The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) gives workers the right to vote on whether they want to be represented by a union. A union negotiates for higher wages and better benefits, like health insurance and time off, than what would otherwise be provided by the employer (for example, an employer otherwise need only pay the minimum wage).

Union representatives are elected by the employee union members, 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 disputes often occur.

Unions often negotiate Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBAs) with employers. CBAs are basically union contracts, which put into writing the terms that have been negotiated by the union on the employees’ behalf. Negotiations are held at regular intervals.

However, when the employees and the union determine that their current wages or other working conditions are unfair, they may use labor tactics such as striking or boycotting in order to make their demands heard. Then, union representatives may sit down with the employer (if the employer agrees) in order to renegotiate the terms of the CBA, and amend the language of the CBA to reflect the changes.

A Brief History of Unions and Wage Disputes

Unions first began engaging in wage disputes during the Industrial Revolution. Workers would congregate at the bar after work and share stories of intolerable wages and working conditions. They would eventually form a cohesive group, and the leader would go to management to argue for higher wages.

Since the 1770’s, unions were created and disbanded in an attempt to fight against low wages, dangerous working conditions, and countless deaths in crowded factories. It is unknown how many workers died during the start of the Industrial Revolution and the creation of unions. Child labor reached its peak in the 1800’s, with children as young as 5 working 12 to 16 hours a day for 6 days a week to earn $1. In modern terms, that would be about $30/week or $2.40 an hour.

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

Workers Can Assist Unions in Wage Disputes

Initially, courts were not sensitive to the plight of common workers; the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 had been passed to prevent workers from picketing outside the factory. However, the Clayton Act of 1914 and the Norris-La Guardia Act of 1932 allowed workers to strike during wage disputes. The Wagner Act of 1935 upholds the right of workers to join unions and assist unions in wage disputes. However, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 prohibited unions from coercing employees to join their wage disputes.

The Current Status of Unions in the United States

Union numbers per capita are down since their height in the 1950s. The Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 created extensive regulations for labor unions. As a result of this, as well as from downsizing and outsourcing, some economists hold that workers have lost much of their power to negotiate in wage disputes. Today, unions represent a shrinking segment of highly trained workers, as opposed to the typical minimum wage workers unions more commonly represented in the past.

In 2018, a recent Supreme Court case removed the requirement that non-union employees pay union dues. The initial reasoning for that was because unions often negotiate the benefits of non-union members, including issues related to wages and time off. So when they negotiate on their behalf, even if they aren’t members of the union, then these individuals benefit from the union’s existence.

But the Court ruled that this violates these public-sector workers’ rights, and now public-sector unions are not allowed to collect dues which makes many members fearful that the future of unions might be in doubt.

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

If you are an employee, a qualified employment attorney can review your rights and concerning union membership. If you believe that your employer or union has discriminated against you, an employment attorney can represent you in bringing legal action.

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