[Occasionally I like to throw in an older piece just to get it into electronic format. These are from the pre-computer days when I used a Royal typewriter.]
Thoreau once wrote: "We do not ride upon the railroad; it rides upon us."
Thoreau's words took on special meaning for me in April 1981, when I was hired as a trackman on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway. I was elated. I had a job with good pay and good benefits.
After I had worked five years, however, my elation had turned to bitterness and anger. I no longer cared about the pay and benefits; I just wanted out. Of course, people said I was crazy for wanting to give up "such as good job," but I knew better. I had learned something about people and production and I felt that the C & O had ridden upon me.
For the first couple of years, I worked on an undercutter on my home division between Columbus and Portsmouth, Ohio. An undercutter is basically a large plow. It has hydraulic arms that lift the rails and ties about four feet in the air and then a plow blade is inserted. A powerful winch connected to a one-inch steel cable then pulls the plow, scraping out all of the ballast and dirt. The old, rotten ties are then replaced with new ones and new ballast is dumped on the tracks.
After two years of this, I transferred to the C & O Southern Region Rail Gang, a group of about 75 workers who travel from place to place replacing worn-out rails with quarter-mile strips of "ribbon rail." The transfer meant I would have to travel with the gang and live on the railroad's camp-cars at various sites in Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia. The first night I was with the gang, near Vanceburg, Kentucky, a co-worker was killed. According to the supervisor, he had been drinking, passed out on a "live" track, then was cut in two when a train came along. The camp-cars at that stop were parked on a side track right next to the main line, so we had to cross over the main line to get to the camp-cars.
The next morning, when we heard the news about the death, the supervisor gave us a speech about safety. Understandably, worker safety is a major concern on the railroad. "Don't crawl under trains" and "Don't step on the rails" were two important rules. Another was "No alcohol, drugs, dogs or women on the camp-cars."
As an incentive to work safely, the supervisor would hand out trinkets -- ink pens, money clips, belt buckles, coffee cups, "safe worker" hats, and the highly coveted C & O rain suits. There were never enough trinkets to go around, so names were drawn out of a hat.
Unfortunately, when a worker claims that he has been injured on the job, none of the foremen or supervisors believe it. Unless the injury is very obvious, like a partial foot amputation or a crushed finger, they try to coerce the employee into admitting he broke a safety rule -- that is, admitting that the injury is his fault, not the railroad's. "Come on, it's not that bad, is it?" "You can work the rest of the day, can't you?" "If you go to the doctor, I'm going to hold a BFI (Board for Investigation) on you for breaking a safety rule." I remember one morning that an employee told a supervisor he couldn't work because he had a bug in his ear. Apparently, a moth had decided to take up residence in one of his ears and would not come out, even after the supervisor poured several cups of water into the guy's ear. Finally, the employee asked to be taken to the hospital to have the bug removed, but the supervisor indicated that he should just keep on working. " You work with a bug in your ear," the employee replied. He was then taken to the hospital and the moth was removed.
It did not take me long to realize that the concept of "worker safety" was a relative term. From the company's perspective, a rail gang is a major expenditure, so the gang is expected to stay on its production schedule. As an incentive to finish jobs ahead of schedule, however, supervisors are given bonuses; the more money they save the company, the larger the bonus.
Supervisors do not live in the tiny camp-car rooms; they stay at motels, sometimes miles away from the camp-cars and the job site. They think nothing of working overtime on a Friday, when the men are eager to get on the road and spend the weekend with their families. Supervisors think nothing about having the men work overtime in thunderstorms or when the rail temperature is 120 degrees and there isn't a drop of drinking water left. All that matters is production. Production first, people last.
One morning, while we were camped along the New River in West Virginia, there was no water left in the water tanker at the camp-cars, yet all of the water coolers had been filled with water. As we were putting bags of ice into the coolers, we noticed that the water was brown. A supervisor had decided that river water was O.K. for us to drink on the job that day. Production first, people last.
A rail gang is essentially a long assembly line and it can spread out for a mile or more. When a worker has to leave his particular job to get a drink of water or use the bathroom, production behind him sometimes comes to a halt until he gets back. The foreman in charge of that section then gets upset because the production line isn't moving. One day I was setting spikes and had to take a shit, so I stopped working and began looking around for an empty spike keg to take into the woods with me. (The C & O did not provide portable toilets at the job site, so the workers had to improvise; empty spike kegs, if the rim is not too jagged, make handy commodes. Luckily, on this particular day, the tracks were in the woods and not out in the open.) When my foreman saw me heading for the woods with the spike keg, he ran after me waving his arms like a madman and screaming that I had to get back to work. I explained to him that I was having a biological emergency and there was nothing I could do, but he didn't believe me. I then offered to bring some back to him on a stick so I could prove it; about 10 minutes later, the foreman saw me come out of the woods with a stick and told me to "get that damn stick outta here."
