Why don't we just shut 'em down?

February 23, 2010

By Retired UTU GS&T Dan Johnson

We frequently hear from frustrated members, “Why don’t we simply go on strike, shut the railroad down, and be done with it?”

I, too, have shared these feelings witnessing excessive discipline, outrageous demands of arrogant managers, and carrier negotiators focusing only on their year-end bonus. But the fact is, it’s against the law to simply “shut ‘em down.”

Before labor or management may engage in strikes or lockouts, each must satisfy numerous steps spelled out by the Railway Labor Act (RLA). In most disputes – defined as differences over application or interpretation of contracts – the RLA requires final and binding arbitration.

In the few disputes that can lead to a strike or lockout — involving collective bargaining over contract amendments affecting wages, benefits and working conditions — the Supreme Court held that the RLA purposely creates “interminable” delay designed to encourage both sides to reach a mutually-acceptable solution and keep the trains running.

Among the lengthy steps is open-ended mediation by the National Mediation Board, and recommendations for settlement by a White House appointed presidential emergency board (PEB).

Railroads are deemed so essential to national defense and a healthy economy that even in the few instances where all intermediate steps fail, and a strike or lockout is permitted, Congress usually inserts itself and passes a back-to-work law imposing settlement demands generally mirroring PEB recommendations.

We, in rail labor, have learned from bitter experience that our membership is better served by a voluntary settlement — even if we don’t get all we want — than having a third party, with no real-world knowledge of our industry, cram a settlement down our throats.

Finally, if we ignore the law and “shut ‘em down” anyway, we face fines and civil judgments that could bankrupt the union and result in jail terms for those involved in the shutdown.

(Dan Johnson served as UTU GS&T from 2001 until his retirement in 2007. He hired on as a Southern Pacific trainman, Tucson Division, in 1966. He held elective positions of vice local chairperson, local chairperson and legislative representative for Local 807, Tucson, and was Arizona State Legislative Board chairperson from 1975-1983.

Brother Johnson was vice general chairperson and general chairperson for Southern Pacific/Union Pacific Western Lines from 1981-1997; and an International vice president from 1997 to his election as GS&T in 2001.

He earned an undergraduate degree in government and history from the University of Arizona in 1969, and did graduate studies there in 1969 and 1970.)