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First trolley of Boston’s present-day MBTA system. “Allston,” “Pearl St.,” and “Park St.” displayed on the car. 9/1/1897

First trolley of Boston’s present-day MBTA system. “Allston,” “Pearl St.,” and “Park St.” displayed on the car. 9/1/1897

Several attempts had been made to organize the employees of the Boston Elevated Company (referred to as the “L” as opposed to today’s “T”) prior to 1912.  There had been an unsuccessful strike over the right to organize in 1897. 1912 marked the first time that a Union organizing drive was backed by an International Labor Organization (The International Association of CAR MEN).

For several months in early 1912 the Union had unsuccessfully attempted to meet with the “L’s” Management.  Not only did “L” President General William Bancroft unequivocally refuse to meet with a committee elected by the Union, but he initiated a plan to obstruct the organizing drive.  282 employees with substantial service with the Company were fired for subterfuge or for “unsatisfactory service” which was cited in 149 cases.  The Union charged that these employees were fired as a result of their Union activities.  Management explained the firings “as needed in order to maintain discipline.”

The Union submitted a list of grievances to “L” Presidents Bancroft in May of 1912 asking that if he still refused to address the employees’ concerns that he submit them to arbitration.  Bancroft’s refusal of this request brought the Union members’ frustrations to the boiling point.  Early in the morning of June 7, 1912, the members of the Boston Elevated Carmen’s Union at a meeting, which had begun the previous evening, voted to strike the “L’s” Management by a vote of 1,389 to 8.

The strike opened with violence.  Within 15 minutes of the 4:15 a.m. strike vote the strikers began taking action.  Car windows were smashed, trolley ropes were cut, and controller box handles were stolen.

The strike grew uglier over the ensuing weeks as many strikers were arrested for attacks on vehicles and on so-called “Loyal Men” who crossed the picket lines.  Several Union members were arrested in Brighton and charged with plotting to blow up car tracks with dynamite.  Fueling the violence was the actions of the “L” Management who hired an Ohio company to bring in over 700 strike breakers from around the country.  These strikebreakers were brought into Boston and were provided living quarters by “L” Management.

Officials of the Elevated resorted to taking out large advertisements in all the local newspapers attempting to portray the “L” as a warm and generous employer whose foremost concern was the welfare of the riding public.  Their ads went as far as to list the name of the employees who took an oath of loyalty to the Company.  The Management also employed a surveillance and investigation unit, which they used to gather information on the Union members and their families.  To counter the employees’ desire to organize, the Management set up a Company controlled organization called, “The Boston Elevated Railway Company Fraternal Protection Association,” whose officers were appointed by Management.

The two sides made no progress over the first five weeks of the strike.  Even with the hundreds of imported strike breakers and the many “Loyal Men” (as the Company referred to them), “L” Management could not run anything close to normal service.  The strikers on the other hand after having their status as employees terminated by Management were no closer to an agreement than when they took to the streets.  Several events began to unfold, however, which began to turn the tide.

The Union received enormous support from the labor community who gave money and provided attorneys to defend arrested strikers.  The International paid all of the strikers a small weekly strike benefit.  Even the legendary Samuel Gompers came to Boston to show his support for the striking transit workers.  Parades of strikers and their supporters were organized and thousands marched in solidarity.

The major turning point in the strike, however, came as a result of charges filed with the State Board of Conciliation and Arbitration (which was created in 1909) by the Car Men’s Attorney James Vahey.  The Union claimed that the Boston Elevated Management caused the strike by interfering with the workers’ right to organize.  After a lengthy investigation, the Board released a report which upheld the Union’s charges and placed the blame for the strike on the “L” Management.  The Board found that the Management had discharged employees solely for their Union activities, had brought in strike breakers and convicted felons who were employed as strong-arm men, and had coerced employees against joining the Union.

Following the report, District Attorney Joseph C. Pelletier sought indictments against several members of the “L” Management for perjury, coercion, and conspiracy to incite riots.  The District Attorney also promised to intervene on behalf of the strikers who had received extreme sentences for their actions.  Pelletier chastised the Courts for acting “as if any striker charged with a crime should be sent to prison, guilty or not.”  Strikers had been sentenced to 3 to 6 months in prison for calling people “scabs,” others were given sentences of 1, 2, or 3 years for simple assault and many strikers who were questionably guilty of simple misdemeanors were charged with far more serious felonies.  In the course of the District Attorney’s probe, it was established that the “L” Management had even investigated the background of the members of the Grand Jury.

