Unions serve an important role in countless industries today, but many companies are unsure of their exact requirements and obligations to the union under U.S. labor union laws. Labor union influence is constantly ebbing and flowing, and the exact labor laws that will apply vary by state. If your employees are in a formal labor organization or acting as a union, it is important to know what labor union laws apply in order to stay within compliance. A Priori labor law attorney can advise on the exact concerns that will apply in the unique circumstances surrounding your employees.
About Unions and Labor Union Laws
Unions are intended to protect workers by providing them with a means through which to negotiate for fair wages and working conditions as a group. Unions have the right to negotiate with employers on behalf of members, file grievances for perceived violations of labor law or union agreements, and organize strikes to protest conditions or further an argument. Labor union laws not only legally establish unions in the U.S., but they also legislate the behaviors allowed towards workers by unions and employers. These laws govern not just company actions but also union actions.
Collective Bargaining Agreement
Generally, unions most powerfully protect worker interests through a collective bargaining agreement (CBA). A CBA is a negotiated agreement between a union and an employer and sets terms of employment for all workers of a certain type or class, including wages, hours, conditions, vacation, sick days, benefits, and terms required for termination. While only union members have to pay dues, the union’s CBA protects any worker falling under the job type specified in the agreement. After a CBA is signed, any changes in these terms require the union representative’s approval until a new agreement is negotiated. Any CBA lasts for a set period of time, during which the union monitors for any violations on the part of the employer. Violations can be subject federal intervention and prosecution, but usually there is a set arbitration process carried out between the parties in an attempt to resolve the grievance first.
The National Labor Relations Act
The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) gave unions the the legal right to represent employees on behalf of the group and the individual, and it created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to police and govern relationships between unions, employees, and employers nationally. Under the NLRA, employers and unions are required to negotiate fairly with each other on employment contracts, especially the terms and conditions of employment for the workers who are members of the union. This Act requires employers to work with unions in good faith and prohibits the following actions:
Interfering with or prohibiting employees from exercising their rights to organize, bargain collectively, and engage in other concerted activities for their own protection;
Refusing to bargain collectively with the union’s elected representative(s);
Disrupting with the formation of any labor organization;
Contributing support—financial or otherwise—to a union, especially as a means of exercising sway over the activities of the union;
Encouraging or discouraging membership in a union through discriminatory hiring, tenure, or employment conditions; and
Discriminating against or dismissing employees who have filed charges or testified under the NLRA.
Provisions of the NLRA are enforced through investigations, prosecutions, mediations, and negotiations by the NLRB, its representatives, and in cases of lawsuits, the courts.
The Labor Management Relations Act
In an attempt to balance the power held by unions, the Labor Management Relations Act was passed. This Act, also known as the the Taft-Hartley Act, makes unfair union practices illegal, including the following actions:
Coercing the choice of a certain bargaining representative;
Punishing employees who exercise any NLRA right against union wishes;
Encouraging employer discrimination due to membership or nonmembership in a union;
Refusing to bargain in good faith with an employer;
Overriding a designated union bargaining agent chosen by a majority of employees;
Charging excessive dues or fees; and
Fomenting a strike for the sole reason of special treatment of union matters.
Union Security Agreements and "Right to Work" Laws
Since unions negotiate on behalf of all workers, regardless of how many workers are actually members, some collective bargaining agreements between employers and the unions require the company to employ only union workers to do certain jobs through what are known as union security agreements. These union security agreements cannot force employees to join a union once hired, since the NLRA specifically prohibits such requirements, but they can make the employees who do not choose to join the union pay agency fees to the union as a condition of getting or keeping a job.
These types of employers are known as agency shops, a federally permitted type of employer. Some states, however, have made agency shops illegal through what are known as “right to work” laws. Right to work laws make it illegal for employers to require non-members to pay agency fees and to fire or otherwise penalize employees who fail to do so. Essentially, states with these laws require every unionized workplace to be an open shop, where workers are free to choose whether or not to support the union.
Union Protections and Rights
Under the NLRA and other labor union laws, workers have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection. In addition, union members (and nonmembers who are acting in the manner of a union’s intended purpose) are protected from retaliation, abuse, discouragement, or punishment by employers for exercising protected rights.
Protected Concerted Activities
So-called concerted activities are the most common union protections enforced. Concerted activities cover any activity through which employees work together to improve improve wages or working conditions or defend a coworker against perceived unjust actions. Even a single employee acting on behalf of others can be considered undertaking protected concerted activity. It’s important to note that revealing trade secrets, sabotaging work or equipment, threatening management, or otherwise acting illegally is not protected by labor union law, even if it was done in hope of improving worker conditions.
As a union member, you generally have the right to representation by a union on behalf of disciplinary issues. In practice, this has led to what are known as Weingarten Rights. Weingarten rights give you the right to union representation at any interview or meeting that could lead to disciplinary actions against you, as long as you assert such rights by asking for a representative. Once an employees has asked for a union rep, the investigation or interview cannot continue until the representative arrives. During the meeting, the employer is under no obligation to negotiate with the representative, but the representative can aid the worker, for example by clarifying facts under review, providing additional information, counseling the employee, or suggesting possible defense witnesses.
Do labor laws protect employee posts on social media?
Only if they are expressing protected speech. An effort to further a union objective or a group participating in a concerted activity would be protected under labor union law. A derogatory complaint about a boss would not be.