St. Louis, Winter 1967: At the Carrie Street station are fourteen tracks, lined up beside the main tracks that run around town to the Southern Pacific, the Erie, and the other lines. A local company called the “Terminal Railroad” hauls cars on these main tracks, in a big circle around the city.
“Got seventeen Rocks!” the Terminal conductor says, walking into the concrete office where the bill clerk and I do our work. He hands a bundle of Bills of Lading wrapped round with a rubber band to the bill clerk, while outside Danny and the switchmen throw the switch levers sticking up from the tracks, so that the Terminal train, which has just passed our yard and is now stopped, can back up these seventeen cars for us, the Rock Island Line, into one of our fourteen tracks.
Unhitched, those seventeen cars sit while the Terminal locomotive powers the rest of their train around the bend and out of sight.
And then it began to snow.
I never knew exactly what Bill the bill clerk did, but he spent his time inside the concrete office. I’d spend my time standing outside in the cold while the cars rolled past, writing down the car numbers as fast as I could.
If I could write these numbers as the cars passed by, then I didn’t have to walk up and down the freezing tracks to write down the numbers. From my car numbers written down and in order, Bill the bill clerk prepared a list for Danny and the switchmen.
By analysing the Bills of Lading, Bill determined that some cars were going to Kansas City — the next stop beyond St. Louis on the Rock Island Line — and that some other cars were bound for Denver or Santa Fe or Oakland. It was my job then to carry Bill’s list across the yard to Danny the switch foreman, and Danny would figure how to move the cars around into the correct order, so that the last group dropped off at Kansas City, the next group in Denver, and so on.
An engineer would then hook the switch engine to the cars, and pull them all forward, and then push them back into this track, and that track, and this other track, because that’s how you sort railroad cars. Some cars were called “pigs” because their flat beds were to be loaded with truck trailers; it stood for “piggy-back”. Other cars were called “reefers” because they were insulated, with motors on top to keep the interior refrigerated; these would be filled with perishables like frozen orange juice, or lettuce. Some cars were “tankers”, and some were plain old boxcars.
During all this switching, the switchmen, under Danny’s direction, stood at the switches. A switch is a tall iron bar sticking up from the tracks; you push or pull on the switching bar so that a section of track moves a few inches, so as to guide the incoming cars into track number four or track number five.
While the switchmen sorted cars, I returned to my desk with a copy of the switching list Danny made up, and upon my desk into a big box containing slots, numbered the same as the tracks outside, I sorted the Bills of Lading into the same order as the switchmen were sorting the cars. These Bills of Lading, in order, would go to Kansas City with the cars.
You see how many guys it takes? You see how all the jobs are divided up? You’d think that, since Bill and I had periods of time with nothing to do, as did the switchmen, that we could double on each others’ jobs. But no!
The union has penalties for that behavior. All jobs are defined and regulated by the union. Only a switchman can throw a switch. Only a yard clerk (me) can write down the numbers and sort the bills. Our jobs were protected, see, and we paid our union dues to keep it that way.
The problem was that this particular Sunday it started snowing, and soon there was an inch of snow on the tracks and switchboxes.
Mind you, this doesn’t interfere with the switchbox at all. The switchbox is a foot-square metal box, containing the gears that move the track section. Remember, the long bar that operates the switchbox is sticking four feet up into the air above the switch box with its one inch of snow.
But according to union rules, the switchmen are not required to throw a switch which has snow upon it. Instead, the switchmen can retire to huddle around the coal stove in the switch shanty, to read newspapers, shoot the breeze, and generally do nothing for the same hourly pay.
As soon as somebody sweeps the snow off the switch — a matter of four or five seconds with an ordinary broom — then the switchmen have to go back to work, moving those pigs and reefers and tankers into place for their trip to Kansas City.
Now, the person whose job includes sweeping snow off a switch is a carman. The carmen work normal business hours in the shop down at the end of track three. That’s where they repair broken cars, replace wheels, adjust brakes, grease bearings, and such maintainance work.
On this Sunday afternoon, the carmen had all gone home.
It therefore fell to Bill the bill clerk to call a carman out to the job. Now, Bill knew that many of the carmen would turn the job down. In fact he was pretty sure that the first dozen on the list — a list arranged by seniority — would turn it down.
It would have saved time if Bill could have just called carman number twelve, but that’s not permitted, as the most senior guys must be offered the (overtime) job first. A number of hours were spent, with me and the switchmen sitting idle, and then with the Terminal railroad crew and their entire train sitting idle on the main track, just passing by but blocked by our now-immobile switch engine, which our engineer couldn’t move because the switch, which the switchmen weren’t required to throw, because there was snow on the switch.
During these hours only Bill was working, tracking down one and then another of the senior carmen so they could turn down the job, as was their right and privilege. Finally Bill reached the bottom of the list and James the carman said sure, I’ll be right out.
An hour later, when James hadn’t arrived, Bill called to discover that James had fallen back asleep, while our crews and hundreds of tons of merchandise sat immobile. James apologised and again claimed that he’d be right out.
An hour later, when James still hadn’t arrived, Bill suddenly swore aloud, and throwing his clipboard across the room, he threw on his coat, grabbed the broom, and stomped across the yard, where he swept the snow from the switch in three quick strokes. The switch crew came out of the shanty to stare at Bill. Bill glared at the lot of them.
“Now throw the damn switch!” he roared.
Muttering and swearing, the switchmen marched into the cold and back to work, and later that night, twelve hours late, our train departed for Kansas City.
James the carman never did show up, but he got one day’s pay anyway, because he’d been called out. Bill had a chit filed against him for “job endangerment.” And I gained a whole new way of looking at the union.