Now that Congress has decided on the rail agreement they're essentially saying that if the rail workers continue the strike as planned, then this is an illegal strike. Is this interpretation correct?

What does this mean exactly? What happens if the rail workers go ahead with the strike? What happens if the workers decide to quit en masse instead of having a formal, but illegal, strike?

From my point of view Congress was trying to prevent economic damage by way of the rails being shut down. But by choosing a deal that the workers had previously refused they're allowing for the possibility that the workers could all quit because maybe they don't like the agreement that Congress has approved.

If all the workers quit as I speculate above, then the situation is the exact same. Rails shut down due to lack of workers and lead to economic damage.

Can the workers still quit or are they compelled to work without the option of quitting? Or is there some other arrangement, perhaps defined in the the Railway Labor Act?

Edit: So far the answers haven't gotten to the jist of my question. Now that Congress has made it's decision to make these strikes illegal can people be arrested for refusing to work?

The question I essentially want to get to: Is this basically legalized slavery?

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    They can quit but they will lose their jobs. Also see politics.stackexchange.com/questions/76920/…
    – Brian Z
    Commented Dec 3, 2022 at 13:21
  • You shall review the "Railway Labor Act" enacted in 1926. Another historical event worth reviewing is the Air Traffic Controler strike in 1981.
    – r13
    Commented Dec 3, 2022 at 14:05
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    When one quits ones job, one loses ones pay, seniority, and benefits. Who knows what they'll get if rehired -- and that's if they get rehired. Quitting as opposed to legally striking is a big risk. Commented Dec 3, 2022 at 14:07
  • @BrianZ Sure they would lose their jobs but that would be a major problem for the railways in trying to find qualified replacements if people start quitting in mass.
    – Joe W
    Commented Dec 3, 2022 at 17:18
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    @JoeW but that is a pretty big "if". What if you quit but almost nobody else does? It would suck to be you. Certainly, you can ask your fellow workers if they are going to do the same, but you will only know the opinion of a very small fraction of them. And even those who tell you that they will quit, may end getting cold feet and doing nothing (and in my experience, they won't tell you in advance of their change of heart).
    – SJuan76
    Commented Dec 4, 2022 at 10:40

3 Answers 3


This is a short review of why and how railroad workers are prevented from strikes that cause complete disruption of the rail traffic:

"What gave the federal court authority to stop railroad workers from striking? The answer is the Railway Labor Act (RLA) of 1926, 45 U.S.C. §§ 151-188.

The stated purposes of the RLA are to avoid interruption of interstate commerce, protect employees’ right to join labor organizations and bargain collectively, and provide “prompt” settlement of disputes that arise between railroads and their employees. While the RLA offers several benefits, it also restrains workers’ right to engage in self-help activities, like striking, to address labor disputes.

Under the RLA, labor disputes are classified as either “major” or “minor” disputes. “Major” disputes are those where the parties wish to add a new term or change the existing terms of a collective bargaining agreement. “Minor” disputes are those concerning the meaning or proper application of terms to which the parties have already agreed. If a railroad’s action is “arguably justified” under the existing terms of an agreement, then any dispute over that action is deemed “minor.” There is often disagreement over whether a labor dispute is “major” or “minor.”"

However, concerning the laborers' right to strike, we need to note that:

"Striking over a minor dispute is strictly prohibited and can be stopped by the courts. Even for major disputes, striking is prohibited unless the parties first exhaust the RLA’s negotiation and mediation procedure. Courts have described this procedure as “a mandatory and virtually endless process of negotiation, mediation, voluntary arbitration, and conciliation.” In other words, even though the RLA ensures the parties negotiate over major disputes, the process can drag on for a long time. While that process drags on, workers cannot strike."

So, in essence, the railroad strike can't be carried out without negative consequences.

Quote reference


There are two levels of the strike being legal/illegal.

Level 1: workers are not protected from being laid off but just quit working anyway. This is unlikely to be exactly illegal for the single person to do, but if done by many workers at the same time in a co-ordinated manner, can be easily recognized as the organized activity, and there may be laws preventing this way of self-organization.

Level 2. Workers are somewhat protected during the strike: they cannot be fired same day and the processes of legally dismissing them are complex and slow. In this case the legal strike may mean a strike when this protection still applies.

I think the Level 2 protection is lost during "illegal strike" here. USA railway workers have strike benefits. The same document also describes the unemployment benefits that may also suffer if the person is considered "not willing to work".

  • 1
    This does not appear to address the question of what stops the railway workers from striking or quitting.
    – Joe W
    Commented Dec 3, 2022 at 17:17
  • 2
    The answer implicitly says "Nothing stops them except the loss of protection usually afforded to strikers by law". Commented Dec 3, 2022 at 17:55
  • 1
    @DJClayworth Maybe it needs to be edited to be more clear but I am not reading anything like that from the answer.
    – Joe W
    Commented Dec 3, 2022 at 18:00

Most of the hesitation to quit their jobs revolves around being a specialized skill set. For those who have dedicated their entire lives to a particular skill, retraining to perform other tasks is essentially starting over.

In addition, since health benefits are directly associated with employment in america, many of them would lose the vital protections that they have in an effort to acquire sick days. It's a matter of risk versus reward.

The most common instance of how these things play out in politics can be referenced in the famous air traffic control strike that was ended by Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan is credited among unions for destroying their negotiating power after he deemed their strike to be illegal and had them all replaced.

With an automotive industry heavily influencing policy regarding public transportation, railway workers have limited options to take their skill sets into other sectors. Sectors. Their options would be limited to light rail operation, metro railways, among a few other opportunities.

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