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Rise of Industrial America
Work in the Late 19th Century
George Estes and the Order of Railroad Telegraphers

George Estes was interviewed by a WPA writer in 1938. Excerpts from that interview appear below. How does Estes compare the situation of workingmen in the 1930s with those in the 1880s and 1890s? What specific problems did Estes encounter as he tried to expand the membership of the Order of Railroad Telegraphers?

View the entire interview with Mr. Estes from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.


The workingman of today who thinks he has a tough time of it, would hardly believe that such conditions could ever exist as did in those days. You would scarcely think it possible that a big, money-making enterprise like a rail-road would resort to such scheming tactics against labor as the railroads of that day certainly did. For instance: they seemed determined that no telegrapher or station agent would receive more than fifty dollars per month, regardless the duties performed. If a telegrapher worked at a station that also carried Western Union wire traffic, the telegrapher usually received fifteen dollars per month from the Western Union Company. Then, we'll say, the station also happened to be the village postoffice and the agent was the postmaster. For this service the government paid the agent fifteen dollars per month. That made thirty dollars. Then the railroad company - who of course knew to a penny how much the agent received for those two services - made it a point to pay him exactly twenty dollars per month for the services he rendered them, making a total of fifty dollars per month the agent received from all sources. His duties as postmaster [and] Western Union representative perhaps were sinecures but his work for the railroad was certainly anything but that. He was an the job twenty-four hours a day for the railroad and in the above instance received twenty dollars per mouth for his services. If he hadn't had the postmastership or Western Union commission the railroad would have paid him fifty dollars just the same. How long do you think the worker of today would stand for such inequitable treatment at the hands of a corporation?

But I have always noticed that things usually have to get pretty bad before they get any better. When inequities pile up so high that the burden is more than the under dog can bear, he gets his dander up and things begin to happen. It was that way with the telegraphers' problem. These exploited individuals were determined to get for themselves better working conditions - higher pay, shorter hours, less work which might not properly be classed as telegraphy, and the high and mighty Mr. Fillmore [railroad company president] was not going to stop them. It was a bitter fight. At the outset, Mr. Fillmore let it be known, by his actions and comments, that he held the telegraphers in the utmost contempt.

With the papers crammed each day with news of labor strife - and with two great labor factions at each other's throats, I am reminded of a parallel in my own early and more active career. Shortly before the turn of the century, in 1898 and 1899 to be more specific, I occupied a position with regard to a certain class of skilled labor, comparable to that held by the Lewises and Greens of today. I refer, of course, to the telegraphers and station agents. These hard-working gentlemen - servants of the public - had no regular hours, performed a multiplicity of duties, and, considering the service they rendered, were sorely and inadequately paid. A telegrapher's day included a considerable number of chores that present-day telegraphers probably never did or will do in the course of a day's work. He used to clean and fill lanterns, block lights, etc. Used to do the janitor work around the small town depot, stoke the pot-bellied stove of the waiting-room, sweep the floors, picking up papers and waiting-room litter. Telegraphy was just part of his job, though he perforce was expected to keep his ear cooked at all times for the messages passing through the station sounder. In other words, he was an actor with a wide repertoire. Today, capital and labor seem to understand each other better than they did a generation or so ago. Capital is out to make money. So is labor - and each is willing to grant the other a certain amount of tolerant leeway, just so he doesn't go too far. In the old days there was a breach as wide as the Pacific separating capital and labor. It wasn't money altogether in those days, it was a matter of principle. Capital and labor couldn't see eye to eye on a single point. Every gain that either made was at the expense of the other, and was fought tooth and nail. No difference seemed ever possible of amicable settlement. Strikes were riots. Murder and mayhem was common. Railroad labor troubles were frequent. The railroads, in the nineties, were the country's largest employers. They were so big, so powerful, so perfectly organized themselves - I mean so in accord among themselves as to what treatment they felt like offering the man who worked for them - that it was extremely difficult for labor to gain a single advantage in the struggle for better conditions.

The Order of Railroad Telegraphers was organized in the late eighties, with a handful of members. The Order struggled along gaining little ground and adding few members for a decade, which brings it up to the period of which I speak. It was apparent that if the Order was to be of service to railroad telegraphers, was to force recognition from the employers, it would have to present a united front. Would have to enlist the support of every last telegrapher on every last line in the country. With ten years of stagnation behind it, the task of lining up the country's railroad telegraphers one hundred percent, seemed an impossibility for the wan, weak and puny organization. And right there, with failure unquestionably staring me in the face, is where I actively entered the picture. I was appointed chairman of the Order and charged with the hopeless assignment of expanding its membership until the most insignificant telegrapher on the least important branch of the smallest railroad in the remotest spot in America could reach into his jeans and jerk out a paid-up card in the Order. Fired with ambition to at least make a creditable showing, I entered the one-sided battle, and, how well I succeeded you may learn by asking any gray-headed faded-eyed "brass-pounder" who saw service forty years or more ago.

To give you an idea of the membership strength when I took over my duties as organizer, let me cite a few scraps of data from memory: The San Joaquin Division of the Order had about 110 telegraphers eligible for membership, but only two belonged. Of the two, one was a religious fanatic who was subsequently committed to an insane asylum. Out of 140 eligible for membership, the Los Angeles Division had one lone member - doubtless a brave soul. It took courage to belong. If the "Company" discovered an employee dallying with the notion of joining the Order, they straight-way trumped up some excuse for severing him from his job. They did a neat job of it, too. Here's how they did it: They never discharged an employe because of union activity. It was always because of "reduction of force", "reorganization" or other reason. However, in giving him his clearance papers - any employee leaving the service of a railroad was given clearance papers - they employed a secret code, known only to railroad officials, which as effectively black-listed him as if it were written in plain English. The paper on which the clearance was typed, had a water-mark. The water-mark was a crane, a bird with long legs which extended nearly the length of the paper. If there were no red lines crossing the crane's legs or neck, the clearance was exactly what it appeared to be on the surface - a recommendation to be honored by any road in need of the applicant's services. But if the red lines were there, although the wording of the clearance was identical with the honorable one, the applicant could as easily obtain work on a railroad as fly to the moon.
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View the entire interview with Mr. Estes from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.