What Is Labor Union Law?
A look at unions and collective bargaining
on December 15, 2016
Updated on January 31, 2023
If you are an employee at a large company, it can sometimes feel like you don’t have enough bargaining power to negotiate benefits or pay increases.
Labor law creates a system to even out these imbalances and allows employees to work together to improve their work environment. You might be considering joining a union or talking with your coworkers about changes you would like to see in your company. The law protects these actions.
The following overview gives you a look at unions and collective bargaining so that you can evaluate whether or not these are things you want to participate in. It can also give you a good starting point if you are considering speaking with a lawyer about your benefits or work environment.
Labor Law – What You Need To Know
- Labor law is focused on the relationship between employers and unions.
- State laws can vary depending on the jurisdiction, but the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) creates a national standard for union membership and collective bargaining.
- This act is enforced by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which has the power to enforce employees’ rights to organize and their ability to be represented by a union.
- If you have a labor situation, an experienced labor law attorney can assist you with arbitration or other legal proceedings.
An Overview of Labor Law
State and federal laws work together to equalize the bargaining power between employees and their employers. While employment law focuses on the relationship between employers and individual employees, labor law is focused on the relationship between employers and unions.
Understanding the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)
Many labor law cases involve the National Labor Relations Act. The NLRA is a federal law that gives employees the right to:
- Join a union
- Form a union
- Decide not to form or join a union
- Engage in activities that are designed to improve their working conditions
Most private employers are covered by the NLRA, which means that most employees in the private sector have the right to unionize and engage in union activities under the NLRA. However, public sector employees, independent contractors, agricultural workers, and certain other types of workers are typically not covered by the NLRA. The NLRA is enforced by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
It is important to know that the NLRA protects workers in union and non-union workplaces. To be clear, while the NLRA grants employees certain rights when it comes to forming or joining unions or participating in union activities, it also provides protections to employees employed at a non-union workplace who want to engage in activities that are designed to improve their working conditions.
For example, employees at union and non-union workplaces have rights under the NLRA to share information with one another about labor conditions and to create and sign petitions concerning workplace conditions (among other kinds of activities). The type of activities that the NLRA protects are known as “protected concerted activity.” According to the NLRB, the following are examples of protected concerted activity:
- Talking to co-workers about wages and benefits
- Circulating a petition to seek better hours or better pay
- Collectively refusing to work in unsafe conditions
- Talking to the media or a government agency with other coworkers about your labor conditions
Generally speaking, to have these protections, employees must act together. However, when an employee acts alone but on behalf of a group, the NLRA may also provide protections. The NLRA prohibits employers from taking any kind of retaliatory, adverse actions against employees who engage in protected concerted activity.
Labor unions are workers’ organizations that aim to protect their interests and improve working conditions. Most professions have a union with members who work in the same field. In general, your employer can persuade you not to join a union. Still, it is unlawful for your employer to prevent you from unionizing through threats or other coercion.
Union members can elect officers of their local unions who make decisions on behalf of union members. Union costs are paid for by monthly dues, and union members may see several benefits from their membership—including an arbitration process that essentially protects workers from dismissal without cause, even where other employees are at will.
Collective bargaining is when a collective group of employees negotiate or communicate with an employer on behalf of individual workers. This group can be members of a labor organization or simply a group of employees who have agreed to represent their coworkers. This process allows employees to negotiate the conditions of employment, including pay, workplace safety standards, and employee benefits. The NLRA protects the right to collective bargaining, and workers do not need to belong to a union to benefit from this.
If collective bargaining is successful, employers and employees enter into a collective bargaining agreement. If negotiations are unsuccessful, the issue may go to more formal arbitration, or the employees might strike. If employees do strike, employers are not legally allowed to fire the employees, but they might be able to hire replacements in some circumstances.
Other Laws to Be Aware Of
In addition to the NLRB enforcing the NLRA, a few other federal government agencies enforce federal employment and labor laws:
- The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) oversees workplace safety regulations
- The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) fights employment discrimination under federal statutes, most notably Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
- The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) enforces the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which addresses federal minimum wage standards and other employment matters, including overtime pay and child labor
State laws also govern aspects of employment and labor, from workers’ compensation to equal pay.
Common Questions To Ask an Attorney
Below are some common questions you might want to consider when meeting with an attorney for the first time.
- Can my boss punish me for joining a union?
- What does a union do?
- Am I required to join a union to be protected by labor and employment laws?
- Can I get fired for striking?
- Can job applicants be dismissed for union ties?
- What health care or financial benefits am I afforded with union status?
- How do I report race, sexual orientation, or age discrimination to my union representative?
Finding the Right Attorney for Your Needs
It is crucial to approach the right type of attorney—someone who can help you through your entire case. To do so, you can visit the Super Lawyers directory and use the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location.
To help you get started, you may want to consider looking for a lawyer who practices labor law.
Should I Talk To a Lawyer?
A lawyer can assist you in negotiations with your employer, and they can represent you if you suffer repercussions for joining a union or participating in collective bargaining actions. If you and your coworkers have decided to strike, a lawyer can help negotiate your demands to help you get back to work. If you have a labor situation, you need to take arbitration or other legal proceedings. A lawyer can help you obtain documentation and interview potential witnesses.
A lawyer is versed in the rights of employees. They will be able to anticipate potential problems with your case and advise you on how to approach them, tracking deadlines and filing paperwork with the necessary courts and state and federal agencies—giving you one less thing to worry about.