Saturday, May 3, 2008

Remembering the Norfolk & Western Strike of 1978

Thirty years ago this coming July, the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks (BRAC), after more than a year and a half of negotiations, called a company-wide strike against the Norfolk & Western Railway. In Portsmouth, BRAC members were joined by other union railroad workers who refused to cross picket lines, bringing the N&W yard and repair shops in the city to a virtual standstill. As the N&W's management implemented their strike contingency plans, the trains would start moving again – salaried N&W officials and non-union workers would attempt to keep the railway in operation in an effort to break the strike.

The N&W in 1978 was one of the few American rail companies operating with a large profit. As the ninth largest railroad in the nation, the N&W operated 7,000 miles of track, connecting 14 states and Canada, with the bulk of its business (40% of its annual revenue) being the transportation of coal from the mines of East Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio. The N&W also did significant business with US automakers in Detroit, running nearly forty special "run-through" trains that bypassed many regular stops. Portsmouth was home to one of the largest locomotive and car repair shops of the N&W because of its central location on the main N&W line, which connected the south east coast and the coal fields of southern Appalachia to Chicago and Detroit.

N&W's success in a time of woe for many other railroads has been attributed to increasing demand for coal in the early 1970s, as well as the leadership of John P. Fishwick, who became President and CEO of the company in 1970. Fishwick, along with Southern Pacific and the Southern Railway, pioneered the introduction of computers to help schedule its labor crew and its fleet of trains. Fishwick's computerization efforts, which contributed to his general policy of cutting employment levels, was believed by many Wall Street analysts to be the secret to his success. In 1971, after his first year on the job, N&W posted a $68 million profit. Between 1971 and 1978, N&W cut its payroll by nearly 15 percent and increased by a third their gross tonnage shipped per man-hour. In 1977, a year before the strike, N&W posted a profit of $103 million.

Fishwick's cost-cutting efforts, particularly in the area of computerization and job cuts, while posting significant profits, set off a series of conflicts with the various railroad unions. At a time of record high inflation and with clerks being especially impacted by the job cuts accompanying computerization, BRAC began demanding significant pay raises and expanded job security clauses in their contract.

By 1978, N&W's Fishwick was willing to risk a strike in order to block BRAC's demands. He had good reason to believe N&W could weather any such work stoppage. The railroad industry had organized to deal with the costs and disturbances of strikes. The Association of American Railroads had created the National Railway Labor Conference (NRLC), a coalition of 74 railroad companies, which set up a strike insurance program known as the Services Interruption Policies, which gave N&W access to an $800,000 a day mutual aid fund; the program also provided for the "interchanging" of equipment, employees, and services, including freight contracts. Fishwick's computerization efforts had also included the creation of a non-contract supervisory employee database, which could be used during a work stoppage to make job assignments across the whole N&W operation.

In effort to counter the assistance of the NRLC's mutual aid pact, BRAC began setting up secondary picket lines at a handful of sites that were providing "interchange" assistance to N&W. Members of other railroad unions respected the BRAC picket lines, both the primary ones at N&W yards, as well as at non-N&W yards. The railroad companies, at first, succeeded in obtaining temporary federal court injunctions shutting down these secondary pickets.

These secondary pickets had threatened to turn the strike against the N&W into a nationwide strike against all 74 members of the NRLC.

From the start of the N&W strike the companies appeared to be largely successful in blocking the secondary picketing through court injunctions until the 26th of September, when U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger vacated the injunctions against BRAC, ruling that the union had a right to carry out secondary actions against members of the NRLC under the Railway Labor Act. Interestingly, unlike the National Labor Relations Act, which governs industries other than the rails, the Railway Labor Act allows for secondary strike actions in cases where the primary company is receiving significant assistance that unfairly enables the primary company to resist the effects of the primary strike.

Chief Justice Burger's ruling led to a virtual nationwide walkout by the 235,000 member clerks' union. BRAC locals struck 74 rail lines in 42 states, "idling up to 350,000 of the nation's half a million rail workers, stranding thousands of commuters and millions of tons of freight."

