Time to derail the Railway Labor Act?

In early December, Congress passed a bill — later signed into law by President Biden — to impose a settlement in a dispute between freight railroads and their workers. The law short-circuited labor-management negotiations and ended the threat of a strike that could have created a crunch in the nationwide supply chain as the holidays were approaching. Eight of the 12 unions involved in the talks had signed off on a proposed agreement between union and management negotiators, but its rejection by the others made a December strike likely until the government acted to shut it down.

The federal government was able to intervene in a rail dispute in a way that it could not in most industries because railroad labor matters fall under the Railway Labor Act (RLA), which sets different rules for railroads and airlines than industries covered by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The two laws are administered by separate government agencies: the NLRA by the National Labor Relations Board and the RLA by the National Mediation Board. 

Unlike most of the private sector, where workers are generally able to strike in the absence of a contract, the RLA throws a number of hurdles in the way of railroad workers striking. The President can create an emergency board to investigate a rail dispute and impose a 60-day “cooling off period” while the parties continue to negotiate.  During these two months, the union can’t strike and management can’t do anything that might justify a strike. Only after this period can the parties engage in “self-help” such as strikes or lockouts. And, as with the most recent dispute, an agreement can be imposed by federal legislation.

The RLA was adopted in 1926, nine years before the broader NLRA, showing how critical a pillar of the economy lawmakers regarded the railroads – and still do, as seen by last year’s intervention. At that time, rail was overwhelmingly the dominant mode for moving freight and people around the country, with long-haul trucking in its infancy and the passenger airline business not yet off the ground. (Congress was ahead of the curve in extending the RLA to the airlines in 1936, foreseeing its emergence as an elite form of travel to be protected from interruption by disputatious workers).

Not only was rail a critical mode of transportation in 1926, but it also featured a militant and heavily unionized workforce. Labor actions against railroads date back to the 1877 strike in Martinsburg, West Virginia, against the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Eugene V. Debs, before he became leader of the American socialist movement, was president of the American Railway Union and led workers at the Pullman Company in their 1894 strike against management. That strike was violently suppressed by the army and Debs was imprisoned, radicalizing him and driving his embrace of socialism. Conflicts between rail management and labor have flared up periodically ever since. Congress, recognizing the antagonism in the industry, passed the RLA to minimize the impact of these disputes on the movement of goods and people. 

The adoption of the RLA, then, didn’t absolutely prohibit strikes but made them much harder to carry out legally. The difficulty in striking clearly advantages management and disadvantages labor. The RLA contains a few advantages for labor, such as allowing secondary boycotts — the NLRA prohibits them — but generally it helps management control workers.

So why not repeal the RLA and bring rail and airline workers under the generally more labor-friendly NLRA? There’s no question that a shutdown of freight service would cause massive disruptions in the economy. The supply chain, which in recent years has been showing its fragility, would face a deep crisis without trains to haul goods.  Passenger railroads, including Amtrak, would be collateral damage in a freight strike, as they almost were last year; they were not parties to the freight dispute but rely on the tracks — including maintenance and operations — of the freight companies.

But the harm to railroad workers from a curtailed right to strike is no less real. A major issue in the recent rail dispute was that rail workers have no paid sick days in their contracts. This remained a sticking point as a possible strike loomed — until the action by Congress resolved it, almost wholly against the workers. As congressional action to impose the agreement was moving forward, a number of members of Congress, led by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), tried but failed to pass a bill to include paid sick leave in any imposed agreement. 

Rail unions and their allies in Congress as well as labor-allied organizations around the country decried the substance of the agreement. But there was little call to fix the underlying problem: the RLA itself. 

A statement by the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department on behalf of rail unions following Biden’s signing of the imposed agreement called for a continuing fight to win paid medical leave as well as to oppose aggressive cost-cutting by the railroads, but did not call for reform of the RLA.

Even DSA, in its statement following the imposed agreement, called the RLA “antiquated” but stopped short of calling for its repeal even as it condemned Biden’s, and many other Democrats’, betrayal of the workers. 

Nevertheless, some individual rail workers attacked the RLA itself, as reported on the World Socialist Web Site. There also have been a few calls outside labor leadership itself to abolish the RLA. One came from Andrew Elrod and Nelson Lichtenstein in Jacobin, who argued that the “Railway Labor Act and every other government-mandated strike prohibition should be cast aside. With the economic strength of US labor at a historic low — even as pro-union sentiment reaches new highs — any obstacle to exercising the right to strike forestalls the reemergence of the vibrant union movement we desperately need.”

Why don’t unions campaign for repealing the RLA and moving rail labor under the NLRA? There are a number of likely reasons:

  •  Everyone, rail workers included, know the importance of railroads in supporting the economy, millions of jobs and the national supply chain. A direct union assault on the RLA and a greater likelihood of strikes could be used by rail management to make labor seem like the villain.
  • Unions are practical and can count votes. The fact that even a large majority of Democrats in both houses voted to impose the settlement, even without paid medical leave, is a clear sign that labor would have a heavy lift in Congress if it tried to repeal the RLA. (Even five of the six members of the House of Representatives “Squad” of left-progressive Democrats voted for the agreement — all but Rashida Tlaib of Michigan).
  • Simply placing rail workers under the NLRA would not solve all their problems, for labor leaders have long pointed out how it falls short of adequately protecting workers. From the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act allowing states to adopt “right-to-work” laws (allowing workers to decline to pay union dues while forcing unions to represent them) to the NLRB’s politicization by whichever party holds the balance of seats on the board, hardly anyone sees extending the NLRA to rail workers as a panacea.

However important railroads are, are they so critical as to undercut the rights of the workers to decent treatment? Workers in many other critical sectors are less restricted in the ability to strike, such as in health care, education and sanitation services. The ability to withhold labor is the ultimate guarantee that workers’ demands will be taken seriously. Without it, management holds the upper hand. The time is past due for a reexamination of the fairness of the Railway Labor Act.  

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