A labor union is a group of workers in a specific trade or industry who organize to protect and further their rights and interests in the workplace. These employees share thoughts and ideas as to how their working conditions could improve; they unite as a union because they believe these needs will be better met if they approach the employer with a unified, collective voice. 

Some of the working conditions they seek include:

  • A clean and safe work environment;
  • Higher wages;
  • Health and medical benefits such as insurance;
  • Fair and equal procedures for promotions and firings; or
  • Protections against unfair discipline or termination.

Labor unions are protected by labor union law, more specifically the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), enacted by Congress in 1935. The NLRA ensures the rights of employees to be represented by unions. The NLRA also prohibits employers from interfering with their workers’ selection of unions. Its provisions also promote the collective bargaining process.

Additionally, an amendment to the NLRA, the Taft-Hartley Act, further regulates unions themselves by forbidding unions from coercing employees into joining a union or refusing to bargain in good faith with employers. Further, the act disallows threats or violence to promote union agendas, and it forbids unions from charging excessive dues.

The NLRA established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an administrative agency that hears disputes between employers and unions. The NLRB also determines which union should represent a group of employees. The Board has created regulations and procedures for the formation of unions. The NLRB also has a General Counsel who investigates union or employer claims of unfair bargaining and creates procedures and rules for collective bargaining.

In addition to the federal NLRA, many states have laws addressing the issue of unions and state labor union rules and regulations. Some of these states have laws that are similar to the NLRA. They may apply to employers not covered by the federal law.

Some union activities that are prohibited by the NLRA include the following:

  • Threatening employees with the loss of their jobs if they do not support the union;
  • Seeking punishment of an employee for not being a union member even if the employee has paid or offered to pay the required fees;
  • Refusing to handle an employee’s grievance because the employee has criticized the union or because an employee is not a member of the union in states where union security clauses are not allowed;
  • Attempting to fine employees who have validly resigned from the union or who cross an unlawful picket line;
  • Engaging in misconduct on picket lines, such as threatening, assaulting, or barring non-strikers from the employer’s premises;
  • Striking about issues that are not related to the terms and conditions of employment, e.g. political issues.

Can a Company Get Rid of a Union?

Generally speaking, the NLRA forbids businesses from retaliating against employees for engaging in protected union activities, including voting to join a union. An employer is required to bargain in good faith with a union over the terms and conditions of employment in the business. 

Only the employees themselves are legally allowed to decertify a union that they previously voted to join. They can employ the process of decertification for this purpose, if they so choose. Under the NLRA, if 30% or more of the workers in a union bargaining unit sign a Decertification Petition, the NLRB then conducts a secret ballot election to determine if a majority of the employees want to decertify the union and end its exclusive representation

One thing a business can do in response to union organization in its business is close down entirely. This is allowed even if the closure happens only in response to the certification of a union and for no other reason.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. An employer cannot close just one facility of several that it has because of union activity solely for the purpose of defeating unionization at other facilities or locations. The closing of a business will be viewed as unlawful if the decision to close is based on anti-union motivation and directed at employees at other locations

Another solution that has been pursued by the business community is so-called “right-to-work” laws. The following states have right-to-work laws: 

  • Alabama;
  • Arizona;
  • Arkansas;
  • Florida;
  • Georgia;
  • Idaho;
  • Indiana;
  • Iowa;
  • Kansas;
  • Kentucky;
  • Louisiana;
  • Michigan;
  • Mississippi;
  • Nebraska;
  • Nevada;
  • North Carolina;
  • North Dakota;
  • Oklahoma;
  • South Carolina;
  • South Dakota;
  • Tennessee;
  • Texas;
  • Utah;
  • Virginia;
  • West Virginia;
  • Wisconsin; and
  • Wyoming.

These laws vary in their exact provisions and effect from state to state. Generally, however, in right-to-work states, employees who are hired by a union shop get to choose whether to join the union and pay union dues. 

