Abridged version of the Railway Labor Act

The Railway Labor Act, as it is applied today, is the culmination of over a century of experience with federal legislation governing labor relations of employers and employees engaged in the rail industry. Its primary purpose is to promote and maintain peace and order in those relations as a means of avoiding interruptions in interstate commerce. During this period, Congress developed a comprehensive policy for dealing with transportation labor problems. The Railway Labor Act is intended to impose positive duties on both carriers and employees alike, define the rights of the parties and make provisions for the protection of such rights. The Act also prescribes methods of settling various types of disputes, and sets up agencies for adjusting differences.

To better understand the Railway Labor Act, it is important to briefly review the legislation that preceded its enactment.

Arbitration Act

The first federal legislation dealing with railway labor relations was enacted by Congress in 1888. The law provided: (1) for voluntary ad hoc arbitration when both parties to the dispute agreed; and, (2) the President could establish boards of inquiry to investigate labor disputes that threatened to interrupt interstate commerce. The boards of inquiry were to make a public report of the findings and to make recommendations. During the 10 years of the law’s existence, the arbitration provisions were never used, and the investigation provisions were used only once, and then without effect on a strike which was already in progress.

Erdman Act

The Erdman Act of 1898 was the first law to place reliance upon the policy of mediation and conciliation by the government for the prevention of railroad labor disputes, with a temporary board for each case. The investigation features of the Arbitration Act were repealed, but voluntary arbitration was retained as a second-line resolution procedure if mediation failed. In 1899, a union requested mediation pursuant to the act, but the involved railroad refused to participate. The act was not used again until 1906. Between 1906 and 1913, 61 cases were settled under the act, mostly by mediation.

Newlands Act

In 1913, several changes were made in the Erdman Act which emphasized the importance of mediation. These amendments later became known as the Newlands Act of 1913. The Newlands Act established a full-time Board of Mediation and Conciliation, and definitively placed the main reliance for settlement of disputes upon mediation. The board was also required, if dispute arose relative to the meaning or application of any agreement reached through mediation, to render an opinion when requested by either party to the dispute. When mediation failed, improved arbitration procedures were available.

Adamson Act

The Adamson Act of 1916 was an attempt to settle disputes with respect to the basic eight-hour day by direct congressional action, when mediation failed and arbitration was refused and a nationwide rail strike was imminent. The courts have held that the basic eight-hour day may be varied by union contract or individual agreement, if there is no union on the property for the craft involved.

Government seizure of the railroads during World War I

During World War I, the federal government took complete control of the nation’s railroads. Labor/management relations were placed under the supervision of the Federal Railroad Administration and its director general. National Boards of Adjustment were created to settle, by arbitration, all disputes which arose due to interpretation of existing agreements.

The standard labor unions supported the national boards since grievance arbitration was taken out of the hands of local, company-dominated unions. The carriers did not favor the national boards since they had little control over unions at the national level. During this period, there was relative labor/management peace and few arbitration cases.

The Transportation Act

The Transportation Act of 1920 created the United States Railroad Labor Board of nine members (there to represent, respectively, management, labor and the public) with authority to hear and decide disputes not disposed of in conferences between representatives of the carrier and the employees. Compliance with decisions of the board was not made obligatory, and therefore the board became ineffective.

The Railway Labor Act

The next and last major law enacted to deal with rail-labor relations was the 1926 Railway Labor Act. The act has been amended several times but remains the hallmark of labor relations in the rail industry and the oldest continuous federal collective bargaining legislation in the nation’s history.

The act has five major functions:

  1. To prevent the interruption of rail service;
  2. To allow employees to organize their own unions;
  3. To provide complete independence of organizations by both management and labor;
  4. To assist in prompt settlement of disputes arising regarding rates of pay and working conditions;
  5. To assist in prompt settlement of any disputes or grievances which arise as a result of conflicting interpretations or application of existing agreements.

As the various sections of the Railway Labor Act (RLA) are studied, it is obvious it has embodied provisions of the earlier acts to incorporate and mandate certain basic principles that continue to govern labor relations in the air and rail industries. Sections of the Act that are pertinent to this explanation of the processes involved in national rail contract resolutions are excerpted below:

§152. First.

“It shall be the duty of all carriers, their officers, agents, and employees to exert every reasonable effort to make and maintain agreements concerning rates of pay, rules, and working conditions…”

The RLA imposes a positive duty upon all carriers and their employees subject to the act to make and maintain written agreements. The relations between the carrier and employees are not to be governed by the arbitrary will or whim of management or the employees, but by written rules mutually agreed upon and equally binding on each.

§152. Sixth.

“In case of a dispute…arising out of grievances or out of the interpretation or application of agreements concerning rates of pay, rules, or working conditions, it shall be the duty of the designated representative or representatives of such carrier or carriers and of such employees…to confer in respect to such dispute…”

As mentioned earlier, it is the duty of each party to exert every effort to make and maintain agreements, and to hold conferences for the purpose of settling all disputes.

§152. Seventh.

“No carrier, its officers, or agents shall change the rates of pay, rules, or working conditions of its employees, as a class, as embodied in agreements except in the manner prescribed in such agreements or in Section 156 of this title.”

It is the duty of both parties to give at least 30 days’ notice of any desired change in rates of pay, rules, or working conditions embodied in agreements. When a Section 6 Notice has been given, and while conferences are being held, or while a dispute is in the hands of the National Mediation Board, rates of pay, rules, or working conditions shall not be altered by the carrier until the controversy has been finally acted upon.

National Mediation Board

The National Mediation Board was established in June 1934 under authority of the Railway Labor Act as amended. The NMB is an independent agency in the executive branch of the government and is composed of three members appointed by the president of the United States, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate. In addition, the Board has a staff of mediators, who spend practically all their time in field duty.

Cases subject to the jurisdiction of the National Mediation Board are of three general kinds:

  1. Differences between carriers and employees regarding requests for changes in rates of pay, rules, or working conditions under Section 6 of the Railway Labor Act. (“major disputes” docketed as “A” cases).
  2. Disputes among employees as to who shall be their duly designated and authorized representative (“representation disputes” docketed as “R” cases).
  3. Interpretation of mediation agreements where controversy has arisen over the meaning or the application of such agreements (involving completed “A” cases).

Emergency boards Under the terms of Section 10 of the Railway Labor Act, if a dispute between a carrier and its employees is not adjusted through mediation or the other procedures prescribed by the act, and should, in the judgment of the National Mediation Board, threaten to interrupt interstate commerce to a degree such as to deprive any section of the country of essential transportation service, the board shall notify the President, who may thereupon, in his or her discretion, create an emergency board to investigate and report to him or her respecting such dispute.

An emergency board may be composed of such number of persons as the President designates (usually three), and persons so designated shall not be pecuniary or otherwise interested in any organization of employees or any carrier. The President of the United States fixes the compensation of emergency board members. An emergency board is created separately in each instance, and is required to investigate the facts as to the dispute and report thereupon to the President within 30 days from the date of its creation. During that period, and for 30 days after issuance of the report, the parties must maintain the status quo. The carrier may not implement changes in the contract, and the union may not strike.