Austin Bruce Garretson and the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations

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A.B. Garretson, 3rd from left

In the early years of the 20th century, Austin Bruce “A.B.” Garretson of Iowa was widely known and respected in the railroad industry in United States and Mexico, and his work took on a national character. He was so admired that he was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson to the United States Commission on Industrial Relations, where he is pictured here in a meeting, seated third from left.

Founded by Congress in 1912, the Commission’s purpose was to study the nation’s labor law and industrial work conditions. Among the tasks was to interview those with a deep interest, among them many actual laborers — influencers such as lawyers Clarence Darrow and Louis Brandeis, activist “Mother” Jones, Theodore Schroeder — and corporate giants Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford. The final report of 11 volumes was produced in 1916, containing tens of thousands of pages.

Married to Mary “Marie” Ream (of the family of Samuel W. and Mary [Rheims] Ream), of Osceola, Iowa, Austin began his railroad career as a conductor on the Burlington Railroad. In 1894, he became an officer of the Order of Railway Conductors, an early union, and was elected president in 1906, holding that position until retirement in 1917.

One of Austin’s early tangles was in 1903, when he offered a proposal to the Northern Pacific Railroad for increased wages, only to be turned down. Reported the Mason City (IA) Globe Gazette, “It was he who became the chief arbiter in the historic railroad strike that threatened to wreck our transportation system during World War I.” He was linked professionally to three other presidents of railroad unions, among them Warren Stone of the Locomotive Engineers, W.G. Lee of the Railroad Trainmen and W.S. Carter of the Railroad Firemen, and was pictured in newspapers for his work to negotiate wages and better working conditions, including threatening a strike of 400,000 railmen until Congress passed an eight-hour workday law. In 1916, he authored an article, “Will Ye Serve God or Mammon,” published in the Order’s newpaper, Railway Conductor, promoting Wilson for president, with distribution to all railroad men in the nation in advance of election day.

Historic image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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