The old Southern Railway was one of the first major US railroads to make the switch from steam-powered locomotives to diesel locomotives, beginning in the early 1940s.
By the end of the end of the 1950s, diesel had all but replaced steam across the US. Southern, recognizing that there was no longer a need for railroad firemen, had stopped hiring them.
This was a revolutionary concept. Firemen had been around almost since the beginning of railroads more than a century earlier, with the most notable duties being maintaining fires and steam pressure in steam locomotives.
But as diesel locomotives required no fire, many of the fireman’s duties were no longer needed.
In the early 1960s, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Fireman sought to bolster the livelihood of its members – and its own organization – by trying to force Southern to keep firemen on trains, even though diesel locomotives didn’t require them.
Southern executive Bill Brosnan had realized that with diesels rendering firemen obsolete, their retention as unproductive employees – known as featherbedding – would endanger the Southern’s profitability and perhaps even its existence, according to Burke Davis in his book “The Southern Railway: Road of the Innovators.”
“He was resolved to resist with every legal means the effort of the brotherhoods to keep fireman on the job,” Davis wrote of Brosnan.
Brosnan began by allowing attrition to reduce the ranks, yet declined to lay off any fireman, superfluous or not. However, he refused to hire new men for whom the company had no need.
“Brosnan ran trains with reduced crews when the lists of firemen had been exhausted – an engineer and a brakeman handling the locomotives,” Davis wrote. “Brosnan said this crew was more than adequate. ‘The fireman had nothing to do anyway – no fire to tend, no boiler to watch.'”
The fireman’s union filed a complaint and a Washington, DC, federal court ordered Southern to resume hiring firemen.
Brosnan waited, even while his attorneys urged him to hire fireman. Finally, late one night, the lawyers told him that if he didn’t hire firemen, he’d be in contempt of court.
So, that same night, Brosnan called security officers at division points and ordered them to go out and find firemen for all trains. But not just any fireman.
“They must be at least 70 years old, and preferably black,” Brosnan said. “Education doesn’t matter. They won’t have to be able to read and write. They’ll be no physical exam, and no work exam. Just hire ’em and well put ’em on.”
The aged black men – and a number of women – rode the trains, performing no duties whatsoever. “All they had to do,” according to Brosnan, “was climb into the locomotive, sit still and do nothing, beyond going to the bathroom.”
Brosnan reasoned correctly that since the new firemen hand no duties to perform, anyone regardless of age, race, sex, education, or state of health, could do the job, which involved simply sitting in a comfortable seat.
The Brotherhood tried to have Brosnan cited for contempt, but the court agreed with Brosnan’s assertion that he had every right to decide who could be designated as a fireman and what their duties were.
Brosnan later explained his motives: “Since the money was to be largely wasted, it seemed to me to be sensible to give it to older people, and to catch up on our hiring of blacks. I thought it was the best way to help needy people. So we did it that way.”