Bargaining under the Railway Labor Act is a complex process, unique to the railroad and airline industries. To combat misinformation and ensure our members can effectively stay informed and communicate with each other, this glossary lists common terms and concepts important to understanding how we negotiate for our collective bargaining agreements.


This glossary is not intended to be a stand-alone resource to teach members everything we need to understand when it comes to our bargaining process, but it will offer a direct source to clarify some of the terminology, processes, or jargon commonly used to discuss rail labor bargaining.


Our members are also encouraged to find other resources to understanding bargaining under the RLA by visiting our Library page, by reaching out to their System Division or Federation officers, and by staying active at their local Lodges. Our members are also strongly encouraged to help their fellow sisters and brothers correct misinformation, gossip, or hearsay when it comes to our collective bargaining rights and processes. When we have a thorough knowledge and understanding, at all levels of our union, we are stronger together!


This glossary is organized by topic and in a roughly chronological format based on customary and historical rail bargaining processes. There are some entries for terms, organizations, or concepts that do not fall strictly within rail bargaining; these are included to provide further context and understanding.


Use the links below to jump to the appropriate section in this Glossary. Within the Glossary itself, key terms or concepts are hyperlinked throughout to aid navigation and understanding. Some links go to external websites. These are marked with an asterisk * and BMWED does not warrant, endorse, guarantee, or assume responsibility for the accuracy or reliability of any information offered by these third-party websites, or any website or feature linked in any banner or other advertising linked from them.



Organizations, Regulatory Bodies, and Laws                                                               



Taft-Hartley Act
















Coalition -

An alliance, often temporary, or groups, parties, or organizations for the purposes of combined action. In rail labor bargaining, the different rail unions often form coalitions with one another. An example of one such coalition is the BMWED/SMART-Mechanical coalition formed during the round of national bargaining that concluded in the 2022 imposed agreement after PEB 250. The authority and makeup of a coalition is subject to change, based on the mutual agreement of its component organizations. Coalitions allow for more effective bargaining, resource management, and action than unions acting on their own, but can also limit the autonomy of any one union within the coalition, subject to the agreements made when that coalition is formed.

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Cooperating Rail Labor Organizations (CRLO) -

Where nationally-negotiated health and welfare plans are administered on the railroad side by the NLRC, rail union oversight of plan administration is performed by the Cooperating Rail Labor Organizations (CRLO). This organization of rail unions is not a bargaining coalition, but an administrative and coordinating body. When the terms, conditions, plans, or coverage of our national-level bargained healthcare benefits are modified in our collective bargaining agreements, the CRLO oversees that these changes meet are implemented correctly.

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Joint Plan Committee (JPC) -

The Joint Plan Committee coordinates administrative decisions, rebids, or other proposed administrative changes to the Railroad Employees National Health and Welfare Plan, commonly referred to as national healthcare. With representatives from both the NRLC/NCCC on the railroad side and CRLO members on the union side, the JPC works together to determine processes and proposals for plan rebids.

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Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 (Taft-Hartley Act) -

The Taft-Hartley Act amends the National Labor Relations Act, restricting the power of labor unions governed under that law. A major difference between unions governed under the Taft-Hartley Act and rail labor unions governed under the RLA are a prohibition against "secondary boycotts." Historical and customary application of the RLA has established that rail labor unions can conduct secondary boycotts or honor the picket lines of other rail crafts during bargaining disputes on a specific rail property. While the RLA provides a much longer process to prevent rail strikes, if a rail strike occurs rail unions can stand in solidarity at the picket line in ways that unions under the Taft-Hartley Act are prevented from doing.


The full text of the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 (Taft-Hartley Act) can be found on the website of the Government Publishing Office (GPO). The NLRB website also details some of the provisions and restrictions on the right of NLRB governed workers to strike, as amended by the Taft-Hartley Act. Keep in mind that these provisions DO NOT APPLY TO RAIL LABOR, but are included as reference for a deeper understanding of our union labor throughout our country. (Government Publishing Office, 2023; National Labor Relations Board, 2023)

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Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 (LMRDA or Landrum-Griffin Act) -

The LMRDA further amends the RLA, the NLRA, and the Taft-Hartley Act, establishing requirements for secret ballot elections, laying out reporting requirements for union, and providing other standards and regulations governing how unions can perform their work.


