The Railway Labor Act of 1926 and Modern-day Airline Labor Strife: Progress Toward Labor Peace Begins With Overruling Williams v. Jacksonville Terminal Co

Publication year1997
CitationVol. 21 No. 04


The Railway Labor Act of 1926 and Modern-Day Airline Labor Strife: Progress Toward Labor Peace Begins With Overruling Williams v. Jacksonville Terminal Co.

Mark A. Schuler(fn*)

I. Introduction

Events at American Airlines in February 1997 demonstrate the power of status quo provisions in the Railway Labor Act of 1926(fn1) (RLA). Four minutes after the Allied Pilots Union went on strike, President Clinton initiated a Presidential Emergency Board, triggering a sixty-day cooling-off period, and the strike was over.(fn2)

Regardless of the merits of American Airlines' union's or management's claims in the controversy, a strike would have been disruptive and harmful to the national economy.(fn3) As a separate example, during the four-day American Airlines Flight Attendant strike in November 1993, thousands of Thanksgiving holiday travelers were stranded, and cities dependent on American's business, such as Miami, suffered substantial economic loss.(fn4)

The avoidance of labor strife and the resulting harmful effects on the national economy are precisely the reason Congress implemented the status quo provisions of the RLA.(fn5) During the running of any status quo restriction as shown by the cooling-off period example above, labor is not allowed to strike, and management is not allowed to significantly change working conditions.(fn6) These restrictions are designed to divert both labor and management from counterproductive activities and refocus their attention back toward constructive bargaining efforts.(fn7)

To facilitate the RLA dispute resolution process, Congress designed the RLA status quo provisions to be equally available to both labor and management.(fn8) However, after the Williams Court misinterpreted the Congressional intent behind a 1934 RLA amendment, new labor unions have been routinely denied RLA status quo protections during critical portions of the negotiation process.(fn9) As used in this Comment, new unions are those which the National Mediation Board (NMB) has certified to represent an employee group, but which have not yet negotiated the first labor contract with an employer. As a result of the Williams ruling, new unions have no RLA status quo remedy to counteract unilateral, employer-instituted changes in working conditions while the first contract is under negotiation.(fn10)

The Court's restrictive interpretation of the RLA continues to cause unnecessary labor strife between unions and management, thereby frustrating the intent of Congress. While negotiations are ongoing concerning the first labor contract between a union and an employer, the imbalance in RLA status quo application can only lead to more labor strife. This strife ultimately will lead to interruption and inconvenience in the transportation industry during a protracted labor strike.(fn11) The labor unrest resulting from the negotiating imbalance is exactly what Congress sought to avoid when legislating the RLA.

Consequently, this Comment argues that Williams either should be overruled, or should be appropriately limited to the fact-specific setting under which it was decided.

To develop this thesis, Part II of this Comment will discuss both the history of labor unrest which drove Congress to pass the RLA and the design features of the RLA legislation which facilitate an atmosphere of cooperative bargaining through which the RLA dispute resolution system operates. Part III will discuss the first impression Williams case, wherein the Supreme Court gave an overly restrictive interpretation to the RLA, and will also discuss the post- Williams treatment of new unions under the RLA. Part IV will discuss a recent Second Circuit case, Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Ass'n v. Atlantic Coast Airlines, Inc.,(fn12) in order to illustrate how continued adherence to Williams' restrictive interpretation of the RLA defeats the intent of Congress. Part V will present proposals to rectify the unfortunate implications for labor peace resulting from the Williams Court's misinterpretation of the RLA. The Comment concludes by reinforcing the fact that the RLA was intended to prevent labor strife, and continued adherence to the Williams decision will only lead to increased labor strife.

II. Background

A. Labor Unrest

Violent labor conflicts were especially notable in the history of the railroad industry during the late nineteenth century and continuing through the beginning of the twentieth century. Clashes of near-revolutionary ferver pitted workers, farmers, and even urban merchants against the railroads' monopolistic power.(fn13) For example, during the "Great Upheaval of 1877" the townspeople of Pittsburgh set fire to a roundhouse and destroyed 104 locomotives, 2,152 cars, and 79 buildings.(fn14)

The Debs' Rebellion is another example of violent railroad labor unrest.(fn15) The incident began with railroad union workers boycotting Pullman cars. Railroad management countered the union boycott by loading United States mail onto Pullman cars and then by charging the striking workers with illegal interference with the mail. The Illinois governor responded by activating the state militia. The conflict escalated into violence, reaching its peak on July 7, 1894, when soldiers opened fire on a crowd and killed 30 people.(fn16)

World War I forced government intervention to quell this kind of railroad labor unrest which continued into the beginning of the twentieth century.(fn17) During the war, the railroad industry continued to experience labor shortages and unrest.(fn18) The government response to the wartime transportation crisis was to seize operational control over the railroads.(fn19) However, the transportation crisis during World War I also caused the government to recognize that the transportation industry was vital to national security. This recognition ultimately resulted in the first significant changes to labor legislation.(fn20)

The legislative changes were implemented after World War I ended and during the period when Congress transferred the railroads back into private hands.(fn21) As part of the transfer process, an unprecedented series of conferences between railway executives and union officials resulted in a new cooperative approach to dispute resolution specifically tailored for railway labor legislation.(fn22) Based on input from these conferences, a bill was drafted and submitted to Congress. It was subsequently passed without significant changes by both houses on May 20, 1926, and became known as the Railway Labor Act of 1926.(fn23) Key to the success of the new RLA approach were status quo provisions promoting stability within the transportation industry.

B. How the Status Quo Provisions Facilitate an Atmosphere of Cooperative Bargaining Through the RLA Dispute Resolution System

As an overview, the status quo provisions provide that collective bargaining agreements never expire, but are only amended as the need arises.(fn24) They also mandate that the status quo be maintained for an almost unlimited amount of time during subsequent contract negotiations.(fn25) Further, the provisions facilitate bargaining by restricting both parties from resorting to counter-productive measures during negotiations.(fn26)

The status quo provisions are not easily discernible, however, because they are scattered among RLA sections 5, 6, and 10.(fn27) In addition, they are not easy to follow because the numbering of the sections does not necessarily reflect the order in which the sections are applied.(fn28) The best way to demonstrate how the RLA status quo provisions fit together is to walk through the normal flow of a dispute resolved under the RLA dispute resolution process.

Initially, the NMB certifies a union for which a recognized employee group has voted.(fn29) After the union is formed, the union and the company are required to meet with each other and negotiate in good faith to form an initial collective bargaining agreement.(fn30) Once in place, the initial collective bargaining agreement formed under the RLA never expires, thus providing stability.(fn31)

All modifications to the permanent collective bargaining agreement are then negotiated under two separate processes depending upon whether a problem area is classified as a minor or major dispute.(fn32) Minor disputes arise out of the interpretation or application of a collective bargaining agreement and are settled through arbitration by the NMB.(fn33) Because the ruling of the arbitrator is binding, arbitration alleviates the necessity to resort to status quo provisions.(fn34)

In contrast, the major dispute resolution mechanism entails a cooperative negotiation process between labor and management and, therefore, necessitates the use of status quo provisions to facilitate a cooperative bargaining atmosphere. The cooperative negotiation atmosphere is necessary for labor peace because major disputes involve changes to significant areas of the permanent agreement such as rates of pay, rules, and working conditions.(fn35) To preserve cooperation, either party desiring to modify rates of pay, rules, or working conditions must give advance written notice of the intended changes to the other party. This notice, labeled by the RLA section from which it is derived, is termed a "Section 6" notice.(fn36)

The RLA major dispute process then...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT