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This Day in Labor History: May 20, 1926

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On May 20, 1926, the Railway Labor Act passed Congress. This pioneering legislation attempted to end strikes on the most important of the American transportation networks and has proven surprisingly stable over the years, largely ending the period when rail strikes paralyzed the nation’s commerce. Since expanded to the airlines, the RLA remains an important part of American labor law today.

From the beginning of the peak period of American industrial strife in 1877, the railroads were the main target. It was that year when the Great Railroad Strike not only brought workers into the streets, but the general citizenry, furious over the corruption the railroads brought to politics, the noise and smoke, the way they blew through cities, the lack of safety that not only killed the workers but also killed people just trying to cross the tracks. That led to President Rutherford B. Hayes calling out the military. After all, not only was the idea of the mass strike anathema to the American elites, but also the railroads were the heart of the nation’s economy. The equivalent to shutting down the railroads today would be shutting down both the airlines and the trucking industry at the same time. The nation couldn’t move people or goods or mail. The legitimate concerns workers were had were not taken seriously at the time, so you saw strikes against the railroads time and time again, most notably with Eugene Debs’ American Railway Union launching a sympathy strike for the Pullman workers in 1894. That again led to President Cleveland and his railroad hack Attorney General Richard Olney calling on the military to serve as a strikebreaking force.

Congress did pay some attention to this, not because they cared about workers but because of the importance of the railroads to American industry. So in 1888, it passed the Arbitration Act that hoped to stop labor disputes before a strike. But it was a pretty worthless law, as most Gilded Age regulatory laws were since in the end, most of these people simply did not believe in regulation. The arbitration was non-binding, which means it was not actually arbitration. After all, something binding would mean that rich people couldn’t do whatever they wanted and what a betrayal of the Gilded Age that would be! The Erdman Act of 1898 attempted to strengthen this legislation, which banned yellow-dog contracts that required not joining a union as a condition of work, and which created a binding arbitration finding if both sides in a dispute agreed to voluntary arbitration. But of course voluntary arbitration still gave all the power to the companies. The Erdman Act was useful for the time, but obviously remained quite limited. The Adamson Act of 1916 gave the 8-hour day to rail workers, which was a huge victory. But another law allowed the president to nationalize the railroads for the purposes of war. Woodrow Wilson would not allow such nationalization to take place. Congress actually considered a permanent nationalization of the railroads during World War I, but Wilson strongly objected to that and announced that all railroads would be returned to their owners after the war, whatever happened. The Railway Labor Board during World War I attempted to keep up pressure to solve problems, but after the war, it was a bought and sold agency of the companies and in 1921 ordered a massive reduction in workers’ wages. As far as organized labor went, this was a worthless agency. In 1922, a huge shop-craft strike again brought the railroads largely to a halt. This was too much for even a conservative government to just say could be handled by the natural law of supply and demand. This required legislation.

So in 1926, the government tried again to create an agency that would regulate labor relations on the railroads. The goal here again was to mediate potential strikes so that the nation’s transportation networks would run. It created very specific guidelines by which both the unions and companies must operate and allows for strikes only after all other possibilities have been exhausted. Moreover, it is fairly specific about those processes. It was mostly written by the rail union lawyers, so this was hardly a radical law in terms of politics, but it was a situation where even congressional Republicans just asked the unions what they wanted and placed it into law. This was the first collective bargaining legislation passed by Congress. In 1936, Congress expanded the RLA to cover the airlines.

The RLA created the National Mediation Board. This is at least a theoretically independent agency of the government with three appointees from the president. At the core of the law is that the NMB has the authority to sit down both the transportation executives and the unions and get them to solve their problems without strikes. In at least one way, the RLA is more powerful than the National Labor Relations Board. Whereas NLRB rulings are binding, the RLA allows transportation workers to sue in federal court when it finds that employers have violated the law. However, overall this is a less intrusive law than the National Labor Relations Act, as there is no NLRB style board here. The goal here is to get both sides to work together to nail down their problems. What this means in fact is very long bargaining negotiations that can drag on and on and on as the companies are intransigent. The law did undermine workers’ ability to strike but it also promoted labor peace in a way that did not oppose workers’ interests. Moreover, the courts soon interpreted the RLA to undermine railroad attempts at imposing company unions upon the workers, laying the legal groundwork for New Deal labor legislation.

But for whatever weaknesses the RLA has, it still represents an important advance in American labor law. The fact that an agency nearly a century old is still playing a key role in our labor relations is something to damn Congress with, since the need for new labor legislation to reflect the twenty-first century workplace is obvious to nearly everyone in the contemporary labor world.

This is the 441th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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