McConnell-Sidorick on Wolfinger, 'Running the Rails: Capital and Labor in the Philadelphia Transit Industry'

James Wolfinger
Sharon McConnell-Sidorick

James Wolfinger. Running the Rails: Capital and Labor in the Philadelphia Transit Industry. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016. Illustrations. 304 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5017-0240-2.

Reviewed by Sharon McConnell-Sidorick (Independent Scholar) Published on H-Pennsylvania (November, 2016) Commissioned by Allen J. Dieterich-Ward

Urban transit revolutionized America's cities. In Philadelphia, the expansion of urban space, the city's political and economic development, and working-class politics were directly affected by the growth of urban transit and the contests between capital and labor that resulted from it. James Wolfinger tells this story in a well-researched, analytically rich, and very readable book that will be an important addition to urban and labor history. It is the definitive study on the city's transit industry and a welcome addition to the growing body of Philadelphia history.

Running the Rails emphasizes the interactions between management and labor over more than eighty years of private ownership of the city's streetcar lines. It is a labor history, but unlike much of the new labor history, with which it shares some elements, it also looks at management strategies and is a contribution to the growing and dynamic field of the history of capitalism. Wolfinger examines larger issues in the capitalist economy, such as the private ownership of public resources, as well as the relative strengths of capital and labor, all within an industry that did not have the option of running away to cheap labor locations. When workers were unified and class consciousness was high, organzied labor had more power, as in the Philadelphia general strike of 1910. On the other hand, the forces of capital were stronger when management was able to dupe a section of labor or encourage divisions in the working class. A central thesis of the book explores capital's quest to control labor and limit class consciousness, all with the subsequent goal of maximizing profit and the dividends paid to private investors.

Philadelphia had one of the earliest public transportation systems in the United States and the last large, privately owned public transportation system in the nation. Consolidated in the late 1800s, it remained in private hands until the city finally established the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) in 1963 and took over the bus and trolley system five years later. Over the course of this history the industry went through several transformations: Philadelphia Rapid Transit (PRT) through the Great Depression, then Philadelphia Transportation Company (PTC) until taken over by National City Lines (NCL) in 1955. Always remaining in private hands, the system's need to maintain its profit margin and pay dividends to investors shaped its development and relations between management and labor. Throughout, the company wielded a set of strategies, including violence, welfare capitalism, race-baiting, and public relations campaigns smearing unions, to achieve its core goal of controlling workers and enhancing corporate profits, usually to the detriment of the public. Tensions between transportation as a public necessity and as a private commodity consistently came to the fore.

The company's need for new technology and to maintain a profit, and workers' attempts to unionize are recurrent topics throughout Wolfinger's narrative. With harsh and dangerous working conditions and low pay, early union attempts included the Knights of Labor and the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees, an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Although transit workers gained significant community support, these efforts fell apart as a result of company repression, increasingly top-down and undemocratic union leadership, and the limitations of what AFL president Samuel Gompers called "pure and simple unionism." One of the most interesting chapters in the book concentrates on the strikes of 1909 and 1910 that culminated in one of the largest general strikes in American history. The strikes garnered widespread community support during a period of high class consciousness in working-class Philadelphia. In response, PRT hired strikebreakers, and the city and the company employed raw violence, leading the Central Labor Union to call the general strike of 1910, when 140,000 workers went out in sympathy and 29 people were killed.

Next came the age of Thomas Mitten, a key figure in the development of welfare capitalism and company unions. The Mitten plan, a combination of company unionism, welfare capitalism, and employee stock ownership schemes, held sway for two decades until it foundered during the Great Depression. After the Depression, with falling ridership and the passage of the Wagner Act providing federal protection for labor unions, the company (now PTC) again shifted efforts to control workers. Playing on and exacerbating racial biases among white workers, it used its company union, the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Employees Union (PRTEU), to launch the World War II era "hate strike" that pitted some white workers against black workers in an attempt to undermine the newly elected Transport Workers Union (TWU), which was affiliated with the inclusive Congress of Industrial Organizations. The strike precipitated the intervention of the federal government in order to restore service.

