Between 1907 and 1926, the unions made four separate attempts to secure uniform working rules, with great progress made during the period of federal control and operation from 1918 to 1920, during World War I. Over that time, wages and rules were established on a national basis, and though many of the pay rates and working condition rules were not renewed once government control ended, a precedent had been established so that by 1926, there were a number of uniform working rules in the industry. In framing the Railway Labor Act, legislators could therefore look to existing conditions in the industry and could reflect the collective bargaining structure that already existed (Weber 219).
Under the act, disputes are categorized as major or minor, with disputes involving proposed changes in rates of pay, rules, or working conditions being called major, and with those growing out of grievances or out of the interpretation or application of agreements concerning rates of pay, rules, or working conditions called minor. The requirements of the Act are that the parties involved negotiate in good faith:
The Railway Labor Act imposes upon the carriers and the unions representing their employees the obligation to make every reasonable effort to arrive at a settlement of a labor dispute without interrupting interstate commerce. The Act also prescribes certain procedures that must be followed by the employer and the union in every case. It is important to note that nothing in the Railway Labor Act compels either the carrier or the union to agree on anything. The Act only compels both parties to bargain in good faith to try to arrive at a settlement. (Weber 224)
The provisions were first extended to the airline industry, as noted, but with the idea of collective bargaining now set in law, these concepts extended to other types of labor and other industries as well.
In answer to the problems of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt appointed a National Labor Board in 1933 to bring about compliance with labor laws and to mediate labor disputes. He was himself chairman of this board, and also members were representatives of labor and industry.
The Board had little real power and a dubious legal foundation. Roosevelt tried to generate power for the Board through executive orders. Most employers resented the actions of the Board, and labor saw it as weak. The sole power of enforcement held by the Board was to report violations to the compliance Division of the National Recovery Administration or to the Attorney General.
Senator Robert Wagner was an ally of Roosevelt on the Board, and he was frustrated by the inability of the Board to achieve its goals. He then introduced a bill into the Senate in 1934 to prohibit employer "unfair labor practices" and to establish a permanent agency to administer its provisions. The bill envisioned a tripartite agency that would consist of two employee, two management, and three public members. Business fought the bill, calling it unconstitutional and unfair. It became evident that the bill would not pass, and Congress passed a joint resolution authorizing the President to establish one or more boards that in effect would have little more power than had the National Labor Board. This was Public Resolution 44, and it led to the creation of the National Labor Relations Board. This first National Labor Relations Board also discovered that it had little power, and it lasted from 1933 to 1935 (McCulloch and Bornstein 10-12).
The Wagner Act was passed in 1935, and it guaranteed workers the right to organize and to choose their own representatives for collective bargaining with employers. It also prohibited an employer from interfering with the formation or administration of any labor organization and provided rules and procedures for carrying out collective bargaining under the control of the National Labor Relations Board. The Board was empowered to hold elections in order to decide which union was to represent the workers in bargaining with the employer. Employers felt that the Wagner Act was one-sided, maintaining that the Act supported labor entirely, since employers and their representatives could not exercise their constitutional rights to freedom of speech among their own employees.
Zollitsch and Langsner point out that the National Labor Relations Board received considerable cooperation from both labor and management once World War II had started. After the war, though, the public began to agitate to amend the Act because it prohibited employers from performing certain labor practices and because there was no provision against unfair union practices. The act also required a union to bargain for all employees, including nonunion workers. There was thus an amendment made by the Taft-Hartley Law of 1947, which officially became the Labor-Management Relations Act of 1947 (Zollitsch and Langsner 43-44).
The Taft-Hartley law is considered to be one of the most far-reaching pieces of labor legislation in the United States. It is administered by the NLRB. It guarantees the workers the right to organize and to bargain collectively with their employers or to refrain from all such activities. It permits employers "free speech" as long as there is no threat of reprisal. It places certain limitations on the activities of labor organizations as well as on employers. Employers and employees are both protected from unfair labor practices that could be committed by unions, such as compelling an employer to pay an employee for unperformed services, coercing employees to join a union, participating in jurisdictional strikes, and extracting excessive initiation fees from new union members. The Act abolishes closed shop agreements under which management could hire only union designated workers, and union-shop agreements are permitted only by the authorization of a majority of employees (Zollitsch and Langsner 49).
The next major change in labor law came with the Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959, officially known as the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959. It was designed to promote democracy in union affairs, to eliminate improper activities such as racketeering by labor and management, and to force unions and management to make reports on a number of their activities. It amended Taft-Hartley to eliminate the "no-man's land" in NLRB cases, and the NLRB administers this portion of Landrum-Griffin (Zollitsch and Langsner 50).
Numerous changes have been made in the collective bargaining laws and in various agreements between labor and management, though the basic idea of collective bargaining and of protecting the process has remained strong. The Railway Labor Act was a key element in the development of collective bargaining and the union movement in general, as was the creation of the NLRB.
Bargaining Under the Railway Labor Act." Independent Pilots Association (2005). October 29, 2005. http://www.ipapilot.org/media/rla.asp#What%20is%20the%20Railway%20Labor%20Act?.
Johnson, Emory R. Government Regulation of Transportation. New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1938.
McCulloch, Frank W., Tim Bornstein, The National Labor Relations Board. New York: Praeger, 1974.
Millis, Harry A. How Collective Bargaining Works: A Survey of Experience in Leading American Industries. New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1942.