Labor Unions

Labor unions are organizations of workers that are dedicated to protecting workers who are members and improving their wages, hours, and working conditions. Workers who belong to unions may include teachers, factory workers, police officers, airline pilots, janitors, and actors. Workers can form a bargaining unit that can be represented by a union in dealing with their employer. It must be voluntarily recognized by the employer, or a majority of the workers in the bargaining unit most vote for representation.

It is common for employers to try to convince employees not to unionize or not to join a union. This is legal unless the employer attempts to stop the workers from unionizing by threatening violence or other coercive action. It is illegal for unions to use threats of violence or lies to stop employees from joining the union.

An employer must bargain in good faith with a union. This doesn’t mean that all of the union’s demands will be met. A collective bargaining agreement is signed only after negotiations give rise to an agreement. The agreement will set terms of employment for union members, including details about wages to be paid, hours to be worked, labor conditions, vacations, benefits, and sick days.

Once the collective bargaining agreement is signed, an employer cannot change anything in it without the union representative’s consent for a predefined period of time. The union will monitor the employer to ensure that it follows the agreement’s terms. When a union believes the employer breached the agreement, it can file a grievance, which may be submitted for resolution through arbitration. Usually, the union members must pay dues to the union to cover costs.

Over 20 states, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Virginia, have passed “right to work” laws, which ban union-security agreements. In those states each employee may decide whether or not to join a union and pay dues, even though all the workers are protected by the collective bargaining agreement that the union has negotiated.   

What Is the National Labor Relations Act?

Enforced by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) prohibits employers from restraining employees in the exercise of their rights to organize, form, join, or help a labor organization for collective bargaining purposes. For example, an employer may not threaten employees with unemployment if they join or vote for a union. Similarly, an employer may not threaten to close a plant or worksite if employees choose a union for representation.

The labor organization is also prevented from restraining or coercing employees. For example, a labor organization cannot threaten employees that they will lose their jobs if they don’t support the union. Similarly, they cannot refuse to process a grievance for criticizing union officials.

The NLRA also prohibits employers from shutting down employee efforts to improve their employment terms and conditions. For example, an employer may not question employees about their union activities in a context that would restrain them from exercising their rights to discuss working conditions. This rule also extends to employees who use social media to discuss working conditions with coworkers.