Railway Blacklisting

Ray Stannard Baker

The Outlook/December 11, 1897

A DECISION of more than ordinary importance as affecting the relation of railroad corporations and their employees was rendered at Chicago on November 18. Fred R. Ketcham, who had been a freight conductor of tried worth previous to the American Railway Union strike of 1894, sued the Northwestern Railroad for $25,000 damages, alleging that he had been blacklisted and prevented from obtaining work on any of the railroads centering in Chicago.

For many years the blacklist system, as it is understood by the men, has been a fruitful source of discord between the railroad companies and their employees. It has been bitterly attacked by the labor organizations, and it has come up directly or indirectly in numerous suits at law, but in the past the corporations always have found shelter behind the simple declaration that blacklisting did not exist; and inasmuch as the proceedings of the General Managers’ Association were always secret, nothing could be proved. The men declared that wages could be reduced with impunity, hours lengthened, organization prevented, and their rights curtailed in other ways, and that they dared not rebel nor strike for fear that they would be refused the “clearance” necessary for them to secure work elsewhere. It was shown in the Ketcham case that hundreds of employees who left the service during the American Railway Union strike are now being punished under the blacklist system. The company for which Ketcham himself worked would not accept his services after the strike was declared off, and when he applied to other railroads he found that they were all barred against him until he should receive the written permission, known as a “clearance,” from the Northwestern Railroad. This he was unable to procure, and, having been a railroad man for many years, he found it difficult to make a living in other work for himself and his family.

In Illinois there is no statute against blacklisting. Consequently Attorney William J. Strong, who represented Ketcham, was compelled to base his suit upon the principles of the old common law. After a trial lasting more than two weeks, and the examination of scores of witnesses, he succeeded in convincing the jury that a conspiracy actually existed among the general managers of the Chicago railroads which effectually prevented Ketcham from obtaining work without the consent of the Northwestern Railroad. He was opposed by the full counsel of the defendant corporation, and the attorneys of other roads were present and watched the case with close attention. After less than three hours’ deliberation the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, awarding him $21,666.33 damages, nearly $20,000 of which was “smart money.”

If the important precedent thus established is sustained in the higher courts, to which the case certainly will be appealed, hundreds of former railroad men will begin suits, and there is no telling where the struggle will have an end. Already more than fifty damage suits similar to Ketcham’s are before the courts.

The main contention of Ketcham’s attorney was that the various railroads having terminals in Chicago had formed a combination under the name of the General Managers’ Association, and that they had agreed that no railroad should accept the services of any employee until he could furnish evidence of a clean record from the company with which he last had service. This was construed as a conspiracy against the liberty of the employee to find work where he chose without hindrance from his former employer, and most of the evidence of the plaintiff went to prove the existence of such a conspiracy.

A report of a meeting of the General Managers’ Association held May 18, 1893, was produced. The matter of establishing an employment bureau under the auspices of the Association had been discussed, and the committee having it in charge reported that it would be of advantage, among other things, “in assisting the roads to guard against the employment of a man who has been proved unworthy on some other road.” Ketcham’s attorney asserted that this showed collusion between the roads in the matter of employment.

A letter written by H. W. Ballon, trainmaster of the Wabash Railroad, to A. L. Henton, a brakeman, who had gone out during the strike of 1894, was introduced in evidence. It read as follows: “Referring to attached, if you have not been concerned in recent strike and can bring clearance to that effect, showing where you were working June 30 and since, can give you job of braking.” Henton was acknowledged in testimony to be a faithful workman, but, owing to his inability to secure a clearance from the railroad for which he had worked before the strike, the Wabash road would not give him employment.

Ketcham’s story of the operation of the blacklist, as told before the court, was in substance as follows:

He had been in the employment of the Northwestern Railroad Company for a period of twelve years, earning an average wage of $100 a month. Since June 29, 1894, when he went out on the strike, he had earned only $2,100 in different employments. The last position he obtained was in the Michigan Central elevator at Kensington. He was discharged from that position two weeks before his suit was begun. The reason of the discharge was given as slack business, but he had watched the elevator every day since, and it was running just the same as when he was working in it. About July 3 or 4, 1894, after the strike began, he was standing in front of his home in California Avenue, when J. C. Stewart, Division Superintendent of the Northwestern Railroad Company, came to him and asked him to take out a train. Stewart told him he could have any two brakemen he wanted. He replied that he did not feel like taking the risk in such troublous times, and refused to do so, whereupon Stewart told him that if he did not take out the train he would have him arrested and enjoined; and he said, “I feel sorry for your family, and you will find it hard work to get employment from any other road if you don’t do it.” After Stewart made this threat Ketcham still refused to go, and, having heard that there was a blacklist, he determined to test it. So, on July 20, before the strike was over, he applied to the Chicago Great Western Railroad for a position. Trainmaster J. B. Strong hired him, and he took a freight train from Chicago to Dubuque and back. When he was hired, Strong asked him what road he had ever worked for, and he replied that he had worked for the Northwestern some time ago. Strong asked him if he was one of the Northwestern rioters, and he said “No.” He arrived home from Dubuque at five o’clock in the morning, and at seven he was arrested by a United States marshal, and kept away until August 6, the day on which the strike was declared off. He was required to give $3,000 bond, and the case was dismissed without any evidence having been offered against him. When he went back to report for duty with the Chicago Great Western road on August 6, two other conductors were with him. Trainmaster Strong said to him, “You are just the man I have been waiting to see. You deceived me when I hired you, and I have no further use for you.” Ketcham then asked him what his reasons were for discharging him. Strong answered, “You have lied to me, and I cannot put you to work unless you bring a clearance from the Northwestern Railroad.” Ketcham then said, “What is this? am I blacklisted?” Strong replied, “You can call it that or anything you please. If you are not satisfied, go and see Mr. Kelly, the Superintendent.”

Ketcham and the two other conductors then went to see Mr. Kelly. “Oh, yes,” said Kelly. “Ketcham, I am very sorry, but I will have to let you out. I am sorry to do it, because you are a good man. You made the best run that was ever made over our road, and I would be very glad to keep you in our employment; but it comes from above me, and I am compelled to discharge you. If you will get a clearance from Stewart, I will restore you to your regular rank and give you a run, but I cannot hire you without such clearance.” Ketcham then said: “It looks as though Mr. Stewart had me in his power, and that I cannot earn a living for myself and family without his consent.” Kelly replied, “That is about how it is.” Then Ketcham asked, “Mr. Kelly, what is the reason for my discharge?” Kelly replied, “I have heard that you were a Northwestern striker.” Ketcham then asked, “Where did you get your information?” Kelly said, “I get it from the one we all get it from.”

Ketcham’s testimony as to these interviews was corroborated by one of the conductors who was with him, and denied for the most part by the railroad officials.

Michael Driscoll, a railroad man of twenty-seven years’ experience, testified that when he went out with the strikers he was working for the Pittsburg and Fort Wayne Railroad. After the strike he obtained work under Superintendent Warner, of the Chicago and Western Indiana Railroad. A few weeks later he was discharged, and he went to Mr. Warner and asked him, “How is it that you have allowed me to work until I have a regular job and then discharged me?” Warne replied that it was not he who was keeping Driscoll out of a job; that the Fort Wayne road was to blame. “If you can square yourself with the Fort Wayne,” he said, “it will be all right.” When Driscoll went to his friend Beltz, of the Fort Wayne road, Beltz said, “Mike , if I should give you a letter it would be the price of my own head. I cannot do it.”

There was much other evidence of similar import, showing a thorough understanding among the railroads that a man could not get employment with a railroad Company unless he brought the necessary clearance from the company for which he last worked.

Attorney Strong also introduced as evidence a blacklist of 524 names, issued by the Illinois Central Railroad Company. It bore the following heading:


Chicago Terminals Division, Chicago.

August 25,1894.

Form 1324.

The undernoted men in transportation department have been discharged or have left the services under circumstances rendering it undesirable to be employed by this company, and should they apply to you you shall refuse them employment without first conforming to Article 636.

[Article 636 says that men discharged shall not be employed without first having the consent of the head of the department under which they were last employed.]

Norman Ford, a clerk in the Illinois Central office, testified to having made fifty copies of this list on the mimeograph, and that he mailed copies to every railroad having offices in Chicago. The railroad officials, with one exception, denied any knowledge of the list. Superintendent Atwater, of the Grand Trunk Railroad, testified that he never had seen the list “until this morning, when I saw it in your office” —referring to the office of Mr. Harahan, of the Illinois Central Railroad.

One of the clearest pieces of evidence in the trial was that of Andrew Staeder. He testified that he had a leave of absence when the strike broke out, and that he was working for the Northwestern Railroad. He was not a member of the American Railway Union nor of any other organization. He went back to work on July 10, during the strike, and was afterwards discharged. He went to Master Mechanic Heath and asked for a clearance. Mr. Heath gave him this letter:

Chicago, April 26, 1895.

To whom it may concern:

This is to certify that the bearer, Andrew Staeder, has worked for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad Company since July, 1890, as a locomotive fireman. Mr. Staeder had been laid off on account of depression in business causing a reduction in force. He has permission to work elsewhere, providing he can obtain a position that is satisfactory to himself, but in the event of his not getting work elsewhere he can return to us for service when we have work for him. Any favors shown Mr. Staeder will be appreciated.

Yours truly, JOHN HEATH, Master Mechanic.

It was proved on the stand that when the Northwestern Railroad became aware that Staeder was to testify it endeavored to get him out of the way by offering him a pass and thirty days’ leave of absence with full pay. Later he was discharged outright by the company. The defense put on eighty-seven witnesses to prove that there was no such thing as a blacklist. Thirty-one of these had secured their positions since the beginning of Ketcham’s suit. The position of the railroad officials who testified in the case was that of general denial or of professed ignorance as to the meaning of the documents submitted.


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