For over 73 years labor-management relations in the U.S. airline industry have
been governed by the Railway Labor Act (45
U.S.C. §§151-188). In April of 1936 the Act was amended to add the airline industry to the jurisdiction of the
statute. The Act previously had applied only to the nation's railroad
industry under the original 1926 legislation.
The process for developing an initial collective bargaining agreement,
or revising an existing agreement, is specified in significant part by the
Railway Labor Act. See the RLA collective
flowchart which depicts the Act's bargaining processes.
summary, representatives of labor and management initially must file
written demands on each other regarding the new terms and conditions that they propose
their labor contract. Until they reach agreement, or the RLA's
dispute resolution processes have been exhausted, neither party to the
alter the status quo, such as by a labor strike or by the
implementation of management's proposals.
After their bargaining proposals
have been exchanged, the parties must meet and confer in an attempt to
reach a voluntary agreement. Either party may invoke mediation
assistance with the National Mediation Board. In rare labor
emergencies, the NMB may trigger the mediation process
mediation commences, the National Mediation Board has broad discretion under the present
terms of the Railway Labor Act regarding
whether and when the RLA's mediation process will terminate. As
long as the NMB maintains a matter within its mediation jurisdiction,
neither labor nor management lawfully are free to engage in self-help,
such as by a labor strike or by the implementation of management's proposed
rates of pay and working conditions.
labor and management reach an agreement during the mediation process,
the NMB will at some point in the mediation process offer the parties
the opportunity to arbitrate the unresolved issues. If either
party refuses the offer, which is the norm, a thirty-day
"cooling-off" period commences. At the end of this time,
the parties generally are free to exercise the full range of non-violent
In statistically limited cases,
upon a statutory notification by the NMB, the President
will establish a Presidential Emergency Board to address the dispute further.
When this is done, the mandatory status quo period of the Act is extended -
generally for an additional sixty
At various times, both labor and management
have criticized the NMB regarding its administration of the mediation
process - particularly the timing of the termination of mediation.
a practical matter, one of the parties to a labor-management
dispute generally is more interested in changing the current wages and
working conditions, while the other party prefers to maintain the
existing terms in the collective bargaining agreement. In
large part, the parties' preferences depend on the prevailing economic
If the economy is expanding, labor generally is
pressing for wage increases and other economic enhancements. In a
constricting economy, airline management frequently seeks economic
concessions or other relief from labor. Accordingly, in an
expanding economy, labor generally seeks a prompt release from NMB
mediation and in a constricting economy management frequently is more interested
in the termination of mediation. As a consequence, the NMB typically is criticized
for "delaying" a release from mediation by the faction that
favors an economic revision to the existing collective bargaining
agreement at that particular time.
Once a collective bargaining agreement is in place, the Railway Labor
Act requires that labor and management follow a dispute resolution
process to resolve differences regarding the meaning and implementation
of the agreement. See the RLA contract
administration flowchart which depicts these processes.
summary, labor and management must first attempt to resolve the dispute
in direct meetings - following a process specified by the applicable
collective bargaining agreement. If these initial efforts are exhausted without
success, then either party may invoke an arbitration process. In
the airline industry, the arbitration tribunals established by the
parties generally are
called system boards of adjustment. An equal number of partisan
members of such boards are appointed by labor and management. If a majority of the partisan
members of the system board votes to resolve the issue, the board's
decision is final and binding at that stage of the process.
instances, the partisan members of the system board deadlock (by a tie vote of the board)
and a neutral arbitrator is then selected and empowered to decide the case. The
arbitrator's decision (or partisan members' decision) is final and binding with only extremely limited
judicial review available under the RLA. The federal courts have
applied the narrow standards of review specified in Section
153, First (q) of the act (45
U.S.C. §153, First (q)) to airline industry system board arbitration decisions.
Revisions to RLA Processes or Coverage
The careful statutory balance provided for by
Congress in the current jurisdictional application of the Railway Labor
Act promotes effective
in the key airline and railroad industries. This historic balance further serves to protect our nation's economy and
the public from untoward interruptions of interstate commerce and the
related economic constrictions while still
permitting the full range of
collective bargaining opportunities.
important reasons, Congress has not revised the RLA substantively for over 28 years -
not since the still controverted 1981 legislation
which established a new section 159a to the Act. That new provision
addressed collective bargaining disputes at public commuter railroads.
Most RLA dispute resolution experts consider the 1981 amendment to the
Act to be counterproductive, as well as regarding with misgiving other
proposed substantive revisions to the RLA's statutory processes or
extent of coverage which
would disturb the
historically balanced protections afforded by the Act
for our nation's airline and railroad industries and the broader public
interest which they serve.
The Airline Labor Dispute Resolution
Act, S.1327 is an example of appropriate Congressional restraint
where the historical processes and coverage of the RLA were not
revised. S.1327 would have required
binding final-offer arbitration of unresolved airline collective bargaining
disputes as an
alternative to the traditional RLA processes. Management
generally supported this proposed legislation while labor opposed it.
Fortunately, S.1327 ultimately was not passed by
Congress. However, various forms of legislation proposing substantive revisions to the
RLA's processes or coverage may be introduced
periodically, either as direct amendments to the RLA or as preempting
legislation which would modify the application of the Act. Such
proposed modifications to the RLA's carefully balanced dispute
resolution scheme, inevitably seeking to promote some particular partisan
interest, should be rejected as contrary to the broader public interest
that Congress wisely provided for by the Act's historical provisions.