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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Ralph Waldo Strickland, April 18, 1980. Interview H-0180. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Recollection of the 1946 railroad strike

Strickland belonged to the union, and he describes what they wanted to accomplish. He also recalls the strike of 1946 and Truman's involvement in ending it.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Ralph Waldo Strickland, April 18, 1980. Interview H-0180. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

LU ANN JONES:
When you were working, did you ever think you should get more money than you were paid?
RALPH W. STRICKLAND:
Back yonder in World War II, wages going up, everybody's getting increase in wages. We had a strike in 1946. All railroad employees went out on strike. That was what we striking for were higher wages. We won, and we got our higher wages. I belonged to the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen for years and years. I got a cigar box full of trainmen receipts. I paid my dues, union dues.
LU ANN JONES:
When did you join the union?
RALPH W. STRICKLAND:
Way back there. When I first started down there, 1927, 1928. Wasn't too long I went over to that 643 lodge in Monroe, I went over and joined the trainmen.
LU ANN JONES:
Did everybody have to join?
RALPH W. STRICKLAND:
More or less. We didn't have a closed job, but they expected you to. You felt a whole lot better if you belonged to the union. The people you work with, everybody else belonged, so you didn't want to be a loner, so you had to go along with that crowd. We didn't have no union shop. Now they got a union shop now on railroad. You got to pay your dues if you hold a job.
LU ANN JONES:
How much were your dues?
RALPH W. STRICKLAND:
Not much, sometimes three or four dollars a month. They never did get more than three or four dollars a month. lodge dues.
LU ANN JONES:
At that time, there weren't very many other workers who were unionized. Did you ever catch any flack from people because you were a member of the union?
RALPH W. STRICKLAND:
No, not on railroad. Those maintenance second foremen and all that, some of that railroad labor was organized. Cross watchmen, maintenance I don't think they had a union. Men in the train service, they had a union. They got that union in 1916 is when the eight hour day come in. In other words, the unions got eight hours and ice water they used to talk about. You furnish your ice water on the job. That was a great improvement. We got from twelve hours a day to eight hours, and we also got ice water on the job. We had a ice cooler full of ice water. They had to drink spigot water before that time. But in 1916 is whenever they got that eight hour day and the ice water too. So the union, they were climbing and getting more fringe benefits. Now, Lord have mercy, men with twenty years service… They get thirty days vacation, and I don't know what all they do get. Time and double time. Eight paid holidays a year. If you don't work, you still get paid for them. You get a guaranteed wage. I don't know how much they got. Vacation with pay, hospitalization, that Traveler's Insurance Company, they pay your hospital bill. I was in the hospital two or three ti es. I hurt my back down there one time. I had an acute sprain and went in the hospital. Stayed in traction in that hospital fourteen days. When I come out, I owed them $1.45. I wouldn't have owed them that, but my boy came up to see me and he went up there and eat at the hospital cafeteria. They charged me for that $1.45 for his dinner. That was good stuff, that was fringe benefit. We didn't have to pay it. The brotherhood, they were responsible for it. They brought all that working conditions. After all, some people don't like a union, but they paid off for a railroad worker. We got a good contract they had at that time. But it took years and years of blood, sweat and tears, lady. Those old people back there, they had to do it the hard way and was slow a-coming. But they kept working and increasing and having negotiatios from time to time. General committee would meet, they'd go up to Sauls office in Portsmouth and draw up all thos contracrts, working agreements, seniority.
LU ANN JONES:
Were you kept informed as a member of the union about what kinds of negotiations were…
RALPH W. STRICKLAND:
Yes, that's right. We'd go to lodge meeting. We belonged to 794 in Hamlet later on. We'd go down at lodge meeting and the general chairman, local chairman, they'd tell us what was going on, what grievances they'd take. Local chairman, he'd go to the superintendent's office with a bunch of grievances and a bunch of tickets, infractions, railroad company violated the rules. Boys would claim time for it. He'd make an appointment with the superintendent's office, go up there and handle grievance. Sometimes they'd agree to pay them, sometimes they'd agree not to pay them. We kept informed. Local chairman, they kept us informed, told us what was going on.
LU ANN JONES:
What was some of the grievances, particularly in the 20's, 30's and early 40's?
RALPH W. STRICKLAND:
Different things. Sometimes the crew clerk could call the wrong man. You worked first in, first out on the extra board. Sometimes, they had in their contract, go into detail, you had to call a certain man. Sometimes that crew clerk would make a mistake and wouldn't call the right man for that job. The man that was entitled to it, the contract give him the right to that job. He put in the time claim for it. and prove that he was entitled. His seniority, his promotion and everything entitled him to make that day. The crew clerk failed to call him for it. He claimed payment. The local chairman, he'd go to the superintendent. They'd pay it too. Nearly every time, they paid those time tickets.
LU ANN JONES:
What were some other grievances?
RALPH W. STRICKLAND:
That was one of that. Sometimes they'd get in an argument about who's going to catch what job, extra job. One time they had a work train down there. Our contract read that if a work train was in yard limits, if the total day's work was within yard, a yard crew would man it, but if it's a part-time road, part-time yard, the road would man that crew. Sometimes they'd run a work train in over here and work it all day in the yard. We'd find out about it, a conductor and two switchmen or a whole yard crew would claim time. Find out they worked that work train in the yard and didn't run him outside the yard, they'd claim time. They'd argue about that a whole lot. Sometimes they agreed to pay it, and sometimes they wouldn't. They just any number of infractions they claim time for.
LU ANN JONES:
What led up to the strike in 1946?
RALPH W. STRICKLAND:
That was a wage agreement. That was a nation-wide strike too. Truman was President. That was the big four organizations. You got the engineers, the firemen, the BLE and the BLF, the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, and the ORC, the Order of Railroad Conductors. They called them the big four, operating unions. They pulled a nation-wide strike and every railroad in this country was stopped.
LU ANN JONES:
What was it like here, what happened here?
RALPH W. STRICKLAND:
We stayed on strike four days. President Truman, he got on the radio and asked the Brotherhood to call this strike. This country was still in war. We still in war 1946, we pulled that strike. He got on the radio, Truman—I never forget the night—he come on radio and said, "I appeal to each and every railroad worker in this country to return to work immediately. You're striking against your government. A government still at war." That's the very words Truman said, "You're striking against your government, a government still at war." The next morning, the Brotherhood, our heads—Al Whiteney was president of railroad trainmen—they sent wire messages, and they called the strike off. They negotiated. They created a fact-finding board. They granted us … we got a raise in pay. We got some raise and some change in some working conditions, so we benefitted by it, but it didn't last but four days. We had every railroad in the United States shut down at that time. Back in them days, you stop all the railroads, you do that now, and if somebody go hungry, it'll be a state of emergency right quick around here, if you try to stop every railroad in this country for just a few days. Those people around Washington, New York, and all these metropolitan areas, somebody'd go hungry.