Negotiations between unions and employers usually don’t involve the participation of the U.S. president and Congress. Yet there are two industries in which the federal government can intervene: railways and airlines.

This is because in 1926, Congress passed the Railway Labor Act as one of the first labor laws in the country. This law gives Congress the right to intervene in disputes between rail unions. In 1936, an amendment extended the act's reach to include the airline industry.

The rationale behind the Railway Labor Act and its airline amendment is that rail and air strikes disrupt interstate commerce; and since the Constitution gives Congress the right to regulate interstate commerce, Congress should be able to intervene to prevent rail and air strikes from happening. However, the federal government’s use of this law is often controversial, drawing sharp criticism from workers and unions.

Congress Sets Its Sights on Rail and Air Industries

HISTORY of Labor Day: The Pullman Strike
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A mob burning freight cars during the Pullman Strike in Chicago, 1894.

By 1926, rail strikes had a long history in the United States. The first multi-state rail strike in 1877 involved some 100,000 workers and brought major railroads across the country to a halt. In 1893, Eugene Debs and other rail workers formed the first major rail union: the American Railway Union. This union played a pivotal role in the 1894 Pullman Strike, which President Grover Cleveland helped break by deploying federal troops to attack striking workers.

Labor organizing in the United States increased in the early 20th century across many industries, and so too did strikes. In 1920, Congress passed a law that established a Railroad Labor Board to mediate wage disputes between workers and employers, hoping to avert more rail strikes. However, the board’s own actions ended up triggering a massive strike when it authorized a pay cut for railroad shopmen (a group of workers that included carpenters and electricians).

In 1922, some 400,000 rail workers protested the pay cuts by going on strike. Many strikers who had served in World War I wore their military uniforms to emphasize that they had sacrificed for their country and deserved a decent wage. State governments and railroad companies fought the strikers with armed troops, and the companies tried to replace striking workers with scab workers.

In the wake of this massive strike, Congress passed the Railway Labor Act of 1926. Under this law, Congress can vote to force rail companies and unions to accept a specific contract, and make it illegal for workers to strike for a period of time. Following the Century Air Lines Strike of 1932, in which airline pilots stopped working to protest pay cuts, Congress added an amendment to the Railway Labor Act extending its reach to the airline industry.

Rail and Air Workers Face Federal Intervention

Since the Railway Labor Act’s passage, the president and Congress have intervened multiple times in negotiations between rail unions and employers. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson used the law twice to prevent rail strikes that spring, and once to end a rail strike that summer. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan also invoked the law twice to prevent rail strikes in July, and once to end a strike in September.

One of the most prominent examples of the Railway Labor Act’s usage was in 1992, when Congress and President George H.W. Bush invoked the law to stop an ongoing rail strike. In 2022, Congress and President Joe Biden used the law to force rail unions and employers to accept a contract that some of the larger unions had rejected, and make it illegal for rail unions to strike for a period of time. Both decisions were controversial, and received criticism from rail workers.

Railway workers walk through Union Station in Washington, DC, on September 15, 2022.
Stefani Reynolds / AFP) (Photo by STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images
Railway workers walk through Union Station in Washington, D.C., on September 15, 2022.

In the decade since the Railway Labor Act’s passage, the federal government has developed many additional ways to interfere in union activity. Following a strike wave in 1945 and ‘46 that included rail workers, Congress passed the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which made certain kinds of strikes illegal. 

During the 1946 rail strike, President Harry Truman at one point called for a law to allow him to draft striking rail workers into the military. Even after the strike ended, the House of Representatives passed a bill to draft striking workers (it died in the Senate). In 1950, Truman ordered the U.S. Army to seize control of the country’s railroads in anticipation of a strike.

In 1955, Congress passed a law that made it illegal for federal employees to strike against the government. This is the law that President Reagan invoked in 1981 when he fired 11,359 air-traffic controllers for going on strike. Reagan mandated that the Federal Aviation Administration institute a lifetime ban on rehiring the workers he had just fired. In addition, the Federal Labor Relations Authority decertified the Professional Air-Traffic Controllers Association, which had led the strike.