The Railway Labor Act and Railroad Workers’ Right to Strike

by Jon Jones, Associate

In January 2022, the BLET and SMART-TD, which represent nearly 17,000 railroad workers, began organizing a massive railway strike in response to the new and egregious BNSF attendance policy described in our previous article. Workers overwhelmingly voted to initiate the strike, which was set to begin on February 1.

But the strike never happened. This was not because BNSF agreed to change its policy, or because workers backed away from the fight. Rather, on January 25, U.S. District Judge, Mark Pittman, granted BNSF’s request for a temporary restraining order, blocking the strike because it would cause “substantial, immediate and irreparable harm” to the company and “exacerbate our current supply-chain crisis—harming the public at large[…].” On February 22, Judge Pittman granted BNSF’s further request for an injunction. The Feb. 22 order also banned workers from engaging in “work stoppages, picketing, slowdowns, sickouts or other self-help.” In short, the strike was over before it began.

What gave the federal court authority to stop railroad workers from striking? The answer is the Railway Labor Act (RLA) of 1926, 45 U.S.C. §§ 151-188.

The stated purposes of the RLA are to avoid interruption of interstate commerce, protect employees’ right to join labor organizations and bargain collectively, and provide “prompt” settlement of disputes that arise between railroads and their employees. While the RLA offers several benefits, it also restrains workers’ right to engage in self-help activities, like striking, to address labor disputes.

Under the RLA, labor disputes are classified as either “major” or “minor” disputes. “Major” disputes are those where the parties wish to add a new term or change the existing terms of a collective bargaining agreement. “Minor” disputes are those concerning the meaning or proper application of terms to which the parties have already agreed. If a railroad’s action is “arguably justified” under the existing terms of an agreement, then any dispute over that action is deemed “minor.” There is often disagreement over whether a labor dispute is “major” or “minor.”

This distinction is important, because striking over a minor dispute is strictly prohibited and can be stopped by the courts. Even for major disputes, striking is prohibited unless the parties first exhaust the RLA’s negotiation and mediation procedure. Courts have described this procedure as “a mandatory and virtually endless process of negotiation, mediation, voluntary arbitration, and conciliation.” In other words, even though the RLA ensures the parties negotiate over major disputes, the process can drag on for a long time. While that process drags on, workers cannot strike.

In the case of BNSF’s new attendance policy, Judge Pittman found that changing the policy without the unions’ consent was a “minor” dispute. The proposed strike, he decided, would therefore violate the RLA. He found that BNSF’s unilateral policy change was “arguably justified” under the terms of the existing agreement, because the new policy “arguably” did not violate any terms of the existing agreement and because BNSF had historically changed the attendance policy on its own, without negotiating. Even if the dispute had been a “major” one, however, the RLA would prohibit striking until the parties had exhausted the mandatory and lengthy negotiation process. If you are interested in learning more, you can read Judge Pittman’s entire opinion and order at:

Although the RLA may restrict railroad workers’ right to strike, other laws may still offer certain protections if you are forced to work through hazardous or unfair work conditions. It is important that you understand your rights. If you have any questions about railroad employee protections and how they may affect you, please contact our team. *

*The information contained in this newsletter is provided for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Reading this newsletter and information contained herein does not constitute formation of an attorney-client relationship. Every potential case must be assessed in accordance with its unique facts and circumstances. If you believe you may have a legal claim, please request a free, confidential case evaluation with our team today.