Employees’ Rights & Grievances Under The Railway Labor Act

Railway Labor Act

I. Jurisdiction

i. Whether a claim that an employer interfered with its employees’ rights under Railway Labor Act falls within the jurisdiction of the adjustment boards or federal courts.

The Railway Labor Act (“RLA”) establishes adjustment boards for the purpose of arbitrating “disputes between an employee or group of employees and a carrier (“employer”)…growing out of the interpretation or application of agreements concerning rates of pay, rules, or working conditions. 45 U.S.C. § 153, First(i). This language clearly limits the grievances which mandatorily must be submitted to the adjustment boards to those arising out of the collective bargaining agreement. See Elgin, J. & E.R. Co. v. Burley, 325 U.S. 711, 723-26 (1944). Thus, any controversy not involving interpretation or application of agreements, for instance carrier interference with an employee’s right to organize, is within the province of the federal courts. See Railroad Trainmen v. Howard, 343 U.S. 768, 774 (1951) (“The claims here cannot be resolved by interpretation of a bargaining agreement so as to give jurisdiction to the Adjustment Board”); Conrad v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 494 F.2d 914, 917-18 (7th Cir. 1974) (suit alleging that RLA was violated by discharge motivated by anti-union animus states a judicial claim and is not committed to the jurisdiction of adjustment board because it does not arise from differing interpretations of collective bargaining agreements).

II. How RLA Applies Here

i. Whether an employer reprimanded an employee whom had voiced support or opposition of a union violated the Railway Labor Act.

The Railway Labor Act expressly provides for the right of employees to choose union representation free from carrier interference or retribution.[1] Section 2, Fourth, establishes that:

Employees shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing. The majority of any craft or class of employees shall have the right to determine who shall be the representative… No carrier….shall deny or in any way question the right of its employees to join, organize, or assist in organizing the labor organization of their choice, and it shall be unlawful for any carrier to interfere in any way with the organization of its employees, or to use the funds of the carrier in maintaining or assisting or contributing to any labor organization…

45 U.S.C. § 152, Fourth.

Employees may select their representatives without interference, influence, or coercion of any kind. 45 U.S.C. § 152, Third. “Influence,” as used in section 152, means pressure, use of authority to induce action or to corrupt or override another’s will. Texas & N.O.R. Co. v. Brotherhood of R. & S.S. Clerks, 281 U.S. 548 (1930). An employer is free to express its views, as long as there is not threat of retribution for supporting a union, and no promise of benefits for staying non-union. U.S. Airways v. NMB, 177 F.3d 985 (D.C. Cir. 1999); Teamsters v. Braniff, 70 L.R.R.M. (BNA) 3333 (D.D.C. 1969).

Employees have a right to visibly demonstrate their support or opposition to particular bargaining representatives, absent some exceptional reason for curtailing such expression. Adams v. Federal Express Corp., 470 F.Supp 1356, (W.D. Tenn. 1979) aff’d, 654 F.2d 452 (6th Cir. 1981).[2] An “exceptional” reason for curtailment has included:

  1. disruption of efficiency, safety, or personnel relations; or,
  2. harm to customer relations.

Scott v. American Airlines, Inc., 488 F.Supp 415 (1980).

III. Prohibited Conduct

The RLA does not specifically list the unfair labor practices that it prohibits. Instead, the NMB looks to general considerations of fair dealing in defining the few bounds that the RLA does set. “Fair dealing” includes both unions’ and carriers’ responsibility to bargain in good faith, to recognize and respect each parties’ representatives and concerns, and to refrain from interfering with each parties’ rights.[3]

IV. Damages under the RLA

Monetary damages and injunctive relief are available under the Railway Labor Act on a case-by-case basis. CONRAIL v. United Transp. Union Gen. Comm. Of Adjustment, 908 F.Supp 258 (E.D. Pa. 1995); Mackey v. Union Terminal Co., 321 F.2d 901 (5th Cir. 1963) (suit under Railway Labor Act [45 U.S.C. §§ 151 et seq.] for back wages resulting from wrongful discharge, recovery is limited to loss of wages for 3 days, where defendant made offer of re-employment 3 days after discharge, plus difference in wages due to loss of seniority). Punitive damages are available in special circumstances. Belton v. Air Atlanta, Inc., 647 F.Supp 28 (N.D. Ga. 1986) (where airline unlawfully interferes with employees’ attempts to organize because punitive damages deters illegal conduct by employer and furthers goals of collective bargaining and industrial peace); Brown v. World Airways, Inc., 539 F.Supp 179 (S.D.N.Y. 1982) (there are special reasons for awarding punitive damages in case where employee is not represented by union).

[1] Employees rights under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) arguably are broader because the NLRA also protects the right to engage in concerted activities, which may not always involve a union. It has been held that employee rights are not coextensive under the Railway Labor Act and the NLRA. Johnson v. Express One Int’l, Inc., 944 F.2d 247 (5th Cir. 1991) (employee not entitled to have representative present for disciplinary interview; no protected “concerted activities” under RLA.)

[2] In Adams a janitorial employee was discharged for his failure to remove a “Go Teamsters” button after being ordered to do so by a supervisor. The court found that the supervisor’s reasoning for curtailing the expression was insufficient where the purpose of the supervisor’s order was to cover up visible expressions of support simply because support might be disruptive or inflammatory.

[3] William E. Thomas and Frank J. Dooley, “Collective Bargaining Under the Railway Labor Act,” Transportation Law Journal, vol. 20 (1991), p. 280.

Leave a Public Comment

  • April Reeves
    August 17, 2016, 3:33 pm

    Under the Railway Act can an arbitrator be held liable for changing a union contract? My union and employer “duped” the arbitrator into changing our union contract during an arbitration hearing. 80% of her award went favor of the employer.