While the LMRDA does amend the RLA, the specific changes imposed by this law don't directly affect bargaining or negotiations under the RLA. Instead, the LMRDA affects how rail unions can organize new members, how they conduct elections, what reports they must make to the US Department of Labor, and other restrictions or requirements.


The full text of the LMRDA can be found online at the website* of the Government Publishing Office*. The Department of Labor also offers further tools* to understand the LMRDA. (Government Publishing Office, 2023; US Department of Labor, Office of Labor-Management Standards, 2023)

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National Carriers' Conference Committee (NCCC) -

The National Carriers' Conference Committee (NCCC) is organized within the NRLC. It consists of the Chairman of the NRLC who also acts as the Chairman for the NCCC, senior labor relations executives of five of the US Class I railroads (BNSF, CSX, KCS, NS, and UP), and the senior labor relations executives of the US railroads owned directly or indirectly by CN.


The NCCC functions as the bargaining party for railroads during rounds of National Bargaining. The NCCC is generally empowered to negotiate and make agreements on behalf of the railroads it represents, although each railroad can also engage in negotiations or discussions directly with rail unions on issues or agreements specific to their property through Local or Single Carrier Bargaining.


Historically, the NCCC acted as a coordinating body for scores of railroads that once operated within the US, combining similar, historical committees of rail executives (i.e. the Western Carriers' Conference Committee). With the mergers of many US railroads into a small group of enormous, continent-spanning duopolies, the NCCC's coordinating functions are often now found within the different Class I railroads themselves.

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National Mediation Board (NMB) -

The National Mediation Board (NMB), established by the 1934 amendments to the Railway Labor Act of 1926, is an independent U.S. federal government agency that facilitates labor-management relations within the nation's railroad and airline industries. Pursuant to the Railway Labor Act, NMB programs provide dispute resolution processes to effectively meet its statutory objectives: avoiding interruption to commerce or to the operation of any carrier; forbidding any limitation upon freedom of association among employees; providing for the prompt and orderly settlement of all disputes concerning rates of pay, rules, or working conditions; and providing for the prompt and orderly settlement of all disputes growing out of grievances related to the implementation and management of collective bargaining agreements.


The NMB is headed by a three member board nominated by the President and confirmed by the US Senate. The members self-designate a Chairman, typically on a yearly basis. Although appointed for three year terms, members may serve until replaced. (National Mediation Board, 2023)


The NMB will generally not get involved in negotiations unless either unions or railroads request their support or they determine that bargaining has reached an Impasse. The NMB offers Mediation and may make a Proffer of Arbitration, both of which are described in further detail below.

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National Labor Relations Act (NLRA or Wagner Act) -

Most private-sector unions in the United States are organized and governed under the terms of the NLRA. Enacted in 1935, the NLRA provides different mechanisms for how unions and employers negotiate, how disputes are resolved, and how employees can form unions. While this law does not govern rail labor bargaining, any discussion of bargaining or union activity with fellow non-rail workers, neighbors, or others will likely require our members to be familiar with the NLRA and its difference from the RLA that governs our work.


Key ideas within the NLRA, not found in the RLA, include "Weingarten Rights," "unfair labor practices (ULPs)," and the expiration of bargaining agreements (under the RLA, our contracts do not expire. RLA contracts are subject to periodic amendment).


The full text of the National Labor Relations Act, as well as other tools to understand how it works, can be found on the website of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) at nlrb.gov*.

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National Railroad Adjustment Board (NRAB) -

The NMB administers the NRAB, which provides processes to arbitrate claims and grievances that arise from the application or interpretation of our collective bargaining agreements. The NRAB is not directly involved in negotiations to amend collective bargaining agreements. However disputes under those agreements may be handled through arbitration by the NRAB or similar boards (PLB, SBA).

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National Railway Labor Conference (NLRC) -

The National Railway Labor Conference, the parent organization to the NCCC, is an association of US Class I railroads and many smaller freight and passenger carriers. While the NCCC handles bargaining negotiations, the NLRC also administers the national-level health and welfare plans rail employees work within, represents rail industry executives in government hearings or court cases, and may participate in arbitration under the RLA.


Like the NCCC, the NLRC represents the consolidation of older rail conferences into a single, nationwide organization that represents rail executive interests.

