Railway Labor Act
The Railway Labor Act is a United States federal law that governs labor relations
Labor relations
Industrial relations is a multidisciplinary field that studies the employment relationship. Industrial relations is increasingly being called employment relations because of the importance of non-industrial employment relationships. Many outsiders also equate industrial relations to labour relations...

 in the railroad and airline
An airline provides air transport services for traveling passengers and freight. Airlines lease or own their aircraft with which to supply these services and may form partnerships or alliances with other airlines for mutual benefit...

 industries. The Act, passed in 1926 and amended in 1934 and 1936, seeks to substitute bargaining, arbitration
Arbitration, a form of alternative dispute resolution , is a legal technique for the resolution of disputes outside the courts, where the parties to a dispute refer it to one or more persons , by whose decision they agree to be bound...

 and mediation
Mediation, as used in law, is a form of alternative dispute resolution , a way of resolving disputes between two or more parties. A third party, the mediator, assists the parties to negotiate their own settlement...

 for strikes
Strike action
Strike action, also called labour strike, on strike, greve , or simply strike, is a work stoppage caused by the mass refusal of employees to work. A strike usually takes place in response to employee grievances. Strikes became important during the industrial revolution, when mass labour became...

 as a means of resolving labor disputes. Its provisions were originally enforced under the Board of Mediation, but were later enforced under National Mediation Board.

Historical antecedents to the RLA

After the Great Railroad Strike of 1877
Great railroad strike of 1877
The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 began on July 14 in Martinsburg, West Virginia, United States and ended some 45 days later after it was put down by local and state militias, and federal troops.-Economic conditions in the 1870s:...

, which was put down only with the intervention of federal troops, Congress
United States Congress
The United States Congress is the bicameral legislature of the federal government of the United States, consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Congress meets in the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C....

 passed the Arbitration Act of 1888, which authorized the creation of arbitration panels with the power to investigate the causes of labor disputes and to issue non-binding arbitration awards. The Act was a complete failure: only one panel was ever convened under the Act, and that one, in the case of the 1894 Pullman Strike
Pullman Strike
The Pullman Strike was a nationwide conflict between labor unions and railroads that occurred in the United States in 1894. The conflict began in the town of Pullman, Illinois on May 11 when approximately 3,000 employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company began a wildcat strike in response to recent...

, issued its report only after the strike had been crushed by a federal court
United States federal courts
The United States federal courts make up the judiciary branch of federal government of the United States organized under the United States Constitution and laws of the federal government.-Categories:...

An injunction is an equitable remedy in the form of a court order that requires a party to do or refrain from doing certain acts. A party that fails to comply with an injunction faces criminal or civil penalties and may have to pay damages or accept sanctions...

 backed by federal troops.

Congress attempted to correct these shortcomings in the Erdman Act
Erdman Act
The Erdman Act of 1898 was a United States federal law pertaining to railroad labor disputes. The law provided for arbitration for disputes between the interstate railroads and their workers organized into unions.-Major provisions:...

, passed in 1898. The Act likewise provided for voluntary arbitration, but made any award issued by the panel binding and enforceable in federal court. It also outlawed discrimination
Discrimination is the prejudicial treatment of an individual based on their membership in a certain group or category. It involves the actual behaviors towards groups such as excluding or restricting members of one group from opportunities that are available to another group. The term began to be...

 against employees for union
Trade union
A trade union, trades union or labor union is an organization of workers that have banded together to achieve common goals such as better working conditions. The trade union, through its leadership, bargains with the employer on behalf of union members and negotiates labour contracts with...

 activities, prohibited "yellow dog" contracts (employee agrees not to join a union while employed), and required both sides to maintain the status quo during any arbitration proceedings and for three months after an award was issued. The arbitration procedures were rarely used. A successor statute, the Newlands Act of 1913, which created the Board of Mediation, proved to be more effective, but was largely superseded when the federal government nationalized
Nationalisation, also spelled nationalization, is the process of taking an industry or assets into government ownership by a national government or state. Nationalization usually refers to private assets, but may also mean assets owned by lower levels of government, such as municipalities, being...

 the railroads in 1917. (See United States Railroad Administration
United States Railroad Administration
The United States Railroad Administration was the name of the nationalized railroad system of the United States between 1917 and 1920. It was possibly the largest American experiment with nationalization, and was undertaken against a background of war emergency.- Background :On April 6, 1917, the...


