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Labor Law & Unions Overview

How Labor Law and Unions Work

Labor law involves the regulation of the rights and responsibilities of employee unions and their members. Unions are organizations of employees that protect the interests of their members and use collective bargaining to negotiate for better wages, hours, and workplace safety conditions. Examples of commonly unionized employee groups include auto workers, postal workers, airline pilots, actors and TV writers, factory workers, steelworkers, public service workers, and educators. Overall, the power of labor unions has declined over recent decades, but they are responsible for many of the employee rights and conditions that are considered standard today.

States are allowed to have their own labor law statutes, but they must comply with the federal National Labor Relations Act [3], which was established by Congress in 1935 to encourage collective bargaining and protect worker rights.

What Is Collective Bargaining?

One of the primary benefits of a union is that it allows workers to negotiate with their employer as a group, which can equalize the power balance between workers and companies. This tactic is called collective bargaining, and it can be used to barter with management over important employment issues, including wages, hours, promotions, raises, benefits, workplace safety and conditions, disciplinary policies, and insurance.

In order to reach a collective bargaining agreement, both employees and employers are required to act in “good faith,” which typically means neither side can engage in behavior or tactics that purposely harm negotiations. Examples of bargaining actions that could violate the good faith requirement include:

  • Refusing to meet and enter into negotiations with the other party
  • Engaging in “sham” or “show” negotiations
  • Unilaterally changing the terms of an agreement

What Is the National Labor Relations Act?

The National Labor Relations Act, or NLRA, covers employee union rights, including their rights to organize and collectively bargain with their employers. This law forbids employers from attempting to stop workers from organizing, forming, or joining a union or striking. For instance, a company cannot threaten to fire or otherwise retaliate against employees who choose to join a union. Likewise, labor organizations are prohibited from coercing or threatening employees to force them to join a union.

Under the NLRA, employers are prohibited from:

  • Restraining or interfering with employees exercising their rights to organize a union and collectively bargain
  • Influencing union membership by discriminating in hiring, tenure, or conditions of employment
  • Retaliating against employees who choose to testify or file charges under the NLRA
  • Refusing to meet with the employees' representative for collective bargaining negotiations
  • Impeding or diminishing the right of employees to engage in a legal strike

The NLRA is overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. This federal agency polices labor disputes between unions, union members and employers through a network of investigators, mediators, negotiators and administrative law judges. It also enforces NLRA regulations when violations occur.

Union Member Rights and Officer Responsibilities Under the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act

The Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, or LMRDA, governs the internal dealings conducted among unions, union officers, and union members, ensuring that all parties are held to a code of conduct. The centerpiece of this 1959 law is the Union Member Bill of Rights, which mandates that all union members be granted equal rights of participation, including the right to:

  • Participate in the establishment of union assessments, dues, and fees
  • Sue
  • Copies of collective bargaining agreements
  • Run for office, protest, and cast secret ballots
  • Be protected from improper discipline

Under the LMRDA, union officers are tasked with safeguarding union funds against misappropriation. They are required to keep accurate financial records and file an annual report that outlines all financial dealings of the union, including any loans, benefits, or financial interests that have been established. In order to protect the organization from the risk of embezzlement, all union officers are required to be bonded.

Unions must hold officer elections every three years or less. These elections must be held by secret ballot, and all union members must be notified of the election by mail 15 days before the event. The union and employer must remain neutral during the election and cannot promote any candidate. To ensure election integrity and transparency, candidates can choose to have the election monitored by observers. Union officials are also required to keep full election records for 12 months.

While most LMRDA regulations are enforced by the Office of Labor-Management Standards, or OLMS, union members can pursue legal relief in federal court for some violations.

When a labor dispute arises, it can be difficult to decipher the complexities of state and federal labor laws. While most unions provide legal representation to their members, there may be circumstances where an employee needs individual legal help. A local labor law attorney could assess a person’s situation and inform him or her about the legal remedies that are available.

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