Unions & Labor Laws

Union & Labor Laws 101

Basics of Unions

Labor Unions have long existed in the American landscape as a means for workers to organize and to gain better wages, work conditions and benefits as well as greater protections and job security for their members.  In today’s environment, unions have had less of a presence than they once did.  In addition, many states have passed what we refer to as right to work laws which essentially prohibit employers from only employing individuals who are members of the union.  There are some differences in state laws that apply in this context, but in general employees have the right to organize in order to negotiate and collectively bargain.  The basic federal laws that apply in this area are outlined below.

Labor Laws and Enforcement

               National Labor Relations Act

 The federal statute that governs the rights of employees to organize and bargain collectively is known as the National Labor Relations Act.  This is a federal law that applies to most all employers, although there are a few exceptions not specifically discussed here.  The National Labor Relations Act does not apply to federal, state and local governments, employers who only employ agricultural laborers and employers who are subject to the Railway Labor Act, including interstate railroads and airlines.

               Employee Rights under the National Labor Relations Act

Under the National Labor Relations Act, employees have the right to organize to negotiate with their employers concerning wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment.  In addition, the National Labor Relations Act also protects employees by giving them the right to form, join or assist a union without fear of repercussions. One of the more important rights that employees also derive from the National Labor Relations Act is the right to discuss their terms and conditions of employment with other employees. Finally, employees also have the right to strike and/or picket, depending on the purpose or means of the strike or picketing.  Employees further have the right to choose not to do any of these activities, including whether to join or remain a member of a union.   

                Employer Obligations under the National Labor Relations Act

In addition to providing employees with various rights to organize and bargain as noted above, the National Labor Relations Act also imposes obligations and restrictions on employers and labor organizations in how they relate to employees and to each other.  Under the National Labor Relations Act, employers cannot interfere with the right of employees to organize unions.  It is also unlawful for employers to discriminate against employees who are exercising their right to organize.  Employers are also not permitted to discourage employees from organizing or attempting to organize a union.  On the other side of things, employers are protected from unfair labor practices by the union, such as secondary boycotts.  Essentially in a secondary boycott situation, the labor union utilizes its influence on the actions of one business by exerting pressure on another business.  This is nothing more than an attempt by the union to reach an accord with the employer with whom it has a dispute by exerting pressure on another entity.  This is prohibited by the National Labor Relations Act.  Another prohibition for employers that is often missed is that employers cannot prohibit employees from discussing their wages with one another.  This is considered an interference with the employee’s right to organize and discuss wages and working conditions with their fellow employees. 

               Employment of Labor Laws by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)

The National Labor Relations Board is an independent federal agency that is responsible for protecting the rights of private sector employees to join together, either with or without a union, in order to improve their wages and working conditions.  The National Labor Relations Board has been vested with the power to safeguard the employees’ rights to organize, and also to determine if they want to have unions as their collective bargaining representatives.  Finally, the agency also serves as the enforcement agent to prevent and remedy unfair labor practices that are committed by private sector employers and unions. 

The National Labor Relations Board has many regional offices that are staffed with representatives to assist in various parts of the country with collective bargaining issues that arise within the jurisdiction of the NLRB.  In the case of employees wanting to file a charge alleging a violation of the National Labor Relations Act, those charges are filed initially with Regional Directors of the NLRB.  Thereafter, an investigation is undertaken in order to determine whether or not formal action should be taken by the National Labor Relations Board.  If a decision to take formal action is made, then a formal complaint is filed and the employer must file a formal answer to the complaint. The conclusion of the process is a hearing before an administrative law judge who will then issue a decision.  If the complaint is sustained, an order to cease and desist whatever the alleged unfair labor practice is issued and/or there may be some type of affirmative relief granted.  If the complaint is not sustained at the conclusion of the hearing, then the complaint is dismissed at that time and no further action is taken.


Federal laws that apply to the context of collective bargaining and the right of employees to organize and collectively bargain are an important part of understanding the basic back drop of employment law in the United States.  Both employers and employees need a basic awareness of the rights, obligations and protections provided by this important body of federal law.


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