Photo: Caitlin Cunningham

The Negotiator

Professor David Twomey looks back on a long career of helping to resolve labor strikes.

With more than fifty-five years as a Boston College faculty member, Carroll School of Management Professor of Business Law and Society David Twomey ’62, JD’68, is one of the University’s longest-serving employees. That, as you can imagine, has made him pretty well-known around campus, but there’s one place where he might be an even more familiar figure: the White House.

Twomey is an accomplished labor negotiator and, over the years, he’s developed a specialty involving the country’s railway system. Labor disputes in the railroad industry are a significant enough threat to the national economy that presidents are empowered to call Presidential Emergency Boards to attempt to resolve them. When President Biden appointed Twomey to be an arbitrator on Presidential Emergency Board No. 250 in 2022, it marked the tenth such selection for Twomey, the most ever. Biden, meanwhile, became the sixth president to appoint Twomey to an emergency board.

Twomey has been an arbitrator since 1974, and has helped to resolve more than two thousand  American labor disputes in both the public and private sectors. He has also written thirty-five editions of textbooks on labor, employment, and business law. Drawing upon that experience while serving on Board No. 250, Twomey was able to help successfully forge a deal between the major US railroads and unions representing 115,000 workers.

The agreement was considered a win for the employees and for American unions. For years, however, it would have been reasonable to wonder if the labor movement was a thing of the past. Union membership fell from 20 percent in 1983, the first year with available data, to 10 percent in 2021, according to Business Insider. Last year, however, saw a burst of labor organizing unlike any year in recent memory, with nearly half a million workers across multiple industries walking off the job at one point or another by the end of October. The Wall Street Journal, in fact, named 2023 “the year of the strike.” We sat down with Twomey and asked about this recent spike in labor activity.


On why more workers have gone on strike in recent years: In many industries the profits have been very high, but the workforce has been cut dramatically due to the development of labor-saving devices. In the railroad industry, for instance, certain parts of the train that may have once taken five people to operate now take two, due to technological advancements. With reduced labor costs come even higher profits, and I think union members are looking to share in that prosperity and preserve their jobs as well. 

On why a reported two-thirds of Americans support unions today: The union representing the United Parcel Service has 340,000 members, which is an incredible number of employees, and UPS listened to them this summer and agreed to install air conditioning in its new trucks. I think now when people read about the improvements in contracts in the press, they understand that it’s just about basic fairness. The Biden administration is also backing the unions and they’re backing him, and that’s a big mood shift. 

On what got him interested in labor: I worked at Continental Baking Company, the makers of Wonder Bread, in the summer during high school, and it was a very good union baking job. I got to know everyone there, and would play in their softball league in the summer. People were happy, and they lived nearby. I knew what it was like to work, and how wonderful the people there were—the workers and management got along. 

On being appointed by President Reagan to his first Presidential Emergency Board, in 1986: It was the summer, and I was teaching and doing research, working every day. I was in New Orleans doing a case when my secretary got a call from the White House. I was thinking, “This is a joke.” I just had no expectation. But they decided that they were going to try some younger people, and we did a good job. 

On getting it right as an arbitrator: An arbitrator’s job is to be right. When you’re finished, you want to feel that you’ve found the right answer. Sometimes it’s easier, sometimes it’s harder, but it’s always with the feeling “this is right.” With contracts, there sort of is a right answer, because you’re interpreting the language. The parties give meaning to words over time, and how they handled things in the past gives you insight into what they intended when they used that language.