This Week in Railroad History – The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers
November 6th, 1855: On this date in railroad history, 68 engineers from 13 states representing 45 railroads met in Baltimore, Maryland to organize the National Protective Association of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers of the United States, say that three times fast, forming the nation’s first railroad union.
In 1863 it became known as the Brotherhood of the Footboard, and a year later, it was given its permanent name, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. The brotherhood was formed to negotiate pay for its workers and as an insurance protection plan for themselves and their families. Back in the 19th-century, most employers offered few, if any, benefits. Railroading was a tough job, and there could be many injuries and even deaths, so the families of those maimed or killed would need to be taken care of, and the brotherhood was looking out for them. The idea was that all the workers were brothers and should look out for one another, and in time, their families’ health and welfare if a member should pass away.
The health insurance program created by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers was the format for many other unions’ health insurance programs. The BLE had an insurance association called the Locomotive Engineers Mutual Life and Accident Insurance Association. Founded in 1867, membership in the association was available to the members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and their wives, widows, children, and grandchildren. Local units of the group were called branches and were governed by a quadrennial national convention. The association was headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio, and had 30,000 in 1968 and 20,000 in 1979.
Besides the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, there were several other railroad unions formed. Some of them include the Order of Railway Conductors (formed in 1868), the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen (1873), and the Brotherhood of Railroad Brakemen (1883), to name a few. Several of these underwent name changes over time to reflect the change in the skill of its members, most notable the Brotherhood of Railroad Brakemen became the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen became the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen, choosing to retain membership in the union after they had been promoted to engineer. The first minority railroad union was the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, formed in 1925. There were over a dozen other unions, as well, representing various railroad occupations.
During the late 19th century and early 20th century, these unions participated in many strikes for equality, pay, and safety. At first, they were not very successful, but as the 20th century moved on, these unions won more rights for their members, and safer conditions and better pay became guaranteed. (For additional information, see the feature article in the winter copy of Rail Lines coming soon.)
Many of these unions are still around today. In fact, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen has over 52,000 members today. Many of the other unions were alma gated into the United Transportation Union in 1969 to form a stronger union, given the decline or obsolescence of specific jobs, i.e. there was no need to have a fireman aboard a diesel locomotive.
Even today, railroad unions are going strong. They still have the same mission, to protect their members and fight for their rights as skilled workers. The railroaders of the future will need to be even more skilled and will require a strong union to represent them as we move forward in the world, looking forward to progress and looking back at the heritage and the hard work of all those that came before them.
Written by Justin Lambrecht, education assistant