Flying On The Railroad Tracks: The Railway Labor Act - Time for a change

Flying on the Railroad Tracks The Railway Labor Act — Time for a change? By Stephen P. Prentice October 2001 Airline technicians, like all union employees in the air carrier business, are subject to the rules of the Railway Labor...


Flying on the Railroad Tracks

The Railway Labor Act — Time for a change?

Stephen P. PrenticeBy Stephen P. Prentice

October 2001

Airline technicians, like all union employees in the air carrier business, are subject to the rules of the Railway Labor Act. The business of writing a new contract with the employer can be a long and painful process. Part of the reason is this archaic federal labor law that controls the process.

History
ImageThe Railway Labor Act (RLA), created in 1926, originally applied to the railroads, and was drafted under a broad governmental mandate to regulate interstate commerce. It was designed to prevent or delay the onset of strikes by providing a framework for peaceful settlement of labor disputes. This was the Federal government’s first attempt at regulating labor/management disputes.
In 1936, the law was extended to cover air carriers primarily through the efforts of Dave Behncke, the founder of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). He observed that the RLA was designed to prolong the negotiating process at every turn and provide for extended arbitration and mediation. Mr. Behncke believed that it would be useful to labor for successful negotiations.
Congress felt that the transportation of people and cargo should not be interrupted by labor disputes and strikes if they could be settled by negotiation and mediation. The law in 1936 provided for the creation of various boards to adjust and settle disputes. The National Mediation Board (NMB) administers the RLA. Further down the negotiation line, there is a provision for the President to appoint Emergency Boards when there are significant threats to transportation.

Northwest
During the recent Northwest technicians’ dispute, our President said he "would take the necessary steps to prevent airline strikes from happening this year." He signed an order for the appointment of a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) two days before the technicians’ strike deadline and named a three-member board to resolve the issues. The result was another delay of 90 days or so before a strike could occur. As we all know, the dispute was settled.
Northwest’s union, AMFA, would characterize the President’s action as interference with the normal course of collective bargaining. Many others in the labor movement agreed.
In regard to this subject, Francis Perkins, Secretary of Labor and the first woman to hold a cabinet position, said in 1938, "Collective action for both workers and employers must be free from external compulsion if they are to achieve a common basis of understanding and co-operation." Mrs. Perkins felt that there should be no interference with the bargaining process.
Labor’s strike leverage is weak at best when threatened with any kind of unnecessary intervention. As soon as the President made his statement, he created serious threats to the process. By simply suggesting that he might step in to invoke the creation of an Emergency Board, he made the possibility of reaching agreements more difficult.
Under the RLA, strikes are essentially prevented until all the administrative steps in the RLA are exhausted. This could, and did, take years in some cases. Even after all this, the President can still halt a strike.

Comair
In another recent example, Comair had been in negotiations with management for almost three years! The RLA procedures had moved slowly toward a strike deadline. In this case, however, the powers-that-be decided that it was more political to have a strike than force a delay. This strike action by the pilots occurred after the lengthy procedures of the RLA wound down to the moment of truth. Nothing was done to delay the deadline, so the inevitable strike followed. Technicians at Comair continued to work and were not affected by the pilot strike.

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