Negotiations between unions and employers generally do not involve the participation of the US President and Congress. Yet there are two industries where the federal government can intervene: railroads and airlines.
Indeed, in 1926, Congress passed the Railway Labor Act as one of the nation’s first labor laws. This law gives Congress the right to intervene in disputes between railroad unions. In 1936, an amendment extended the scope of the law to include the airline industry.
The rationale for the Railway Labor Act and its airlines amendment is that rail and airline strikes disrupt interstate commerce; and since the Constitution gives Congress the right to regulate interstate commerce, Congress should be able to intervene to prevent rail and airline strikes from occurring. However, the federal government’s use of this law is often controversial, drawing strong criticism from workers and unions.
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Congress sets its sights on rail and airline industries
In 1926, railroad strikes had a long history in the United States. The first multistate railroad strike in 1877 involved some 100,000 workers and crippled the nation’s major railroads. In 1893, Eugene Debs and other railroad workers formed the first major railroad union: the American Railway Union. This union played a central role in the Pullman Strike of 1894, which President Grover Cleveland helped break by deploying federal troops to attack the strikers.
Unionization in the United States increased in the early 20th century in many industries, as did strikes. In 1920, Congress passed legislation that created a Railroad Labor Board to arbitrate wage disputes between workers and employers, hoping to avert further railroad strikes. However, the council’s own actions ended up triggering a massive strike when it authorized a pay cut for the Railway Tradesmen (a group of workers which included carpenters and electricians).
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In 1922, some 400,000 railway workers protested wage cuts by going on strike. Many strikers who had served in World War I wore their military uniforms to emphasize that they had sacrificed for their country and deserved a living wage. State governments and railroad companies fought the strikers with armed troops, and corporations attempted to replace strikers with scabs.
As a result of this massive strike, Congress passed the Railroad Labor Act of 1926. Under this law, Congress can vote to force railroad companies and unions to accept a specific contract and make illegal the workers’ strike for a while. Following the Century Air Lines strike of 1932, in which airline pilots stopped work in protest at wage cuts, Congress added an amendment to the Railway Labor Act extending its scope to the airline industry.
Rail and air workers face federal intervention
Since the passage of the Railway Labor Act, the President and Congress have repeatedly intervened in negotiations between railroad unions and employers. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson used the law twice to prevent rail strikes that spring and once to end a rail strike that summer. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan also invoked the law twice to prevent rail strikes in July and once to end a strike in September.
One of the most prominent examples of the use of the Railway Labor Act dates back to 1992, when Congress and President George HW Bush invoked the act to end an ongoing rail strike. In 2022, Congress and President Joe Biden used the law to force unions and railroad employers to accept a contract that some of the largest unions had rejected, and outlaw the railroad unions’ strike during some time. Both decisions were controversial and were criticized by railway workers.
In the decade since the passage of the Railway Labor Act, the federal government has developed many other ways to intervene in union activities. Following a wave of strikes in 1945 and 1946 that included railroad workers, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which made certain types of strikes illegal.
During the 1946 railroad strike, President Harry Truman at one point called for legislation to allow him to recruit striking railroad workers into the military. Even after the strike ended, the House of Representatives passed a bill to recruit strikers (it died in the Senate). In 1950, Truman ordered the U.S. military to take control of the nation’s railroads in anticipation of a strike.
In 1955, Congress passed a law prohibiting federal employees from striking against the government. This is the law that President Reagan invoked in 1981 when he fired 11,359 air traffic controllers for going on strike. Reagan ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to institute a lifetime ban on rehiring the workers he had just fired. In addition, the Federal Labor Relations Authority withdrew its accreditation from the Professional Association of Air Traffic Controllers, which had led the strike.