Following the war, in the face of TWU's push for more control and better wages, management turned to public relations and the press to paint the TWU as greedy. While maintaining the imperatives of capital, it portrayed the union's strikes as hostile to the public, who then incurred higher fares. Finally, after the takeover of the system by NCL in 1955, the company forced greater cuts on the workforce, deferred maintenance even more, and eliminated routes as management squeezed every last drop of profit from the system. By the time the city gained ownership and a regional system was established, private interests had extracted what value they could from the company and turned over to public management a stripped and gutted system. In the epilogue, Wolfinger argues that the problems of the current SEPTA are the reflection of this history, larger economic and demographic trends, Philadelphia suburbs' racial politics, and capital's imperative to maximize profits at the expense of workers and the transit system itself. Violence, welfare capitalism, race-baiting, and anti-unionism were thus all tools to control the workforce and maximize profits in a public service industry controlled by private capital.

The book is well researched, but Wolfinger sometimes makes overbroad statements concerning race relations that are not supported by his evidence. During the 1944 strike, for instance, he argues that some carbarns (maintenance yards for streetcar storage and repair), like Richmond, "were in areas of North Philadelphia undergoing racial change" and that TWU's support of black rights "would have looked to many white workers there like a threat to their neighborhoods" (p. 149). By 1940 the black population of the city was just over 13 percent, and areas like Richmond were not experiencing significant change (though a map indicating the locations of carbarns would have been helpful). In fact, while there was a small black community in Richmond, it had been there since the early part of the century and had not been a significant source of racial tensions. Well after World War II interracial communities continued to exist even during the racial transition of some of Philadelphia's neighborhoods. Many working-class whites continued to reside in their old neighborhoods after blacks moved in and even continued to buy homes there.[1]

Further, while Wolfinger acknowledges that the company was complicit in aiding the PRTEU, its company-front union, in pulling off the infamous hate strike, its role went well beyond complicity. A federal grand jury found that most workers knew nothing about the strike until they showed up for work the next morning to find the carbarns closed. There is no question of the overt racism of a number of white employees, but there were also many who opposed the strike. A poll by the Philadelphia Bulletin found that a majority of city residents opposed the strike. The overwhelming victory of the TWU in the union representation election, as well as the speed with which the race issue disappeared after the elimination of the company union and its replacement by the TWU, which emphasized unity and class solidarity, also calls into question the accuracy of painting the transit workforce with a broad brush of racism. While it is essential that the hate strike be understood as one of the lowest points in Philadelphia labor history, and racism must be acknowledged and contested whenever it raises its ugly head, it is not a fixed and immutable trait of the white working class, but rather needs to be examined accurately and within the context of class relations and historical specificity. By 1970 Philadelphia's African American population had reached just under 34 percent. Under the leadership of the TWU and with pressure from 1960s' black activism, SEPTA's workforce was 40 percent black by that time.

Finally, the author missed the opportunity in his epilogue to make the case that the myriad problems of the transit system in the SEPTA era could be traced to the lack of a strong federal initiative for public transportation. The class politics of capitalism that perpetuate tax cuts to the very wealthy while pushing funding for everything from schools to public transit back onto local governments also promotes divisions among working people.

Running the Rails is an important book with a wealth of material and a strong analytical approach. It is a must read, for a review cannot cover the rich scope of Philadelphia's history explored in the book. For nearly a century private interests in Philadelphia engaged in a quest for profit through control of an essential public service and its workforce. As profits declined, service declined and the city was left to deal with the crisis. In today's political climate where privatization of everything from municipal services, to public schools, to Social Security is being put on the table, this history needs to be remembered.


[1]. David McAllister, "Realtors and Racism in Working-Class Philadelphia, 1945-1970," in African American Urban History Since World War II, ed. Kenneth L. Kusmer and Joe W. Trotter (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009). 

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Citation: Sharon McConnell-Sidorick. Review of Wolfinger, James, Running the Rails: Capital and Labor in the Philadelphia Transit Industry. H-Pennsylvania, H-Net Reviews. November, 2016. URL:

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