After the Board of Conciliation and Arbitration’s report, Governor Eugene Foss, and Boston Mayor John F. Fitzgerald (Mayor Fitzgerald, affectionately referred to as “Honey Fitz,” was the maternal grandfather of President John F. Kennedy and and Senator Edward M. Kennedy, and great grandfather of Congressman Joe Kennedy) became actively involved in the resolution of the strike.

John Francis "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald

John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald

Governor Foss publicly scored the “L’s” Management and called for the punishment of the guilty officials.  To insure that the future officials would uphold both the spirit and the letter of the law, Governor Foss introduced legislation to create a Public Utilities Commission to insure that the right of the stockholders, the employees, and the public would be protected.

Mayor Fitzgerald went even further than the Governor in supporting the rights of the Union members.  He issued a public statement saying that, “if other Street Railway Companies were able to operate and return a dividend under the conditions which the striking employees were asking the Elevated to accept then the Boston Elevated Railway can do the same.”  The Mayor sat all the parties down and promised the “L” Management that unless they could reach an agreement with the striking workers, he would ask the Governor to call a special session of the Legislature to deal with the issue.

Further support came from the Cambridge and Malden City Councils who passed resolutions asking the “L” to reinstate all the strikers.  The Boston Central Labor Union also announced plans for a general strike by all local trade unionists if the strike was not quickly settled.

Finally on July 28, 1912, a settlement recognizing the Union and establishing an “Open Shop” was agreed to by the Boston Elevated’s Board of Directors.  The Union membership had unanimously ratified the terms the previous day.  Under the Agreement strikers were reinstated with full seniority (the so-called “loyal men” who crossed the picket lines had argued for seniority over the strikers but their organization, the Fraternal Protection Association, gave Management the right to decide the issue).

All other issues which could not be agreed to by the parties or settled by the Board of Conciliation and Arbitration would be submitted to a Board of Arbitration.  Labor and Management would each get to appoint a representative while the third member would be appointed by the Governor or Mayor of Boston.

Boston Police leave a meeting after voting to strike. Note how young most of the officers were, many veterans of the Great War and with young families.

Boston Police leave a meeting after voting to strike.

The Union’s first contract which came about the following year was a result of a three member Arbitration Board.  Judge James Storrow, the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court (after whom Storrow Drive was named), served as the neutral arbitrator.  The Carmen’s progress continued and their actions served as an inspiration for many others.  The going was far from easy as evidenced by such events as The Boston Police Strike of 1919.  That bloody strike and the subsequent firing of all the strikers by then Governor Calvin Coolidge was said to have been the issue which got Coolidge to the White House.

In the mid 1920’s the Carmen, who represented all the Elevated’s employees, allowed the different trade unions to represent the workers in their respective trades.  This saw the number of unions representing the Elevated’s employees grow to 13.  Today, over 30 different unions represent M.B.T.A. employees, but Local 589 still represents approximately two-thirds of the workforce.

Local 589 led the way in bargaining over wages, hours, and working conditions for all the El’s employees and for workers throughout the transit industry for the next 60+ years.  The Carmen’s Union survived a depression, its members fought in two World Wars as well as in Korea and Vietnam, while the Boston Elevated Railway Company underwent several reorganizations, becoming the Metropolitan Transit Authority in 1948, and finally becoming the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (The “T”), which serves Boston and the surrounding 79 cities and towns in 1968.

1980 saw a return to the attitude Management exhibited in 1912.  The M.B.T.A. was forced to close down in December of 1980 for the first time in its history for lack of funds.  The M.B.T.A. Management convinced the Massachusetts Legislature that the blame for the high deficit  laid with the Authority’s employees. Legislation was enacted, which took away many of the gains made by the Union over the years.

As it has done with all the obstacles it has faced over the years, Local 589 will overcome.  The structure of the M.B.T.A. and its Management will most likely undergo several reorganizations and restricting in the years ahead, but the need for a Carmen’s Union will not only continue  – it will grow.  Adversity has always strengthened that spirit which began in 1912 and will continue to do so in the future.  After all, if not for the abuse of power of the employer what need of Unions would we have?

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