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Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) -

Section 10 of the RLA gives the President of the United States authority to establish a Presidential Emergency Board when advised by the NMB that a dispute could "threaten substantially to interrupt interstate commerce to a degree such as to deprive any section of the country of essential transportation service." When the NMB notifies the President he or she may, at their discretion, create a board to investigate and make a report regarding the dispute. The PEB makes recommendations to resolve the dispute, which may be adopted or rejected by either the unions or the railroads. PEB recommendations often form the basis for legislated (imposed) resolutions.


When the PEB is established, a thirty-day period is also provided by the RLA for this board to conduct its work and make its report. This is commonly referred to as the "Cooling Off Period" during which neither the railroads nor the employees may engage in Self-Help, described in further detail below.

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Railway Labor Act (RLA) -

Enacted in 1926, this federal law establishes the legal rights, duties, and processes for rail labor and railroads to resolve disputes while avoiding any interruption to interstate commerce. Both rail labor unions and railroads have a duty under the RLA to exert every reasonable effort to make and maintain collective bargaining agreements and settle disputes arising from the interpretation of such agreements or otherwise. The RLA also sets out processes for organizing workers on new RLA governed properties (railroads and airlines), mediating disputes, and adjusting claims and grievances to resolve disputes. The RLA was amended in 1934 and 1966.


Our Library page offers additional resources that provide further information on understanding the RLA. The full text of the Railway Labor Act can be found here*.

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Surface Transportation Board (STB) -

The independent US government agency charged with the economic regulation of freight rail. While the STB is not directly involved in rail labor negotiations, its regulatory authority may impact the bargaining positions or work of either party as it governs issues related to railroad rates, practices, or service issues. The STB also regulates the ability of railroads to merge, sell off, or abandon lines.


More information on the work of the STB can be found at their website*. (Surface Transportation Board, 2023).

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Key Terms & Concepts                                                                                           


Bargaining Committee

Bargaining Unit






Collective Bargaining Agreement


Commerce Clause


"Cooling Off' Period


Direct Negotiations


General Wage Increases (GWIs)




Implementing Agreement


Imposed Agreement


Interest-Based Bargaining


Local Bargaining


Major Dispute




Minor Dispute




Moratorium Clause


Moratorium Period


National Bargaining


Pattern Bargaining


Positional Bargaining


Proffer of Arbitration








Request for Proposals (RFPs)


Section 6 Notice


Secondary Picket




Single Carrier Bargaining


Standards Committee


Status Quo


Super Mediation


Tentative Agreement




Unfair Labor Practices (ULPs)


Work Rules 






Arbitration -

Arbitration refers to the work done to resolve disputes that includes the participation of a neutral third part (the "Arbitrator"). For Minor Disputes, Arbitration is requires and is often performed by the NRAB, Special Board of Adjustment (SBA), or a Public Law Board (PLB). For contract negotiations or Major Disputes, arbitration occurs after both parties agree to a Proffer of Arbitration made by the NMB.


For bargaining issues, the arbitrator will decide upon any issues not already resolved between the unions and the railroads. The arbitrator's decision is decisive, binding, and concludes the issue

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Bargaining Committee -

To effectively conduct Direct Negotiations, BMWED forms a Bargaining Committee of members and officers empowered to receive proposals from the railroad, consider them, and offer our own proposals or counterproposals. Our Bargaining Committees are formed from our elected officers representing those members affected by the Direct Negotiations, often the General Chairpersons of the System Divisions or Federations involved. Our National Division officers can also form part of our Bargaining Committees, and BMWED includes rank-and-file members to our Bargaining Committees in line with Resolution No. 65 of our BMWED Bylaws. For technical, advisory, or administrative purposes, appointed BMWED staff may attend bargaining sessions, but are not considered to be members of the Bargaining Committee.


When BMWED forms a bargaining coalition with other rail unions our Bargaining Committee becomes part of a larger coalition Bargaining Committee that may include dozens of officers or members from all crafts. Our rights, duties, and obligations in coalition bargaining are set by mutual agreement of the parties when the coalition is formed and determined by our National Division.

