The assignment, furlough, and recall of most railroad employees was based on seniority. When work became scarce, employees with the least seniority were the first to be laid-off. The majority of railroaders were covered by pension plans, but private pension payments could be reduced if revenues were down, and many had been cut drastically by 1932.

This practice created a conflict between older employees, who preferred the certainty of a paycheck to an unreliable pension, and younger employees, who saw opportunity for increased job security if superannuated workers could be induced to retire by guaranteeing them a decent pension.

Railroad workers formed an association to agitate for government action. Labor proposed its own plan in response, eventually compromising with the workers to produce the Railroad Retirement Act of 1934. This legislation anticipated the Social Security Act of 1935, which covered most other employees, and was tailored to address the specific concerns of railroad workers.

The 1934 Act was soon found unconstitutional, but President Roosevelt intervened to push for a lasting compromise. This pressure resulted in the Railroad Retirement and Carrier Taxing Acts of 1937, which made railroad employees the only private-sector workers outside the Social Security system to have a separate, federally administered pension plan. More than 95,000 elderly and disabled railroad employees applied for pension benefits by the end of 1937.

Read more about the history of railroads with these articles: