The operating labor organizations were established originally as insurance-benefit societies because the early working conditions of railroad employees were so hazardous that private insurance companies refused to insure them. This insurance function still represents a major part of the unions' activities.
Eugene Debs, an American socialist and labor organizer, was an active railroad union leader during the late 1800s. He was grand secretary and treasurer of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen from 1880 to 1893, when he resigned to organize and become president of the American Railway Union. He led the American Railway Union in the Pullman Strike of 1894, a violent labor dispute in which federal troops were sent to make sure that the United States mail was delivered.
In 1894 United States President Grover Cleveland dispatched federal troops to Chicago, Illinois, to break a railroad strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company. Cleveland claimed the strike interfered with delivery of the U.S. mail. Here, armed federal troops are on top of the train during the strike.
Locomotives from the eastern and western United States are depicted here meeting in Promontory, Utah, where crowds gathered to watch the joining of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads on May 10, 1869. This first transcontinental railroad opened the West to supplies and resources from the East and served as the chief means of transportation for settlers in the West.
The National Protective Association of Locomotive Engineers, founded in 1855, survived for only five years. In 1863 the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, the first union organization of railroad workers, was organized. The Brotherhood of Conductors was organized in 1869; its name eventually was changed to the Order of Railway Conductors and Brakemen. In 1873 the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen was established; in 1906 it became the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen. An active leader in this union was the American socialist and labor organizer Eugene V. Debs, who assumed leadership in the 1880s. The Brotherhood of Railroad Brakemen, founded in 1883, became the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen in 1899. The Switchmen's Union of North America was organized in 1894 after an initial start as the the Switchmen's Mutual Aid Association.