What is the Railway Labor Act?

Stacy Blumberg

The Railway Labor Act is a federal law passed by the United States Congress in 1926 to handle railway industry labor relations. In 1936, an amendment to the Railway Labor Act, or RLA, added the airline industry. The main goal of the RLA is to prevent strikes by substituting mediation, bargaining, and arbitration when settling labor disputes.

Since 1936, airline labor disputes have been handled under the Railway Labor Act.
Since 1936, airline labor disputes have been handled under the Railway Labor Act.

During the railroad strike of 1877, intervention of US federal troops was required before a settlement could be reached. Congress then passed the Arbitration Act of 1888 to set up arbitration panels to investigate and mediate labor disputes in the railway industry. The act was completely ineffective in that only one panel was ever convened, after the Pullman Strike, and federal troops were still needed to put down the strike prior to panel intervention.

Labor unions allow groups of employees to band together to influence their pay structure.
Labor unions allow groups of employees to band together to influence their pay structure.

Passed in 1898, the Erdman Act attempted to strengthen the arbitration panels by making their decisions binding. The Erdman Act also prohibited discrimination of employees for union membership and activity. Railway workers were granted more rights with the passage of the Adamson Act in 1916. The Adamson Act shortened the regular work day to eight hours and granted the same pay that had been given for ten hours of work. Standardized overtime pay of time and a half was another provision of the act.

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Issues related to working for a railroad are governed by the Railway Labor Act.
Issues related to working for a railroad are governed by the Railway Labor Act.

In 1917, US President Woodrow Wilson took control over the railroads to use them for transporting military troops and supplies. After World War I, control of the railroads was returned to the private sector. Congress then passed the Transportation Act of 1920 which included the creation of the Railway Labor Board to settle disputes. The Railway Labor Board abused its powers and, in 1922, there was another national railroad strike.

The Railway Labor Act is a federal law passed in 1926 to prevent worker strikes.
The Railway Labor Act is a federal law passed in 1926 to prevent worker strikes.

Railroad companies and labor unions negotiated with each other to create the Railway Labor Act. Unlike most acts passed by Congress, the RLA passed with few changes. The Railway Labor Act established a government appointed Board of Mediation to assist in settling labor issues. Disputes that are not able to be settled by the Board of Mediation go to voluntary arbitration.

The Railway Labor Act categorizes disputes as major and minor. Strikes for minor issues are effectively banned by the RLA, but strikes over major issues are possible after mediation and negotiation procedures have been followed. The procedures are fairly exhaustive and the courts have the right to enjoin a strike if the process is not complete. Striking workers can be replaced during the strike, but the company can not terminate employment of the striking workers simply for participating in the strike.

Congress passed the Railway Labor Act in 1926.
Congress passed the Railway Labor Act in 1926.

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Discussion Comments


@Izzy78 - I have to disagree with you on that. Although the car was taking over as the main form of travel during this time, there was still a lot of commercialized business involved with transport on the railroads and that is something that is still around today.

Railroads are needed to transport items and goods across the country and if a union or group of workers were to go on strike, it could de-rail not just part of the industry, but a big part of the economy. This is why they passed this act to go about handling these issues and create a way for the workers to be able to come to terms as quickly as possible and not let the railroads tie up the nations economy.

This was important because a strike in the railroads can affect the country as a whole and it is only natural for the government to step in and make sure that this can be ended as quickly as possible and they could go back to work, affecting the nation as little as possible.


Although this may seem like a very important act I do not see it as such.

Just like any other industry that American needed, this Act simply set out the process for which to go about striking for railroad workers.

Note the year of the passage, 1926, which is somewhat of around the time that the car was becoming the main mode of transportation and the railroad was not becoming as important as in the past.

Although this may be an important Act as far as the railroads are concerned in the large scale of things this was not a major act as far as labor is concerned and I am sure that there are many more important acts that have been passed before and since.


@Emilski - You are absolutely correct. I just did a paper on Chicago around 1920 and people would not believe the descriptions that were given of how striking workers acted towards the strike breakers, who were mostly black.

If there was race involved in the issue the problem became ten times worse during this time because blacks would be brought in from the South to replace the workers for a short period of time and it was not unusual to see a black strike breaker beaten to death or lynched right out in front of the factory.

Passing acts like the Railway Labor Act were godsends to the industry as it set up a detailed process for which a strike should occur. This meant anarchy and mob rule stopped, so the people would then have a certain way of going about things in a process that would get everything done and be much more effective than in the past.


For anyone doing historical research during this era of history, they must pay great attention to the unions that seemed to dominate the American landscape.

Unions and strikes were not at all like today where they are more civil, and highly organized. Back during these times when a strike occurred one could expect a heavy amount of violence and a hot bed of angry feelings in the area.

It was not unusual during this time for strike breakers, people who come in to replace workers on strike, to have rocks thrown at them, or even lynched or killed, and police would sit back and watch, because it would be mob rule at that point and they had no way to control the anger of the striking workers.

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