The North American Railway Industry and The Railway Labour Act
The freight rail industry is structured as a non-competitive oligopoly dominated by seven rail carriers serving their private interests and those of the narrow private interests that own and control the energy, chemical and agricultural sectors, whose freight is hauled. They are the ones responsible for endangering the supply chain as the railroads use what is called Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) and their clients operate using “just in time” inventory. In the past few decades, the rail industry has adopted the model at great harm to railway workers and the public at large. It has meant major cuts to jobs and the inhuman scheduling and attendance now being opposed by the workers.
The U.S. state has long organized to block strike action for railway workers and others. The 1926 Railway Labor Act imposes one obstacle after the other to prevent strikes, including delaying action with “cooling off” periods, a Mediation Board, allowing the president to establish a PEB to “recommend” an agreement, and for Congress to legislate workers back to work. As the AAR’s Jefferies put it, “The goal of the Railway Labor Act was to reduce the likelihood of a work stoppage.” “And it’s been remarkably effective in doing that,” he added.
The Railway Labor Act was passed following the 1920 nationwide wildcat strike of U.S. rail workers and the 1922 nationwide strike involving 400,000 railway workers. It also now applies to airline workers. It was used by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 to fire more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers, an indication then of the development of governments of police powers now being consolidated.
It is not uncommon for Congress to legislate workers back to work, especially after they have already gone on strike. In the last two railroad strikes, in 1991 and 1992, then President Bush and Congress forced workers back to work, in 1991 less than 24 hours after the strike began and in 1992 after two days. Biden’s actions are significant however because they are crass attempts to make the imposition of contracts a new normal, which violates the right to association that includes collective bargaining.