The Case for Reform of the Railway Labor Act

End Unionization through Regulation and Allow Workers to Decertify Unions


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Changing election rules to favor one party is something we associate with dictatorships. Yet it is happening in this country, at this moment. The scenario involves the union election process in a series of elections involving a U.S airline. However, the ramifications involve fundamental changes in federal labor policy that could severely affect America’s transportation sector. If those changes are allowed to stand, the future for labor relations at America’s airlines and railroads may turn into one of long, drawn-out election campaigns and re-running of elections when unions do not get their way.

Labor relations in America’s railroad and airline industries are regulated under the Railway Labor Act (RLA). The Act was passed by Congress in 1926 and expanded in 1936 to include airlines. In order to avoid disruptions to America’s transport network through strikes and other kinds of work stoppages, the Act imposed mandatory mediation and gave the president the ability to order workers back to work. Like the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the RLA allows for unions to organize workers for the purpose of negotiating a collective bargaining agreement as the workers’ exclusive representative. 

However, while the NLRA allows unions to organize on a location-by-location basis, under the RLA, a bargaining unit must include all the workers of the same classification throughout an entire company. Railways and airlines are network industries, with capital investments stretching across several states or even the entire nation. By requiring unions to organize on a companywide basis, the RLA helps to avoid the creation of a patchwork of work rules that piecemeal unionization at specific facilities would bring. Balkanized work rules detract from the standardization and economies of scale upon which network industries rely. 

Under the RLA, union organizers must obtain signed authorization cards from at least 35 percent of the employees in a given bargaining unit—also known as “class” or “craft”—across the entire organization, rather than the 30 percent required under the NLRA. This requirement is supposed to show interest in union representation by the employees.

The National Mediation Board (NMB) oversees union elections under the RLA. It consists of three members appointed by the President of the United States. Currently, two of the NMB’s three members are former union officials. The agency is now trying to aid the unions in their dispute with Delta. Here is how.