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America on the Move
Collection Exhibition Themes
Railway locomotive firemen and enginemen union button
Catalog #: 1989.0693.2142, Accession #: 1989.0693
Currently on display
From the Smithsonian Collection
The Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen was one of the 19th century's "Big Four" railroad unions. In 1873, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen was organized. In 1906, the firemen-who worked in the cab with the locomotive engineer-changed their union's name to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen. Like the engineers, the firemen's union was not affiliated with the American Federation of Labor.
Physical Description
artifact. 7/8" diameter; metal, green/ yellow/ red/ white/ initials BLF&E
American railroads were one of the nation's first big businesses, and, as such, workers joined the new industrial order in its infancy. Many rail workers responded their working conditions by trying to organize themselves into unions. Most railway workers organized along craft lines. That is, people doing the same jobs like conductors banded together, rather than all the workers on the trains. Other skilled workers joined unions based on their trades: they joined unions like the machinists or boilermakers. Workers who performed railroad-specific tasks, notably those done on the trains themselves, were often more successful in getting their unions recognized by employers than those workers who did jobs that were transferrable to other settings. By the 1920s, railroad workers were organized into both independent unions and into those that were affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. Craft unions in the early 20th century often excluded women and people of color from their membership rolls and most railroad unions followed the conventions of the day, restricting membership to white males.

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