The Railway Labor Act (“RLA”), which codifies the law of labor relations affecting railroad and airline¹ workers in the United States, can be found at 45 U.S.C. §§ 151-188 [research it].
The RLA came into being in response to a series of violent railroad strikes² during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Passed in 1926 after evolving from earlier lawmaking efforts, it sought to bring order to chaos by establishing procedures for the representation of workers by collective bargaining and the resolution of disputes through negotiation and alternative dispute resolution techniques such as mediation and arbitration. The public policy reasoning for the Act is [ed: underlined] patently apparent in the language of 45 U.S.C. § 152:
First. Duty of carriers and employees to settle disputes
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, and to settle all disputes, whether arising out of the application of such agreements or otherwise, in order to avoid any interruption to commerce or to the operation of any carrier growing out of any dispute between the carrier and the employees thereof.
In keeping with its public policy mandate, the Act generally requires that self help resulting in a change to the status quo by the employer (e.g., unilateral changes to pay or work rules) or work group (e.g., job actions including strikes) only be taken after administrative remedies have been exhausted.
RLA disputes are broadly categorized as being either “major” (the making or modification of contract terms), or “minor” (the interpretation or application of contract terms). One might infer that, for major disputes, the Act promises “[T]o provide for the prompt and orderly settlement of all disputes concerning rates of pay, rules, or working conditions …” 45 U.S.C. § 151a; and for minor disputes, the Act “… provide[s] for the prompt and orderly settlement of all disputes growing out of grievances or out of the interpretation or application of agreements covering rates of pay, rules, or working conditions.” Id.
The National Mediation Board (“NMB”) is the U.S. government agency that facilitates labor-management relations within the nation’s railroad and airline industries. Pursuant to its statutory objectives, the NMB provides dispute-resolution processes to avoid interruption to commerce or to the operation of any carrier; forbids any limitation upon freedom of association among employees (right to form or join a union); and as previously discussed, provides for the prompt and orderly settlement of all disputes concerning rates of pay, rules, or working conditions; and provides for the prompt and orderly settlement of all disputes growing out of grievances related to the implementation and management of collective bargaining agreements.
¹ “All of the provisions of subchapter I of this chapter except section 153 of this title are extended to and shall cover every common carrier by air engaged in interstate or foreign commerce …” 45 U.S.C. § 181 as added Apr. 10, 1936.
² That first week in July, in Baltimore, where all liquid sewage ran through the streets, 139 babies died … That year there came a series of tumultuous strikes by railway workers in a dozen cities; they shook the nation as no labour conflict in its history had done. – For an historical perspective of the great railroad strike of 1877, see Howard Zinn’s excellent article at libcom.org.
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