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The 1959 Strike

The Big Strike of '59 - No Job for 'Goldbrickers'

By Richard J. King (c) 2013

Collection of the RR Museum of Pennsylvania

"Rahway Valley UNFAIR ... We want decent wages!" read the picket sign belonging to one of the four men who went out on strike, as the Rahway Valley Railroad went about its usual business in the background. This was the daily scene on New Jersey's Streak 'o Rust for the better part of the early half of 1959.

George A. Clark , the railroad's longtime President and General Manager, had been presented with a set of demands, or rather just one in particular, a pay raise. The four men wanting a boost in pay were Peter Costa, Antonio Cuppari, Frank Palmadesso, and Antonio Vizzoni, the line's entire section gang. The four workers were making $1.43 an hour to keep the railroad's fifteen miles of track in shape throughout the year. If you've read I've Been Working on the Railroad, you know this work was not for the faint of heart, and the men were beginning to feel the pay was no longer matching the work effort. They wanted a pay raise, a boost to $2.03 an hour, and they wanted it now.

The men, all members of the United Railroad Operating Crafts Union, issued Clark an ultimatum: a pay raise or a strike. Clark was unperturbed. "If they strike, we are prepared to go on for two years without them," after all he had bigger things to worry about. The 1950's had not been kind to the Rahway Valley Railroad. Truckers as well as a turn over in business in the area began to eat away at the railroad's bottom line. The pinch of rising costs, the expense of dieselizing the railroad with two $100,000 diesel locomotives, as well as the $1,900 the railroad shelled out in a law suit stemming from a train-car collision, took their bite out the budget. Between 1950 and 1959 the number of names on the railroad's payroll dropped from twenty-one to sixteen. The thought of keeping the railroad going, rather than the strike, weighed heavier on Clark's mind.

The strike went ahead as planned. Beginning on January 21, 1959 the four men walked out. Their picket line was formed within earshot and within site of George Clark's office, along the railroad's crossing of the Boulevard. The men planned to keep the train from going about it's business but the railroad's train crew, members of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, were unsympathetic. Engineer Froat laid on the horn and rolled through their picket line, sometimes up to thirteen times a day.

And just like that, the Rahway Valley Railroad lost a quarter of its workforce. A large railroad of the time, such as the Pennsylvania Railroad or the New York Central, losing a quarter of its workforce would have made headlines across the country, apparently the Rahway Valley was no exception. From Long Island to Wichita, news outlets carried the story of the "big strike" on the little railroad. George Clark summed it up rather nicely, "We've been hauling freight in northern Union County since 1904, but there are people living right along the track who never heard of us -- not until now, that is. Of course, we've never had a strike before."

Perhaps Clark had forgotten the Walkout of '46 or never heard the stories of the Riot of '04 , but the Strike of '59 made it big in the news. Newspapers and television networks looked with increasing intrigue at the Rahway Valley Railroad and it's colorful, and opinionated, President and General Manager. "We can hold out for a long, long time" Clark told a camera. "I'm not as young as I used to be, but I learned railroading from my daddy when I was in knee-britches." He even offered advice for big-shots, such as Alfred Perlman of the New York Central, "I think we'd all be better off if there was less talk and more work" he quipped.

George Clark at the throttle of #16. 1959.
Collection of the RR Museum of Pennsylvania

The railroad was now without a section gang but the other workers, as well as Clark, were not afraid to lend a hand in any track work that was needed. "I'm not at all worried about this. We can run for two years without those [four]. The foreman is still working and I can get out on the track in a pinch" Clark told reporters. Clark was never afraid to work, in fact his uniform of choice was his work clothes: broad red galoshes to keep his green twill trousers in proper relationship to his gray flannel shirt. "Why work clothes?" a reporter once asked of Clark, "I never dress up because if I did nobody would recognize me."

As the strike dragged on, Clark offered more of his opinion, on railroad workers in particular. "Railroad men today are not what they used to be -- not by a hell of a lot," he continued "These boys don't know what work is. On this line, we start out in the morning and work until there is no more to do. If that means night work, we work at night." Clark, in his frustrating search for a steady brakeman, posted in newspapers ads such as:

BRAKEMAN - Steady employment in Freight Service for reliable married man not over 42. Applicants must prove they are alive by being able to breathe, must have sufficient ambition and intelligence to move arms and legs slowly, and above all must be quick on the draw for grabbing pay checks before the ink is dry. No bugle boys, blowhards, dreamers, goldbrickers, hotshots, or wobblemouths need apply.

As Clark went on about his opinions on this and that, reporters, from such outlets as the Herald Tribune or the New York Times, would be treated to quite a scene at the Kenilworth Station : Clark's office. In his pine paneled office, occupied by Clark and his stenographer, stood a large desk, a few easy chairs, a couch occupied by a couple of non-descript dogs, a refrigerator with open cartons of dog food on top, and a two-ring electric range with jars of instant coffee on a shelf underneath. The walls were covered by a collection of vintage calendars -- all bearing pictures of locomotives.

Clark, stubborn as he may be, was never an unreasonable man. Despite his statements, "No, I'm not offering them anything," a settlement was in fact reached on April 29, 1959. George Kochman, a field representative of the United Railroad Operating Crafts Union, and George Clark reached a settlement agreeable to both parties. The renegade strikers, for their four months of effort, were awarded a fifteen cent pay raise. So ended the "Big Strike of '59." Now, enough with picket signs and news cameras, back to work!

Head Back to the Station!