The C & O supervisors were also good at fascist-style intimidation. One time, at Prince, West Virginia, while the men were at the job site, railroad special agents, accompanied by West Virginia State Policemen and local sheriff deputies, opened or kicked in all doors on the camp-cars and brought in dogs to search for marijuana. They also let the dogs into unlocked private vehicles parked off railroad property along Route 41. No marijuana was found. Another time, near Richmond, Virginia, railroad special agents, along with Virginia State Policemen and Henrico County sheriff deputies raided the camp-cars just as the men returned from the job site and were getting cleaned up for dinner or a night on the town. A couple of employees were later reprimanded after the heavily armed police force found empty beer cans and a small amount of marijuana in their rooms.
Rail gang workers are not criminals. They are working men living away from home, trying to make a living for themselves and their families. The police came in as though they were expecting a battle. In the 19th century, as the railroads were expanding westward with the frontier, the men in rail gangs had a reputation for being hell-raisers. Wherever the gangs went, they became small towns, and drinking, gambling and prostitution were common activities in these rail towns. There was nothing else to do. On the job, these gandydancers (trackmen) were mostly black, Chinese and Irish. The armed foreman thought nothing of killing anyone who got out of line because there was always another worker waiting to take his place.
Today, although the people and control methods have changed, the C & O apparently sees its employees as these 19th century hell-raisers and treats them as second-class citizens. Supervisors in some industries at least try to communicate with employees, let them know what the goals are, and make them feel like they are accomplishing something as part of a team. I'm sure there must be good rail supervisors somewhere, but the ones I met on the C & O did not communicate with the men or talk about what was expected for the day. The supervisors did not honor seniority, but they practiced nepotism and general favoritism. If you were in the clique, they gave you the best assignments; if they had a grudge against you, you were given the worst jobs.
One day, while I had a back injury, I completed my light-duty assignment (cleaning the two bathroom cars) and then I went to a tavern to have a beer. I noticed my supervisor's blue car parked at one tavern, so I went in and found him drinking at the bar. Occasionally, he would pick up his two-way radio and give some instructions to a foreman. The men were working on overtime and he was running the rail gang from a tavern.
That incident stuck a nerve with me. In my experience, there was little job satisfaction because the employees were not encouraged to feel like part of a team -- and here was a supervisor drinking in a tavern while the men were on overtime. If we were hell-raisers, it was because we were treated like dogs by management. If we were hell-raisers, it was because there was little for a group of wound-up working men to do after work at the camp-cars but drink beer, play cards, or sleep.
We were usually camped on coal sidings in the middle of nowhere, miles from the nearest town, so it was often inconvenient to try to drive anywhere after work. In some areas, it was best to stay near the camp anyway, especially if you were black. One evening, near West Hamlin, West Virginia, I drove to a tavern (called the "White House") after work and found a black co-worker sipping on a beer at the bar. I sat down next to him and ordered a beer for myself. After a while, the bartender leaned over to me and whispered, "You better get your friend outta here." I took a good look around at the other patrons and I knew exactly what he meant. We finished our beers and left.
Sometimes it was even trouble to stay on the camp-cars because the local residents would come to us. The areas we worked in were some of the poorest areas in the United States -- in the heart of Appalachia. While the mountains and rivers along the tracks were beautiful, they were in stark contrast to the tar-paper shacks of the local residents. One evening a woman and a girl approached three or four of us as we sat on the walkway between the camp-cars. The woman was trying to sell her ragged, barefoot daughter, who looked to be eleven or twelve years old. Thirteen would have stretching it. There were no takers in our group, so they continued on to the next car. Who knows, maybe they found a desperate man with nothing else to do that day. On other occasions, I know there were takers.
We were good people in a situation where we had nothing to do in our spare time. Perhaps if the railroad had thought about providing a boxcar with exercise equipment, pinball machines and a Ping-Pong table, and maybe a car with a snack bar and a TV and VCR, it may have been more tolerable. Maybe then we wouldn't have burned those bathroom doors that chilly night near Beckley, West Virginia. Maybe we wouldn't have climbed to the top of that Kentucky coal tipple and fired bottle rockets at the company's dynamite shed. Maybe then the railroad's management style would have seemed more humane. Men without anything to do will find something to do.
I had read Walden before I went to work for the C & O and, after five years, I understood what Thoreau meant. "We do not ride upon the railroad; it rides upon us."
Thoreau, Henry David, Walden, (New York: Collier Books, 1978), p. 75.