Peter M. Arthur was born in Paisley, Scotland, in 1831 (with the given name of Peter McArthur). He emigrated to the United States in 1842, settling with an uncle in rural New York state. Arthur abandoned farming and schooling seven years later for railroading. Angered by what they felt was inconsiderate and arbitrary treatment by supervisors, locomotive engineers in the Midwest founded their own labor union. An early member of the union, which soon became known as the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE), Peter Arthur would rise from his position as an engineer on the New York Central Railroad to become a long-serving president and shaper of strategy for the union.
With the formation of the BLE, he devoted himself to promoting the principles of mutual cooperation between engineers and railroad managers. Peter Arthur became an influential apostle of the notion that capital and labor have a shared interest in the profitable and efficient operation of a corporation. He rose through the union ranks until, in 1874, the members elected him their president. Though replacing an executive who had disappointed the members by refusing to support a strike call, Arthur quickly established himself as a champion of the union’s mutualist ideology. He focused on gaining the trust and respect of managers; on strengthening the union’s insurance funds for members; and on increasing the number of members.

The BLE grew as the railroad industry prospered in the 1870s and 1880s. Arthur consistently steered the organization clear of strikes, preferring negotiation to confrontation. In the mid-1880s, though, rate wars and growing economic uncertainty convinced railroaders that the time for compromise had passed and BLE members won several strikes against Granger roads. In 1888, however, the union, in concert with other railroad labor organizations, took on the prosperous and resourceful Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad. Though initially successful, the strike foundered when the CB&Q received a federal injunction requiring other roads to interchange cars from the Q. This action ended the secondary strike (BLE members had previously refused to take trains containing cars from the Burlington line) and doomed the entire affair. The BLE lost in part because Arthur’s policies of putting his members first had alienated other unions, including the Knights of Labor, which gleefully supplied engineers to replace those on strike. Arthur unilaterally withdrew the BLE from the strike and he resumed the policy of cooperation with the companies. His reputation among engineers remained high, but he lost the respect of other railroad unions.

Later in life, Peter Arthur became a wealthy landowner in Cleveland, Ohio, while retaining his position at the summit of the BLE. He remained Grand Engineer until his death in 1903, which concluded a long career at the helm of the engineers’ union during which he consistently fought for the economic betterment and moral improvement of his members’ lives.