The Adamson Act
Adamson Act
The Adamson Act was a United States federal law passed in 1916 that established an eight-hour workday, with additional pay for overtime work, for interstate railroad workers....

, passed in 1916, provided workers with an eight hour day, at the same daily wage they had received previously for a ten hour day, and required time and a half for overtime. Another law passed in the same year gave President Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson
Thomas Woodrow Wilson was the 28th President of the United States, from 1913 to 1921. A leader of the Progressive Movement, he served as President of Princeton University from 1902 to 1910, and then as the Governor of New Jersey from 1911 to 1913...

 the power to "take possession of and assume control of any system of transportation" for transportation of troops and war material.

Wilson exercised that authority on December 26, 1917. While Congress considered nationalizing the railroads on a permanent basis after World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

, the Wilson administration announced that it was returning the railroad system to its owners. Congress tried to preserve, on the other hand, the most successful features of the federal wartime administration, the adjustment boards, by creating a Railroad Labor Board (RLB) with the power to issue non-binding proposals for the resolution of labor disputes, as part of the Esch–Cummins Act (Transportation Act of 1920).

The RLB soon destroyed whatever moral authority its decisions might have had in a series of decisions. In 1921 it ordered a twelve percent reduction in employees' wages, which the railroads were quick to implement. The following year, when shop employees of the railroads launched a national strike
Great Railroad Strike of 1922
The Great Railroad Strike of 1922 was a nationwide railroad shop workers strike in the United States. The action began on July 1 and was the largest railroad work stoppage since 1894.-History:...

, the RLB issued a declaration that purported to outlaw the strike; the Department of Justice
United States Department of Justice
The United States Department of Justice , is the United States federal executive department responsible for the enforcement of the law and administration of justice, equivalent to the justice or interior ministries of other countries.The Department is led by the Attorney General, who is nominated...

 then obtained an injunction that carried out that declaration. From that point forward railway unions refused to have anything to do with the RLB.

Passage and amendment of the RLA

The RLA was the product of negotiations between the major railroad companies and the unions that represented their employees. Like its predecessors, it relied on boards of adjustment, established by the parties, to resolve labor disputes, with a government-appointed Board of Mediation to attempt to resolve those disputes that board of adjustment could not. The RLA promoted voluntary arbitration as the best method for resolving those disputes that the Board of Mediation could not settle.

Congress strengthened these procedures in the 1934 amendments to the Act, which created a procedure for resolving whether a union had the support of the majority of employees in a particular "craft or class," while turning the Board of Mediation into a permanent agency, the National Mediation Board
National Mediation Board
The National Mediation Board is an independent agency of the United States government that coordinates labor-management relations within the U.S...

 (NMB), with broader powers.

Congress extended the RLA to cover airline employees in 1936.

Bargaining and strikes under the RLA

Unlike the National Labor Relations Act
National Labor Relations Act
The National Labor Relations Act or Wagner Act , is a 1935 United States federal law that limits the means with which employers may react to workers in the private sector who create labor unions , engage in collective bargaining, and take part in strikes and other forms of concerted activity in...

, which adopts a less interventionist approach to the way the parties conduct collective bargaining
Collective bargaining
Collective bargaining is a process of negotiations between employers and the representatives of a unit of employees aimed at reaching agreements that regulate working conditions...

 or resolve their disputes arising under collective bargaining agreements, the RLA specifies both (1) the negotiation and mediation procedures that unions and employers must exhaust before they may change the status quo, and (2) the methods for resolving "minor" disputes over the interpretation or application of collective bargaining agreements. The RLA permits strikes over major disputes only after the union has exhausted the RLA's negotiation and mediation procedures, while barring almost all strikes over minor disputes. The RLA also authorizes the courts to enjoin strikes if the union has not exhausted those procedures.

On the other hand, the RLA imposes fewer restrictions on the tactics that unions may use when they do have the right to strike. The RLA does not, unlike the NLRA, bar secondary boycotts against other RLA-regulated carriers; it may also permit employees to engage in other types of strikes, such as intermittent strikes, that might be unprotected under the NLRA.

"Major" and "Minor" Disputes

The RLA categorizes all labor disputes as either "major" disputes, which concern the making or modification of the collective bargaining agreement between the parties, or "minor" disputes, which involve the interpretation or application of collective bargaining agreements. Unions can strike over major disputes only after they have exhausted the RLA's "almost interminable" negotiation and mediation procedures. They cannot, on the other hand, strike over minor disputes, either during the arbitration procedures or after an award is issued.

The federal courts have the power to enjoin
An injunction is an equitable remedy in the form of a court order that requires a party to do or refrain from doing certain acts. A party that fails to comply with an injunction faces criminal or civil penalties and may have to pay damages or accept sanctions...

 a strike over a major dispute if the union has not exhausted the RLA's negotiation and mediation procedures. The Norris-LaGuardia Act
Norris-LaGuardia Act
The Norris–La Guardia Act was a 1932 United States federal law that banned yellow-dog contracts, barred federal courts from issuing injunctions against nonviolent labor disputes, and created a positive right of noninterference by employers against workers joining trade unions...

 dictates the procedures that the court must follow. Once the NMB releases the parties from mediation, however, they retain the power to engage in strikes or lockouts, even if they subsequently resume negotiations or the NMB offers mediation again.

The federal courts likewise have the power to enjoin a union from striking over arbitrable disputes. The court may, on the other hand, also require the employer to restore the status quo as a condition of any injunctive relief against a strike.

Discipline and replacement of strikers

Carriers can lawfully replace strikers engaged in a lawful strike, but may not, however, discharge them, except for misconduct, or eliminate their jobs to retaliate against them for striking. It is not clear whether the employer can discharge workers for striking before exhausting all of the RLA's bargaining and mediation processes.

The employer must also allow strikers to replace replacements hired on a temporary basis and permanent replacements who have not completed the training required before they can become active employees. The employer may, on the other hand, allow less senior employees who crossed the picket line to keep the jobs they were given after crossing the line, even if the seniority rules in effect before the strike would have required the employer to reassign their jobs to returning strikers.

Representation elections under the RLA

The NMB has the responsibility for conducting elections when a union claims to represent a carrier's employees. The NMB defines the craft or class of employees eligible to vote, which almost always extends to all of the employees performing a particular job function throughout the company's operations, rather than just those at a particular site or in a particular region.

A union seeking to represent an unorganized group of employees must produce signed and dated authorization cards or other proof of support from at least thirty-five percent of the craft or class. A party attempting to oust an incumbent union must produce evidence of support from a majority of the craft of class and then the NMB must conduct an election. If the employees are unrepresented and the employer agrees, the NMB may certify the union based on the authorization cards alone.

The NMB usually uses mail ballots to conduct elections, unlike the National Labor Relations Board
National Labor Relations Board
The National Labor Relations Board is an independent agency of the United States government charged with conducting elections for labor union representation and with investigating and remedying unfair labor practices. Unfair labor practices may involve union-related situations or instances of...

(NLRB), which has historically preferred walk-in elections under the NLRA. The NMB can order a rerun election if it determines that either an employer or union has interfered with employees' free choice.

Protecting employees' rights

Unlike the NLRA, which gives the NLRB nearly exclusive power to enforce the Act, the RLA allows employees to sue in federal court to challenge an employer's violation of the Act. The courts can grant employees reinstatement and backpay, along with other forms of equitable relief.

Further reading

  • Leslie, Douglas (editor), "The Railway Labor Act", Washington, D.C., BNA Books 1995 ISBN 0-87179-815-8.
  • Wilner, Frank N, "Understanding the Railway Labor Act", Omaha, Nebraska, Simmons-Boardman Books 2009, $39.95, ISBN 978-0-911382-59-4. Translalert.com or 800-228-9670.

External links

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