At the time of the strike, US railroads carried about 47% of the nation's freight. With N&W heavily involved in the transport of coal from the coalfields of Appalachia, coal operators began laying off miners in July; when the strike went national at the end of September, General Motors laid off 6,700 workers; Ford furloughed 550 employees and warned that they may need to lay off 100,000 workers if the strike was not settled within days. The strike also impacted the shipment of farm produce in the Midwest, whose farmers were shipping their fall harvest of soybeans, corn, and other grains from elevator terminals. Over 100,000 commuters in Chicago were also left stranded. Some 26,000 Amtrak riders were left without service.

As BRAC pickets began shutting down rail traffic throughout the nation, the Carter Administration stepped up their efforts to bring BRAC and N&W to an agreement that would end the strike. On the 27th of September 1978, Labor Secretary Ray Marshall hosted negotiations at the Department's headquarters in Washington, D.C., giving the two sides twenty-four hours "to resolve the dispute without government intervention." The Washington Post would report: "the talks continued through the night with only a short dinner break; the negotiators remained at loggerheads as the noon deadline approached, prompting a last-minute personal mediating attempt by Marshall. By 1:30 p.m., the labor secretary had to concede defeat. He reported that the National Mediation Board, which handles railway and airline labor problems, was recommending creation of an emergency board, a move that automatically triggers the 60-day 'cooling-off' period."

With the deadline past and the National Mediation Board's recommendation in hand, President Carter invoked emergency provisions of the Railway Labor Act, which enables the president to order strikers back to work for a 60-day "cooling-off" period, during which time all parties were to participate in federally mediated negotiations. If, after such time the two sides were still unable to reach an agreement, the union would be free to re-launch its strike.

In the past, the rare invocation of emergency powers had generally been done at the last minute to avert a strike, not in the midst of one to force workers back to their jobs. Whether the president had the power to shut down a strike already legally underway had not been firmly established by the federal courts. At his press conference, when he announced the appointment of an emergency mediation board, Carter made it clear that he was willing to immediately take the issue before the federal courts if BRAC refused to end its strike.

Even though the administration would most likely succeed in such a court battle, and a defeat for the union could prove incredibly costly to the Brotherhood, BRAC President Fred Kroll at first refused to obey Carter's order. Not wanting to test the President's authority, but fearing retaliation against members of his union, Kroll refused to order his members back to work until a federal judge inserted a provision barring the railroad companies from retaliating against the striking workers in his court order demanding an end to the strike.

For BRAC, as a whole, the strike was a success. Fearing their destruction at the hands of Fishwick and the NRLC, the union survived and gained significant concessions in the final federally mediated contract. Locally, however, in Portsmouth, where striking workers had derailed and looted a train and where a company official had been severely injured, the strike has at times been seen as a failure. In the wake of the strike, N&W would close the repair shops and hundreds of jobs would be lost. After twenty-plus years, the successor to N&W, the Norfolk Southern Railroad, announced this past year their plans for refurbishing and re-opening the Portsmouth Car Repair Shop.

With the thirtieth anniversary of the 1978 strike approaching, there is no better time than now to record the history associated with these local events that played such an important part in the larger national story of the transformation of the American railroad industry in the 1970s and 1980s. Local history is its most revealing and of greatest significance when understood in a larger, national context. The N&W Strike of 1978 is not only important local history; it is important to understanding American history.

In the coming year, students at Shawnee State University, under my direction, will conduct oral history interviews with local residents involved in the strike, from both sides of the conflict. The interviews will become part of an on-going project entitled Life & Labor: Oral Histories from Portsmouth, Ohio , and will be made available to the public via the internet.

If you or someone you know participated in the strike, whether as a striker or as management, and are interested in being interviewed, please contact Dr. Andrew Lee Feight by phone at 740-351-3143, by e-mail at, or by mail at the Department of Social Sciences, Shawnee State University, 940 Second Street, Portsmouth, OH 45662.