Original Brotherhood constitution & bylaws returned

Possibly 'Most signiÞcant documents in the history of the American labor movement'

A significant piece of the Brotherhood's history was recently returned to the labor movement when the original handwritten Constitution and Bylaws of the Brotherhood of the Footboard was donated to the George Meany Memorial Archives/National Labor College by relatives of a former BLE employee.

The Brotherhood of the Footboard was founded in 1863 and is the predecessor organization of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

On January 23 and February 27, 2006, the George Meany Memorial Archives/ National Labor College received from James M. Wolfe of Glenn Dale, Md., a Deed of Gift covering BLET historical items.

The prized donation was a bound six inch by eight inch notebook with the 16 page original handwritten Constitution and By-Laws of the Brotherhood of the Footboard. The constitution dates from May 5-8, 1863 - the initial organizational meeting in Detroit of locomotive engineers from throughout the nation. The notebook also contains the signatures of Division 1 officers elected the final day of the gathering.

"This historic document was nearly lost to the hands of fate," BLET National Secretary-Treasruer Bill Walpert said. "It is amazing that it has been recovered. The original Constitution of our organization is quite possibly one of the most significant documents in the history of the American labor movement. We are the oldest existing labor union in North America and now an important piece of our history can be preserved for the future."

Founding of the Brotherhood

The story of the document begins in Marshall, Mich., in March 1863 when William D. Robinson and several other Michigan Central engineers met at his home to air grievances that the men had previously been talking about in smaller groups at the railway roundhouse. They held further discussions in Marshall the following month, culminating in the men deciding to gather likeminded engineers from other companies whose routes ran through Detroit to meet together in that city.

On May 5, the delegates assembled and over the next three days drew up a constitution and by-laws based on a rough draft created earlier by Robinson. On May 8, the delegates unanimously approved the document, and created Division Number 1, Brotherhood of the Footboard, composed of those in attendance who lived in Detroit.

The newly formed division immediately elected the following as its officers: George Adams, chief engineer; Fred Wortsmitt, second engineer; E. F. Elewell, first assistant engineer; A. Keith, second assistant engineer; and Mat McCormack, third assistant engineer. Five others also joined the organization and signed the notebook containing the governing laws.

Robinson, who lived in Marshall, soon created Division 2 in his hometown. By August 1, a total of ten divisions had been founded so that a national organization emerged on August 18, 1863.

Historic Documents

The notebook also contains the signatures of additional Division 1 members who joined later that year, and a dues-paid list covering July 20 to September 18, 1863.

The Wolfe family also made a second donation of archival material to the Meany Center, which consists of approximately 47 BLE documents such as written communications, membership cards, convention credentials, receipts, and other membership forms.

These documents are from various divisions and are dated from 1865 to 1906, with the bulk of the items from the 1870s and 1880s.

The Notebook's Travels

The notebook containing the Constitution & By-Laws was the property of Detroit's BLE Division 1 until May 1938, at which time (in honor of the union's Diamond Jubilee) the Secretary-Treasurer presented it to George Hooper, with the understanding that upon his death it would be turned over to the Grand Office of Locomotive Engineers. Research by the Meany Archives has uncovered information that Hooper was the chief clerk of the BLE in 1938 and the author of a "Historical Brief and Comments on the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers." It appears that Hooper was considered the "archivist" of the organization and would be the logical person to receive the notebook for safekeeping. It seems certain that he or his heirs gave the notebook to the Grand Office.

There is little evidence how the 47 other documents came into the possession of the BLE except for a typewritten notation on one of the items with the date 1965. Since 1963 would have been the 100th anniversary of the BLE, one can conjecture that some or all of these documents had been received by the BLE in the early 1960s in preparation for the anniversary celebration.

This theory is further substantiated by the fact that the father-in-law of the donor, Eften B. Meredith, was the office manager and executive assistant to the Chief Engineer in the Cleveland, Ohio, office of the BLE from 1966 to 1972. In this capacity, Meredith was in all likelihood given responsibility for the "historical documents" that had been acquired for the 75th and 100th anniversaries. When departing from the BLE, he inadvertently gathered up the historical items with his personal files. It was not until 2005 that the family unpacked the files, discovered the historical records, and contacted the Meany Archives.

Priceless Piece of History

The 1863 notebook is a missing piece of early trade union history. Even though it has been lost for more than 30 years, no earlier published or unpublished study covering the founding of the Brotherhood of Footboard appears to have cited it as a source of information.

The Meany Center has safeguarded the document and intends to return it to the BLET National Division in Cleveland.

"We are looking forward to the day when this important artifact is returned to the Brotherhood," BLET National President Don Hahs said.

Dating to May of 1863, the original handwritten Constitution & Bylaws of the Brotherhood of the Footboard, the predecessor organization of the BLET, was recently returned to the BLET. According to Section 1, Article 1 of the bylaws, the purpose of the Brotherhood of the Footboard was to "more effectually to combine the interests of Locomotive Engineers on the American continent to elevate their standing as such and their character as men."



© 2006 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen