ArtI.S8.C3.1.7.4 Federal Protection of Labor in Interstate Rail Transportation

Article I, Section 8, Clause 3:

[The Congress shall have Power . . .] To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes; . . .

Federal entry into the field of protective labor legislation and the protection of organization efforts of workers began in connection with the railroads. The Safety Appliance Act of 1893, 1 applying only to cars and locomotives engaged in moving interstate traffic, was amended in 1903 so as to embrace much of the intrastate rail systems on which there was any connection with interstate commerce. 2 The Court sustained this extension in language much like that it would use in the Shreveport case three years later. 3 These laws were followed by the Hours of Service Act of 1907, 4 which prescribed maximum hours of employment for rail workers in interstate or foreign commerce. The Court sustained the regulation as a reasonable means of protecting workers and the public from the hazards which could develop from long, tiring hours of labor. 5

Most far-reaching of these regulatory measures were the Federal Employers Liability Acts of 1906 6 and 1908. 7 These laws were intended to modify the common-law rules with regard to the liability of employers for injuries suffered by their employees in the course of their employment and under which employers were generally not liable. Rejecting the argument that regulation of such relationships between employers and employees was a reserved state power, the Court adopted the argument of the United States that Congress was empowered to do anything it might deem appropriate to save interstate commerce from interruption or burdening. Inasmuch as the labor of employees was necessary for the function of commerce, Congress could certainly act to ameliorate conditions that made labor less efficient, less economical, and less reliable. Assurance of compensation for injuries growing out of negligence in the course of employment was such a permissible regulation. 8

Legislation and litigation dealing with the organizational rights of rail employees are dealt with elsewhere. 9


  1.  27 Stat. 531, 45 U.S.C. §§ 1-7.
  2.  32 Stat. 943, 45 U.S.C. §§ 8-10.
  3.  Southern Ry. v. United States, 222 U.S. 20 (1911). See also Texas & Pacific Ry. v. Rigsby, 241 U.S. 33 (1916); United States v. California, 297 U.S. 175 (1936); United States v. Seaboard Air Line R.R., 361 U.S. 78 (1959).
  4.  34 Stat. 1415, 45 U.S.C. §§ 61-64.
  5.  Baltimore & Ohio R.R. v. ICC, 221 U.S. 612 (1911).
  6.  34 Stat. 232, held unconstitutional in part in the Employers' Liability Cases, 207 U.S. 463 (1908).
  7.  35 Stat. 65, 45 U.S.C. §§ 51-60.
  8.  The Second Employers' Liability Cases, 223 U.S. 1 (1912). For a longer period, a Court majority reviewed a surprising large number of FELA cases, almost uniformly expanding the scope of recovery under the statute. Cf. Rogers v. Missouri Pacific R.R., 352 U.S. 500 (1957). This practice was criticized both within and without the Court, cf. Ferguson v. Moore-McCormack Lines, 352 U.S. 521, 524 (1957) (Justice Frankfurter dissenting); Hart, Foreword: The Time Chart of the Justices, 73 Harv. L. Rev. 84, 96-98 (1959), and has been discontinued.
  9.  See discussion under Railroad Retirement Act and National Labor Relations Act, infra.