Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Book Review: “Understanding the Railway Labor Act”

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“Tawdry etiquette” ­ or “A manual for peace”?

bkurla.jpgIn the Aug. 7, 1926, issue of Railway Age (pp. 245-246), a number of railway chief executives expressed their feelings about a new Act of Congress intended to light the path to railway labor peace.
Two industry titans, Pennsylvania Railroad President W. W. Atterbury and Delaware & Hudson President L. F. Loree, offered contrasting views.

“The Railway Labor Act has been well described as a writing manual for peace,” said Atterbury. “It was my privilege to participate in the negotiations with representatives of railroad employees leading up to the formulation of the legislation, and I believe that its greatest guarantee of success is the spirit in which the negotiations were conducted in the desire of all concerned to get together on a satisfactory basis and in their recognition that the public interest in uninterrupted transportation is of paramount importance.”

Loree was less happy. He saw the law as a triumph of influence over righteous might: “As Washington pointed out at the Constitutional convention, influence is not government. The Railway Labor Act is substitute of tawdry etiquette in a place where, of all things, our government should display the courage and virility that commands respect.”

What this fuss was all about is explained with scholarly regard for the evidence, and a gifted writer’s regard for readability, in Frank N. Wilner's new book, “Understanding the Railway Labor Act.”

frank-wilner.jpgThe book could not be more timely. A knowledge of how, and why, the Railway Labor Act has worked for the past 83 years is of more than passing interest at a time when management is trying to bring the tinderbox issue of crew sizes to the negotiating table.

In a useful introduction, Lawrence H Kaufman offers compelling testimony to the continued usefulness of the RLA: “The last nationwide railroad strike occurred in April 1991, and lasted just 17 hours. There may never be another.” Why? “The Railway Labor Act of 1926 has survived virtually without change for more than 80 years because it basically satisfies the needs and desires of labor, management, and the nation,” writes Kaufman. “It also permits the parties to reach any agreement they desire without government intervention or mandate.”

One section of the book contains invited essays in defense of the Act by Harry R. Hoglander, member and former chairman of the National Mediation Board; Francis X. Quinn, arbitrator; Kenneth R. Peifer, retired vice president, labor relations, CSX; and Clinton J. Miller III, general counsel, United Transportation Union.

Wilner’s book comes to market with the recommendations of several people who saw advance copies, including these two:

• Ronald L. Batory, President and COO, Consolidated Rail Corp.: “This book should be read by all who want to understand the Act’s realities expressed in a courageous, trenchant, and original style.”
And from Walt Bogdanich, three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and assistant editor, Investigations Desk,

• The New York Times: “When researching the railroad industry, any investigating journalist that doesn’t start with a phone call to Frank Wilner is making a big mistake. He shoots straight and he knows the industry inside out.”

—Luther S. Miller


“Understanding the Railway Labor Act,” by Frank N. Wilner, 286 pp., is available for $39.95 from Simmons-Boardman Books, Inc.; 1809 Capitol Ave., Omaha, NE, 68102-4972; 800-228-9670;

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