Willard Saxby Townsend was born December 4, 1895, in Cincinnati, Ohio. As a young man, he journeyed to Canada and worked as a dining car waiter before enrolling in a premedical course at the University of Toronto and then studying chemistry at the Royal College of Science.
Returning to the United States, he worked as a railroad porter. Dismayed by the poor working conditions he found, especially their non-salaried status, he joined the American Federation of Labor Auxiliary of Redcaps, rising to the presidency in 1936. In 1938 he was made president of an independent organization of redcaps in Chicago and, two years later, he became the international president of the United Transport Service Employees, a union he had joined in April 1937. The United Transport Service Employees (originally called the International Brotherhood of Redcaps) was an independent union composed largely of redcaps.
Townsend lobbied Congress in an effort to improve conditions for railroad station redcaps. Success arrived in 1940 when a Supreme Court decision and the passage of Federal legislation set a flat rate of ten cents per bag or parcel carried to and from trains. The redcaps then gained standing as employees under the Railway Labor Act by appealing to the Interstate Commerce Commission, which ruled in their favor. By now, redcaps had begun to organize into trade unions which were able to press for their interests in the question of tips. In addition to the United Transport Service Employees of America, the other union in the field was the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks of the American Federation of Labor, which had opened its membership to redcaps.
The United Transport Service Employees became an affiliate of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1942. By that time, Townsend’s work on behalf of redcaps had caused the United States Department of Labor to report that the “redcap is no longer a servant who strives to give personal and obsequious service. He is now an employee with some dignity, and has a job to be done and whose remuneration does not depend upon the extent to which he can ingratiate himself with the passenger whom he serves.”
When a clash of American and Japanese views regarding labor occurred the same month -- March 1947 -- in Tokyo, Townsend, as an American member of the six-man mission of the World Federation of Trade Unions, said in a press conference that Japanese labor should avoid organized participation in politics. Later that month it was reported that Japanese unions were reexamining their leadership, discarding pro-strike elements, and putting moderates in their place. Townsend then suggested that select Japanese union officials be permitted to study American trade union methods in the United States.
Townsend was particularly critical of Communist influences in the trade union movement. At the American Missionary Association’s fourth annual Institute of Race Relations in 1947, he said, “We have learned you just can’t run a labor union when certain members follow the policies of the Soviet Union.” Townsend would later become a labor adviser to the International Labor Office Conference held in Mexico City in 1946. In the CIO he worked to abolish racial discrimination and became a member of the national executive committee of the Workers Defense League. Soon afterward he died of a heart attack, but his legacy for the railroad world remained in the form of a strong organization for redcaps and ongoing opposition to communism among labor organizers.