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Bargaining Unit -

A bargaining unit or collective bargaining unit is another term for the legally-recognized group of workers at a particular place of employment. Under the RLA, which organizes an entire carrier by class or craft, a bargaining unit may be all maintenance of way workers on a particular railroad. In some instances, one can refer to "bargaining unit" or "union" interchangeably. A nationwide union like BMWED, however, may represent multiple, separate bargaining units, each with their own collective bargaining agreements.

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Carrier -

In the legal jargon of the Railway Labor Act, railroads are often referred to as "carriers." A Carrier, for BMWED's purposes in bargaining, arbitration, or other work within the RLA, is a railroad.

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Codification -

Collective bargaining agreements within the RLA may not be amended in their entirety during a single bargaining round. Often, especially in National Bargaining with the NCCC, only items like wages, healthcare, or paid time off may be negotiated during the round while other provisions of the agreement like seniority boundaries, the provision of tools, or call-out procedures may be left to "local" bargaining or left out entirely.


This will often lead to collective bargaining agreements that are actually a collection of various different agreements. The "base" agreement outlining most of the major work rules and conditions may be amended by additional special agreements or "side letters" that adjust the provisions for certain conditions or on certain territories while wages and benefits for that agreement are amended under a "National Agreement." As an example, a BMWED member working on a traveling bridge gang may find their wages, their working hours, their bargained healthcare benefits, their lodging and expense reimbursements, and the boundaries of their seniority territory are each within a separate agreement document.


From time to time, and at the mutual agreement between the parties, BMWED and a railroad may engage in a process to integrate all the various changes, side letters, or special agreements into a single, comprehensive document. This process is called codification. The result of codification is the creation of a single, all-encompassing agreement for all wages, benefits, and working conditions an employee may have on a certain property. This is a complex and time-consuming process for both the BMWED and the railroads involved, but may be incorporated as a condition within a bargaining round.

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Collective Bargaining Agreement -

The agreements that sets out wages, benefits, and working conditions for a bargaining unit on a particular carrier under the RLA. The Collective Bargaining Agreement is also often referred to as the "agreement" or the "contract." Under the RLA, these agreements do not expire but are subject to periodic amendment.


Historically, each particular railroad had a collective bargaining agreement with its different craft workers. For instance, a railroad like the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (AT&SF) or St. Louis-San Francisco (SLSF or Frisco) was the carrier that made one agreement with its maintenance of way workers, another agreement with its locomotive engineers, another with its signalmen, and so on. So any particular railroad had multiple agreements. As railroads merged and consolidated since the Staggers Rail Act of 1980*, large railroads like BNSF may have multiple separate agreements for workers within a single craft. BNSF maintains both a "South" Agreement for its workers on the former AT&SF and Frisco properties and a "North" or "BN" Agreement for the different properties that all formed the per-merger Burlington Northern railroad. Other modern railroads have similar situations where BMWED members may have multiple agreements on the same railroad. (US Congress, 2023

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Commerce Clause -

Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution* grants our US Congress certain powers. Clause 3 of Section 8 gives Congress authority to "regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes."


This clause of our Constitution* has been called The Commerce Clause, and it is the language that gives Congress the right to pass laws governing interstate commerce like the rail transportation industry in which we all work. Under its Commerce Clause authority, Congress has the power to pass legislation like the Railway Labor Act and other laws which govern our industry and our union. Similarly, Congress uses its authority to legislate an end to any bargaining dispute which may threaten interstate commerce.


Congress has used its authority under the Commerce Clause to impose contracts in our industry and prevent possible railroad strikes. The most recent time this has happened was in 2022, when Congress passed HJ Res. 100 to become Public Law 117-216*.


As the Commerce Clause is a part of our US Constitution*, any changes to Congress' ability to intervene in rail labor disputes will likely involve an amendment to the Constitution. (National Archives, 2023; US Congress, 2023)

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"Cooling Off" Period -

Under the RLA, there are certain processes which take time to develop. The lawmakers, union workers, and rail executive who worked together to craft the RLA understood this and inserted language into the law to allow for that time. The specific time period directly provided within the RLA is a thirty-day period after one or both parties refuse the Proffer of Arbitration where Status Quo must be maintained. This thirty-day period has been named the "Cooling Off" period.


An additional period where Status Quo must be maintained is provided after the creation of a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB). The PEB has thirty days from the dat