Employees who decline to join the union are under no obligation to pay union dues, although they are permitted to enjoy the benefits obtained by the union through the collective bargaining process. The union is not allowed to expel the non-dues paying workers from the collective bargaining agreement and let them negotiate their salary, benefits and due process rights on their own.

What Do Union Lawyers Do?

A labor law lawyer is usually hired by a union to represent it in connection with its legal affairs. As noted above, labor union laws were created to mediate the rights and duties of both employers and employees. In addition to federal NLRA, many states have laws that deal with unions and labor law. So, union members in both the public and private sectors, as well as the unions themselves seek out the advice of experienced labor law lawyers. In representing unions and their members, labor law attorneys appear in state and federal courts, administrative agencies, the NLRB, and commissions.

Some of the issues that labor law attorneys handle include:

  • Organizing union campaigns;
  • Representing labor unions in their negotiations with employers;
  • Representing employees in disputes relating to benefits;
  • Handling discrimination and sexual harassment claims involving unions;
  • Handling arbitration of various employee grievances. Certain employees such as police officers and firefighters are prohibited from striking, and, thus, undergo grievance and interest arbitration;
  • Representing employees or unions in front of the NLRB;
  • Representing unions if they are investigated by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL); or
  • Representing unions or employees in collective bargaining negotiations, although the union members often do this themselves.

Union labor law attorneys also handle such issues as day-to-day union operations, union elections, union record keeping, and concerns regarding human resources. Unions also typically seek out union labor law attorneys when facing employer downsizing, employer relocations or closings, and bankruptcies.

What is Collective Bargaining?

When a union is certified by the vote of the workers in a particular place of employment, the NLRA imposes a duty on both employer and union to engage in “good faith” collective bargaining over the future terms and conditions of employment. Collective bargaining happens when employers and unionized employees meet and negotiate about the terms and conditions of employment in the employer’s business. 

When the employer and union conclude their negotiations, a “collective bargaining agreement” is the result. It is binding on both the employer and the employees and determines pay scales and other terms of employment..

To meet the requirement to negotiate in “good faith,” employers and unions must:

  • Make their best efforts to agree to an effective bargaining process;
  • Meet with the other party and consider, and respond to proposals that are made;
  • Respect the roles of the representatives for each party and refrain from trying to bargain directly with those for whom the representative acts; and
  • Take no actions that would undermine the bargaining process or authority of the other party’s representative.

Good-faith collective bargaining does not require either party to make concessions or agree to any proposal. It only requires the union and the employer to meet and negotiate at reasonable times with a willingness to agree on matters within the scope of representation.

The NLRA also regulates what activities a union can use to persuade the employer to agree to their terms and conditions, including strikes, lock-outs, and picketing.

What Happens When a Collective Bargaining Agreement Expires?

When an existing collective bargaining agreement expires before the parties can agree to a new one, the old one continues in force until a new one can be agreed on and come into effect. Of course, in order to take effect, the union membership must vote on the agreement and a majority must accept it.  Of course, a collective bargaining agreement could be renewed if that is the desire of the two parties; an existing agreement would have to be submitted to the membership for a vote and if the majority of the members agree to it, it would take effect. If the membership were to reject it, the agreement would have to be renegotiated.

A collective bargaining agreement may cover all of the terms and conditions of employment, including wages, overtime pay, whether paid vacation days are available and in what amount, whether paid sick leave is available and in what amount, on what terms benefits are available to workers and so on. 

Should I Hire a Union Labor Law Attorney?

As can be seen, a labor relations lawyer may handle a variety of issues from the day-to-day tasks of a union to appearing in federal and state courts, boards, and commissions. Thus, consulting with a knowledgeable and experienced labor lawyer is crucial to making sure your labor law needs are properly handled.

Usually the officials of a union will hire the lawyer who represents the union. Depending on its size a union might employ more than one lawyer, perhaps one or more for special situations, e.g. to represent the union in a lawsuit, and another to handle its routine legal affairs.

If you should need to hire a labor relations lawyer, you want one who is experienced and specialized in that area of the law.