On November 30, 2022, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to avert a nationwide freight rail strike. Following prior negotiations and a tentative agreement that came to fruition in September 2022, rail workers and their companies had until December 9 to finalize the agreement before they pledged to strike. Economic experts and government officials were concerned that a strike so close to the holidays would exacerbate inflation and supply chain issues as rail is still used extensively in this country, and President Biden called on Congress to act.
Three days later, on December 2, 2022, the U.S. Senate approved the measure, and President Biden signed the bill the same day. The law now makes a strike illegal.
The House also approved a separate measure to add seven days of paid sick leave to the contract (as opposed to one). The Senate, however, did not have enough votes to approve that measure.
While labor relations in the private sector are governed by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), labor relations in the railroad industry are governed by the Railway Labor Act (RLA). The RLA includes mandatory dispute resolution procedures that preclude strikes over union disputes, while the NLRA allows workers in the private sector to strike.
Congressional authority to act under the RLA is derived from the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which provides that Congress has the power “[t]o regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes[.]” Indeed, in 1917, nearly 10 years before the RLA was passed, the Supreme Court in Wilson v. New determined that that Congressional authority over railway carriers in interstate commerce fell within its power to regulate commerce.
Ultimately, if negotiation efforts between railway employees and management wane, Congress may intervene and take action and impose a contractual agreement under which both sides must operate.
Since the RLA was enacted in 1926, Congress has acted 18 times in railway labor negotiations and each time the Legislation was passed to prevent a strike.