Small Business Labor Union Conflicts

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 What is a Labor Union?

Labor unions are formal groups which are created by workers who work for the same employer and who have similar ideas regarding the standards for their workplace, including:

  • Wages;
  • Salaries;
  • Working conditions;
  • Benefits; and
  • Other work-related issues.

The purpose of labor unions is to level the playing field for negotiations between the employees and the employer. These groups are used because an employer is typically in a position to exercise greater bargaining power than the employees.

Negotiations between a labor union and an employer usually result in an agreement that outlines the new conditions for employment. These agreements also usually include the rights and duties of both the employer and the employees.

Labor unions are becoming more common in small business settings, not just in operations involving a large number of employees. Therefore, a small business owner should have an understanding regarding what the business can and cannot do if a labor union is being organized.

What are My Rights as an Employer if My Employees Want to Unionize?

Although an employer may be apprehensive regarding employee unionization, there are rights that employers have which labor unions cannot legally interfere with. Typically, these rights are the same as the labor union.

Employers, similar to every citizen in the United States, have the right to free speech. Although an employer cannot prevent a union from soliciting their employees and cannot punish an employee for supporting a union, an employer is permitted to express their disapproval of labor unions to their employees.

Employers are permitted to explain to workers why they disapprove of labor unions as well as how unionization may affect the employer. In addition, employers have the right to fair bargaining.

A labor union is compelled to act in good faith during negotiations. A labor union cannot make an agreement and then fail to keep that agreement.

In addition, employers can hold labor unions responsible if they violate the laws which govern union conduct.

What Actions Should I Avoid if My Employees Want to Unionize?

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 governs the formation of labor unions. The NLRA secures the ability of workers to bargain as a ground instead of bargaining individually.

The NLRA prohibits an employer from disciplining or firing an employee for trying to organize a labor union. In general, an employer cannot discriminate against or ban a pro-union employee.

If the employees desire to be represented by a labor union, the employees are free to make that choice. There are several requirements and prohibitions placed upon employers in relation to labor unions, including that an employer:

  • Is required to negotiate in collective bargaining if requested;
  • Is required to negotiate in good faith, as are the employees, meaning that neither party can intentionally behave badly during any negotiations;
  • Is not permitted to prevent employees from organizing a labor union;
  • Is not permitted to prohibit signs or symbols promoting the union;
  • Is not permitted to promise or grant benefits to bribe employees; and
  • Should not hold meetings related to unions in a supervisor’s office.

Are Small Business Owners Allowed to Prohibit Labor Unions?

By its very nature, a labor union commonly puts the interests of the employees up against the interests of the employer. These differences, however, do not necessarily have to result in a small business labor union conflict.

These differences should be addressed according to the requirements set forth under the law. The rights and duties of small business owners related to labor unions will depend largely upon the timeline of the formation of the union.

For example, the rights of the business owner are very different prior to the formation of the union as compared to the period following the formation of the union. Prior to a union being formed, the law typically permits a small business owner to do the following:

  • Prohibit the distribution of literature related to the union in the workplace;
  • Restrict employee efforts to sign union cards or petitions; and
  • Prohibit outside non-employee organizers from conducting activities on company property.

It is important to note that these rules and prohibitions must already be put into place prior to the commencement of the union organizing activities. If the prohibitions noted above are instituted after the labor union organization has already begun, small business owners risk facing charges for unlawful employment retaliation.

What if the Labor Organization Efforts Have Already Started?

Any organization efforts for labor unions are required to follow the requirements of the NLRA, as noted above. The NLRA is a federal law which provides guidelines regarding what both employers and employees are permitted to do or not do during the labor union formation and bargaining efforts.

In addition to the NLRA, there are state and local laws which govern unions. Small business owners should safeguard themselves by being aware of what actions they can and cannot take if a labor union organization campaign is underway.

For example, an employer cannot engage in unfair practices against the employees, which may include:

  • Discriminating against employees who are pro-union;
  • Showing favoritism towards employees who are anti-union;
  • Visiting an employee’s home in an attempt to lobby against the union;
  • Implying that a union victory would result in termination or loss of benefits;
  • Withholding employee names and information from organizers once an election agreement has been reached;
  • Conducting employee polls regarding their views on the proposed union agreements;
  • Refusing to conduct good-faith negotiations with a legitimate union; and
  • Coercing, restraining, or otherwise interfering with employees.

What Changes Should I Expect if my Employees Unionize?

Depending on the contract terms that the employer and employees have agreed to, a variety of things may change in the workplace. The aspects which are most affected include:

  • Wages;
  • Discipline; and
  • Promotions.

An employer can expect more uniform wages, structured vacation accruals, and promotion timelines. Union contracts generally have clauses which structure discipline procedures and termination, which typically include hearings with Union Representatives.

What if a Small Business Owner is Not Satisfied with the Results of the Union Agreement?

After a union negotiates with a small business owner, the two parties will typically reach a contractual agreement, called a collective bargaining agreement. This agreement outlines the new terms and changes that the union and the employer have agreed to.

Should a small business owner be unsatisfied with the outcome of the negotiations, they may be permitted to file a lawsuit which addresses the bargaining agreement, especially in cases where there is evidence that the union engaged in unfair practices. In the alternative, the small business owner may seek the assistance of a third party government agency and have their case investigated.

These types of actions will likely require the assistance of an attorney. This is because lawsuits which involve labor issues can affect a large number of individuals.

Do I Need an Lawyer?

It is essential to have the assistance of an commercial lawyer for any issues, questions, or concerns you may have related to a labor union. A small business labor union conflict can be a drain on both resources and time.

If you need assistance with a small business labor union conflict, your lawyer can help. You should contact your lawyer as soon as you become aware of any disputes or issues with employees. Your lawyer can provide assistance during negotiations as well as represent you during a lawsuit, if it becomes necessary to file one.


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