood refused and the question was taken up by the Interstate Commerce Commission without resolution. [17]

Another controversy with labor occurred in 1910 when two unions, the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen and the Order of Railway Conductors, demanded new wage rates and work rules. Negotiations broke off on July 13 and the union instructed members to be prepared to strike within forty-eight hours. Both sides compromised before the strike occurred, but strained feelings remained on both sides. In 1912, railroad management prevented the union from striking when they acquired a court injunction against the union. The next year another union members of several railroads including the Pennsylvania voted to strike. President Woodrow Wilson stepped in and invited all sides to the White House where railroad management and the union agreed to submit their grievances to binding arbitration. [18]

During this period of labor unrest, a conductor by the name of George Brown in 1914 with the approval of railroad management began meetings culminating in the formation of the Mutual Beneficial Association of Pennsylvania Railroad Employees, Incorporated. Pennsylvania Railroad officials saw this as a way to cultivate a closer more harmonious relationship between management and labor. The tangible programs of the association included the establishment of cheap insurance for employees to provide for them and their families in case of accident, a supplement to their pension, and providing employment for those men suspended from the railroad. Later, the organization established recreation opportunities for the workers and in the 1920s opened restaurants to provide hot meals at reasonable prices to workers. Three such restaurants operated in the Altoona Works. This organization continues to provide assistance to railroad workers to the present. [19]

In 1916, the United States Congress passed the Adamson Act which stipulated the work day as eight hours for interstate railroad employees. This was a labor reform rushed through Congress by the Wilson administration when four railway brotherhoods threatened a nationwide strike to get the eight-hour day and railroad companies refused to consider this demand. Pennsylvania Railroad officials believed the eight-hour day unconstitutional and would result in an unjustifiable increase in wages paid workers. That same year, the American Federation of Labor granted the Blair County Central Labor Union a charter. [20]

The termination of government price controls at the end of World War I resulted in labor unrest and strikes around the country as unions sought to increase wages for their members to keep up with rising prices. Pennsylvania Railroad officials in 1921 countered these strikes by creating company sponsored unions which company officials recognized as the only legitimate bargaining agent for the employees. A major test for non-company unions occurred in 1922 when a strike was called by the Blair County General Labor Union. Altoona Works employees failed to strike and remained loyal to the company union while company officials locked out independent union leaders. Membership in the non-company sponsored Blair County General Labor Union plummeted. The company sponsored union remained despite the passage of the Railroad Labor Act of 1926 which forbid such activity until 1934 when congressional amendments to the Railroad Labor Act outlawed company sponsored unions. In Altoona, this resulted in the formation of the Brotherhood of Railroad Shop Crafts of America. This union chose to remain independent from the national union and thus continued in a weak bargaining position vis-a-vis the railroad management. Workers preference for an unaffiliated national union was confirmed in 1938 when they voted overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the Brotherhood of Railroad Shop Crafts of America as their union over seven crafts represented by the American Federation of Labor's railway employee department in an election conducted by the National Mediation Board. [21]

The nationwide depression which began in late 1929 had a profound impact on Altoona workers. In 1928, the Altoona shops payroll stood at nearly $21 million. This dropped to $18 million in 1930 and $8.3 million in 1932 and 1933. The shop payrolls even had great fluctuations on a monthly basis during this period. For example, in 1935, the first pay period of September (employees were paid on a biweekly basis) dropped 40 percent below that of the first payroll of August. The Pennsylvania Railroad modernization program in the mid-1930s led to a $16.7 million payroll in 1937, but this dropped to $6.4 million in 1938. Prior to the Depression, the railroad had been fairly successful in not furloughing employees for extended periods of time. Unfortunately, this policy could not be sustained during the Depression years. [22]

The reduction of the employee force in Altoona coincided with company reorganization. The Altoona Works management handled reorganizations in the following manner. When employees were reassigned from the Altoona machine shops to the Altoona car shops and the Juniata shops in 1938, management provided each employee with a list of potential jobs at these two locations. The employee indicated on the list the number of positions for which he would be applying in order of preference. Management then assigned workers to these positions based on worker preference and seniority. This resulted in some employees being forced to take lower pay in less desirable jobs. [23]

During World War II, the Altoona shops suffered labor shortages as men were furloughed for military duty. A number of female employees were hired to act as replacements. These new employees worked in various jobs until the end of the war when they left the labor force. [24]

The period after World War II posed many challenges to workers and management. The transition from steam to diesel resulted in a number of employee furloughs, layoffs, and recalls. Many employees could not built up their unemployment insurance from one lay-off to the next and became disillusioned with the railroad management. The shift in employment away from the railroad is best illustrated by the fact that in 1915 more than 11,000 workers in Blair County were employed by the Pennsylvania Railroad while slightly more than 6,000 workers were in all other manufacturing jobs combined. By the 1950s, the railroad employed more than 10,000 workers while all other manufacturers employed nearly an equal number of employees. Though the railroad remained a potent force in Altoona, the growth in this industry remained stagnant compared to other parts of the Blair County economy. [25]

The Pennsylvania Railroad in the 1950s continued to support a number of activities which provided benefits for the workers. These included the Pennsylvania Railroad Voluntary Relief Department whose operating expenses were paid for by the railroad, a Pennsylvania railroad women's aid society which raised money through voluntary donations, a Mutual Beneficial Association privately supported by employees, and the Employees' Mutual Provident and Loan Association, another employee supported organization. The relief department which began operations in 1886 distributed death and disability benefits to employees. The women's aid raised money for the purpose of providing assistance to railroad families in time of need. The mutual benefit association provided insurance for employees. The Mutual Provident and Loan Association provided members with loans at low costs. [26]

In the 1950s, the Pennsylvania Railroad shop craft workers became members of the United Railroad Workers of America, which was part of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Then in 1954 Altoona employees voted in favor of establishment of local 2017 of the Transportation Workers Union of the AFL-C10. The new union pledged to fight the Pennsylvania Railroad's effort to abolish workers' jobs. This resulted in a period of confrontation between the railroad management, existing unions, and the new union. The new union sent letters to the local newspaper complaining of the worker treatment by the railroad. Occasionally, the union called a strike to make a point with management [27]

The merger of the New York Central with the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1968 led to many changes for the workers. A year after the merge, the payroll for the Altoona Works totaled $30.3 million, an increase of 38 percent over the pre-merge payroll. The railroad and shops reorganization after the merger left a number of employees feeling betrayed and resulted in a net decline in worker productivity. [28]

In 1969, the Order of Railway Conductors and Brakemen, Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen, Switchmen's Union of North America, and Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen merged into the United Transportation Workers Union. The majority of unions in the Altoona Works preferred to remain independent from national affiliation and by 1970, only five of the thirteen unions in the Altoona Works were affiliated with the national AFL-CIO. [29]

When in 1972, the Penn Central laid off more than 200 workers, the Transportation Workers Union complained that this violated an earlier agreement reached at the time of the merger. The people laid off were recalled, but efforts by the company to lay off employees continued. As the Penn Central system descended into bankruptcy, various unions at Altoona conducted talks with management in order to preserve members' jobs. [30]

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Last Updated: 22-Oct-2004