Railway Labor Act Background

By 1926, it had become apparent that the United States rail system and its ability to transport passengers and freight, in interstate commerce, across state lines, and from coast to coast was too vital to the wealth of the nation to function without governmental oversight. To ensure the rail system acted in a manner that was consistent with public interest, Congress enacted the Railway Labor Act (RLA) of 1926. In 1936, the RLA was made applicable to the emerging airline industry. The legislation ensured workers the right to organize into legally recognized bargaining units, allowing them to improve safety, wages, and working conditions while not disrupting the national transportation system through strikes.

The basic provisions of the RLA dictate that only disputes that relate to wages or working conditions through the making or modification of a collective bargaining agreement, or major issues, are subject to strike. Other disputes, or minor issues, such as the interpretation and application of the collective bargaining agreement are subject to binding arbitration. During the mitigation of major disputes, both parties are required to maintain the status quo, that is, the union cannot strike, or engage in any type of work slow down, and management cannot alter working conditions, or wages. Both parties are required to bargain in good faith, or legitimately attempt to negotiate disputes.

Either party desiring to change the provisions of the labor agreement can initiate the bargaining process by giving Section 6 notice to the other party. Both parties must enter into negotiations within 30 days and bargain in good faith. If negotiations reach an impasse, either party may request mediation by the National Mediation Board (NMB). Mediators typically have extensive experience in either the railway or airline transportation industry, and both sides have voices in the appointment of a mediator for their case. In the event that the mediator decides that the two parties are unable to settle the disputes, through a proffer of arbitration, he may offer to arbitrate the dispute with approval of both parties. The resulting arbitration of the NMB is binding on both parties.

In the event that either party refuses binding arbitration, a 30-day cooling off commences. If, at the conclusion of the cooling off period, an agreement has still not been met, either party may resort to self help. During the 30 day cooling off period the NMB will notify the President that the impasse(s) threaten[s] substantially to interrupt interstate commerce to a degree such as to deprive any section of the country of essential transportation service, and a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) then has 30 days to develop a proposal to the parties. Once the proposal has been issued to both parties, a further 30-day cooling off period commences. If, at the end of this second 30-day cooling off period either party refuses the PEB’s proposal, both parties may enter into self-help. At any time, Congress may intervene and legislatively mandate a settlement.

National Mediation Board

The National Mediation Board (NMB), established by the 1934 amendments to the Railway Labor Act of 1926, is an independent agency that performs a central role in facilitating harmonious labor-management relations within two of the nation's key transportation modes--the railroads and airlines. Pursuant to the Railway Labor Act, NMB programs provide an integrated dispute resolution process to effectively meet the statutory objective of minimizing work stoppages in the airline and railroad industries. The NMB's integrated processes specifically are designed to promote three statutory goals:

The prompt and orderly resolution of disputes arising out of the negotiation of new or revised collective bargaining agreements;

The effectuation of employee rights of self-organization where a representation dispute exists; and

The prompt and orderly resolution of disputes over the interpretation or application of existing agreements.