The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) gives employees the freedom to vote on whether they want to be represented by a union. A union bargains for more increased wages and better benefits, like health insurance and time off, than what would otherwise be supplied by the employer.

The employee union members elect union representatives, and the representatives routinely argue with employers, on behalf of the employees, for those increased wages and other benefits. When unions and employers engage in wage negotiations, wage conflicts often arise.
Unions often negotiate Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBAs) with employers. CBAs are union contracts, which put into writing the terms that have been negotiated by the union on the workers’ behalf. Negotiations are held at regular intervals.

Nevertheless, when the workers and the union determine that their existing wages or other working circumstances are unjust, they may use labor tactics such as striking or boycotting to make their needs heard. Then, union reps may sit down with the employer (if the employer consents) to renegotiate the terms of the CBA and amend the language of the CBA to reflect the changes.

What Is a Labor Union?

A labor union is a group of employees in a specific trade or industry who organize to defend and advance their rights and interests in the workplace. These workers share ideas about improving their working conditions; they unite as a union because they believe these demands will be better met if they approach the employer with a unified, collaborative voice.

Some of the working conditions they seek include:

  • A sanitary and safe work environment;
  • Higher wages;
  • Health and medical benefits such as insurance;
  • Unbiased and equal systems for promotions and firings; or
  • Protections against unjust punishment or termination.

Labor unions are covered by labor union law, specifically the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), passed by Congress in 1935. The NLRA ensures the rights of workers to be represented by unions. The NLRA also forbids employers from meddling with their workers’ selection of unions. The provisions also facilitate the collective bargaining process.

Further, an amendment to the NLRA, the Taft-Hartley Act, regulates unions by prohibiting unions from forcing workers into joining a union or declining to bargain in good faith with employers.

Also, the act disallows threats or brutality to facilitate union agendas, and it prohibits unions from levying excessive dues.

The NLRA established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an administrative agency that hears conflicts between employers and unions. The NLRB also decides which union should represent a group of workers. The Board has developed rules and guidelines for the formation of unions. The NLRB also has a General Counsel who examines union or employer declarations of unjust bargaining and creates regulations and procedures 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 regulations that are comparable to the NLRA. They may apply to employers not covered by federal law.

Some union activities that the NLRA prohibits include the following:

  • Threatening workers with the loss of their jobs if they do not support the union;
  • Seeking discipline of an employee for not being a union member even if the worker has paid or offered to pay the needed fees;
  • Declining to handle an employee’s grievance because the worker has rebuked the union or because an employee is not a member of the union in states where union security clauses are not permitted;
  • Attempting to fine workers who have validly resigned from the union or who cross an illegal picket line;
  • Engaging in mischief on picket lines, such as threatening, attacking, or blocking non-strikers from the employer’s premises;
  • Striking about matters unrelated to the terms and conditions of employment, e.g., political subjects.

Can a Company Get Rid of a Union?

Generally speaking, the NLRA prohibits businesses from retaliating against workers for engaging in protected union activities, including voting to join a union. An employer must bargain in good faith with a union over the terms and conditions of employment in the business.
Only the workers are lawfully permitted to decertify a union they previously voted to join. They can employ the process of decertification for this goal 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 executes a secret ballot election to resolve if a majority of the workers want to decertify the union and end its exclusive representation.

A Brief History of Unions and Wage Disputes

Unions first started engaging in wage conflicts during the Industrial Revolution. Workers would gather at the bar after work and share accounts of agonizing salaries and working conditions. Eventually, they would form a cohesive body, and the leader would go to management to plead for more increased wages.

Since the 1770s, unions were created and disbanded to fight against low wages, unsafe working conditions, and countless deaths in overcrowded factories. It is unknown how many employees died during the start of the Industrial Revolution and the creation of unions. Child labor reached its peak in the 1800s, with children as young as 5 working 12 to 16 hours a day for six days a week to earn $1. That would be about $30/week or $2.40 an hour in modern terms.

The first established union was founded in the 1880s, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and it was the first of many. In the early 1900s, unions battled for wage equality and helped develop legislation to stop child labor laws. Unions also advocated for safer working conditions, time off, shorter workdays, and benefits like health insurance and paid leave.

Workers Can Assist Unions in Wage Disputes

Originally, courts were not keen on the plight of ordinary workers; the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 had been enacted to stop employees from picketing outside the factory. Nevertheless, the Clayton Act of 1914 and the Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932 authorized workers to strike during wage controversies.

The Wagner Act of 1935 supports the privilege of employees to join unions and help unions in wage conflicts. Nevertheless, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 banned unions from forcing workers to unite their wage debates.

The Current Status of Unions in the United States

Union numbers per capita have been down since their peak in the 1950s. The Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 formed comprehensive regulations for labor unions. As a result of this and from downsizing and outsourcing, some economists hold that workers have lost much of their power to negotiate wage disputes.

Today, unions represent a shrinking segment of highly trained employees, unlike the typical minimum wage workers’ unions more commonly portrayed in the past.

Why Seek an Attorney’s Advice Over Unions and Wages?

If you are an employee, a skilled labor attorney can examine your rights regarding union membership. If you think that your employer or union has discriminated against you, an employment lawyer can represent you in bringing legal action.

If you are an employer or union representative, a qualified labor lawyer can help draft a collective bargaining agreement and help with wage negotiations.