Employment Law -- Employee

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Legal to Unionize My workplace?

For many workers, the idea of forming a union seems to hold many benefits. Like other workplace arrangements, however, it's important to understand the legal aspects and realities of unions formed under NLRA Section 7 before trying to create or maintain one.

Union Basics

A union is an organization of workers who try to level the playing field with their employers. The core concept behind their creation is the idea that many workplaces have unequal relationships between workers and employers because employers are allowed to fire or hire employees at will. Because employees lack such powers, they may choose to rely on labor unions to ensure that their bosses listen to their problems and afford them the rights they're legally entitled to receive. Unions are also known as labor or trade groups.

What Is Collective Bargaining?

Under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), workers have certain protected rights. NLRA Section 7 specifies that they may join, form, or aid unions and engage in a practice called collective bargaining. This form of negotiation places employers on one side of the bargaining table and a group of employees or their appointed representatives on the other side. Labor union personnel often fulfill this role by arguing to help the workers they represent.

The collective bargaining process is commonly used to hash out terms and conditions of employment. For instance, workers who feel like they're being treated unfairly by management might ask their union leaders to bargain on their behalf in pursuit of changes.

Employers and Unions

The NLRA was signed into law by Congress in 1935, but unions go back even earlier. Historians note that union battles in the early 1900s directly led to many of the benefits that modern workers enjoy today. These benefits include:

  • Reasonable living wages
  • Safer working conditions
  • 40-hour work weeks instead of the old 60-hour standard
  • Benefits packages that commonly cover retirement, health, profit sharing, and insurance
  • Formal processes for airing serious complaints or grievances

By the time the NLRA became law, many important struggles had already taken place between union leaders and employers, and both sides had committed acts that could prove harmful to workers. The new law laid down many rules defining how employers and labor unions could act. The rules prohibit bosses from threatening to close workplaces if their employees decide to unionize. They also bar employers from retaliating against union workers or promising to give special benefits to workers who don’t join a union.

Additionally, the rules prohibit labor organizers from forcing people to join their group or threatening workers who decide not to participate in strikes. Going on strike for issues that don't have anything to do with employment conditions is also barred under the NLRA. Moreover, the law prohibits either side from refusing to sit down and bargain collectively with the other party, even though they're allowed to disagree.

Union Member Rights

When people join unions, they have a number of critical rights. All union members possess:

  • Existing Constitutional rights such as freedom of assembly and freedom of speech
  • Equal rights when it comes to who gets to participate in general union activities
  • The right not to face unfair punishment for violating union rules
  • The right to have a say in how dues and fees work
  • The right to run for an officer position in the union, participate in votes, nominate candidates, and protest what they view as unfair election conduct

Many other actions also fall under the definition of NLRA-protected activities. According to the American Bar Association (ABA), the NLRA mostly applies to actions taken by two or more employees who may or may not be representing other employees. The key deciding factor is whether the activity in question is designed to improve employment terms and conditions.

Organizations like the ABA also note that these matters have taken on new life in the information age. For instance, one restaurant server got fired after posting a rant on Facebook complaining about poor workplace treatment and telling his co-workers to vote for unionization. Multiple courts later found that the server's actions counted as NLRA-protected activities because he tried to organize his co-workers to deal with the problems together. Other cases have decided that employers can't legally fire someone just for liking a co-worker’s Facebook post that expresses negative opinions about the business.

Right-to-Work Laws

Are there disadvantages to unionized workplaces? Some employers, lobbyists, and politicians have long argued that these organizations have negative impacts on businesses and industries. Certain economists might say that letting unions negotiate for higher pay makes it harder for businesses to turn profits.

Whether these arguments are valid or not, they've definitely had an impact on the way union-related laws operate. In 1947, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which introduced something called right-to-work laws. These rules made it illegal for businesses to be union shops, which are companies that require their employees to join the union to get hired or keep their jobs.

The Taft-Hartley Act also prohibited actions such as union boycotts and secondary strikes. Under the Act, a union representing workers at a clothing factory can organize a strike by its members or even tell the general public not to buy the factory's clothes. It can't, however, ask workers at the stores that sell the factory's clothing to go on strike.

Unions have many potential advantages, but after being in existence for more than a century, they're also subject to complex laws and rules. Those seeking to unionize their workplaces may find that talking to labor lawyers will help them to maximize benefits by ensuring that they do things the right way.