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Labor unions, also called trade unions or unions, are an important part of the American labor force. There are pros and cons to being a union member, but many of the long-established labor laws in this country geared toward protecting workers’ rights would not exist without them. International, national, state, or local unions can be found in the private business sector. Labor unions have a long and complicated history in this country and abroad. The potential to form unions is often met with pushback. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, aka the AFL-CIO is the largest federation of unions in the U.S. Per their website, “Right-to-work” is a term for a policy designed to take away rights from workers. Right-to-work laws make it harder for employees to form unions, often to their own detriment, and to the benefit of large corporations.

What Are Labor Unions?

A labor union is an organized group of workers whose primary goal is to improve collective working conditions at their places of employment and/or ensure that previously set working standards are maintained. Essentially, unions bargain with employers on behalf of employees, and in doing so, they help maintain employer accountability. Among other things, union organizations may be found instituting transparent and reasonable workplace protocols and complaint procedures or fighting for such things as safer work conditions and more favorable hours, wages, and benefits. They may also be responsible for establishing the rules and guidelines around hiring, promoting, and firing employees. Labor unions are also responsible for safeguarding workers’ collective bargaining power.  

When did labor unions start?

American unions have a history reaching as far back as the founding of the country. The first record of an American worker strike occurred in New York in 1768, when the journeymen tailors there refused to work in the face of reduced wages. In 1794, the shoemakers of Philadelphia came together to form the first known American labor union. They called themselves The Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers. Their purpose was to protect themselves when dealing with greedy factory owners at the start of the Industrial Revolution. In 1866, the National Labor Union was founded. 

How do labor unions work?

Labor unions are democratic in nature. The members of a union hold elections to choose their leaders. In turn, those elected officials take on the responsibility of advocating for the group and making decisions on their behalf. Typically, this is done through collective bargaining. Collective bargaining is the term for the process used by union members and employers to negotiate workplace contracts. It seeks mutually agreed-upon resolutions to workplace issues. These types of negotiations generally take place whenever contracts are up for renewal or when employers make changes to the workplace. Once labor-management agreements are reached, they are contained in legally binding written contracts called collective bargaining agreements (CBAs). 

In the United States, it is estimated that about three-quarters of private sector employees and two-thirds of public workers have the right to collective bargaining. If ever labor and management find it difficult to reach a collective bargaining agreement around any of their issues, they have resources at their disposal to help. The Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service (FMCS) is geared toward preserving and promoting peace and cooperation between labor and management. To that end, they provide free conflict resolution training and mediation. In the federal sector, the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) works to safeguard rights, resolve disputes, and promote stable relationships between federal agencies, labor groups, and employees. 

The benefits of labor unions for workers

There are many benefits to joining a labor union. Unions promote transparency and better equity in the workplace. They provide safety nets for employees through collective advocacy and bargaining, and they give workers more security when it comes to speaking up for their workplace rights. Here are some of the things that unions have been known to advocate for:

  • Better (Fairer) wages 

  • Reduced wage gaps for women and people of color

  • Payment transparency

  • Safer working conditions and protections

  • Paid leave 

  • Consistent and/or flexible scheduling

  • Disability protections

  • Family-friendly work environments

Federal Labor Union Laws

Many federal labor laws designed to protect workers or improve working conditions were ushered into effect due to the advocacy of labor unions and worker rights groups. We owe our thanks to labor unions for all of the following:

  • 8-hour workdays

  • 40-hour work weeks

  • Weekends

  • Child labor laws

  • Workplace-based healthcare benefits

  • Workers Comp

  • Family and Medical Leave Act

  • Unemployment Benefits

Below are some of the more well-known and effective federal laws related to labor and union.

Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law in 1967 the ADEA, which protects workers and job applicants aged 40 years and older from age-based discrimination. The protection provided by the ADEA extends to hiring, firing, terms of employment, promotions, benefits, and compensation. This law applies to employers who regularly employ at least 20 workers. It is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990

The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990. It is a Civil Rights Law that prevents persons with disabilities from being discriminated against in all areas of public life, including employment. Enforced by the EEOC, this law extends to both mental and physical disabilities of both a temporary and permanent nature. Where employment is concerned, the ADA applies to employers who regularly employ 15 or more workers. To ensure that people with disabilities are afforded the same job opportunities as those without disabilities, employers may not discriminate against qualified applicants or employees based on their disability. They are required to provide reasonable accommodations for said applicants and employees. 

Equal Pay Act of 1963

Also known as the EPA, The Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963 and signed into law by President John F. Kennedy. This law was an amendment to the earlier Fair Labor Standards Act. (See below.) It outlaws gender-based wage discrimination between male and female employees who work for the same employer and work jobs requiring equal knowledge, effort, skill, or responsibility under similar or equivalent job conditions. The EEOC enforces it. 

Fair Labor Standards Act

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) established the right to a federal minimum wage and time-and-a-half overtime pay for employees working more than 40 hours per week. (Currently, more than 50% of states offer a minimum wage that exceeds the current national minimum wage requirement, which is $7.25 an hour.) This law also prohibits child labor and enforces workplace record-keeping regarding time and pay. It was signed into law in 1938 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and is enforced by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL).

Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993

President Clinton signed The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in 1993. It requires employers to grant up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave to employees for qualified medical and/or family reasons while protecting their jobs, or up to twenty-six weeks of leave during a single 12-month period to care for a seriously injured or ill servicemember, for eligible family members and next of kin of covered military members. The DOL enforces this law. 

Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959

Enforced by the Office of Labor-Management Standards (OLMS), the LMRDA was signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1959. The law oversees unions and their members. It is geared toward promoting continued democratic elections of union leaders and preventing corruption, misconduct, and mishandling of funds within a union by requiring labor unions to file annual labor and financial reports. 

National Labor Relations Act

Signed into law in 1935 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), also known as the Wagner Act, was created with the intention of upsetting the inequality of bargaining power between employers and employees. It gives workers the legal right to start or join unions and holds employers accountable for participating in collective bargaining with those labor unions. In promoting collective bargaining, the law fosters democracy in the workplace and gives employees the right to seek more fair and agreeable working conditions without fear of retaliation. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), established in conjunction with this law, is responsible for its oversight. 

Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970

The Occupational Safety and Health Act governs the federal law of workplace health and safety in the private sector and the federal U.S. government. It was signed into law in 1970 by President Richard M. Nixon. The purpose of this law is to create standards for safe, hazard-free working environments by providing protections against such things as toxic chemicals, mechanical dangers, and unsanitary workspaces, among other things. Both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, were created as a result of this Act. It is enforced by OSHA. 

Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978

Also referred to as the PDA, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1978. This law prevents discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. Applicants and employees protected by this law may not be treated unfavorably in any aspect, term, or condition of employment as a result of pregnancy or pregnancy-related health issues. It is enforced by the EEOC. 

Social Security Act

Another Act signed into law by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1935, as part of his New Deal, the Social Security Act, paved the way for creating the Social Security program. The law provides old-age and disability benefits, as well as health insurance. It also established the right to unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation. It is funded by payroll taxes. Since the passage of this Act, there has been a dramatic decline in poverty among older Americans.

Exceptions to Federal Labor Union Laws

Although most of the labor laws listed above, as well as those not mentioned in this article, extend to the vast majority of private-sector workers, there are a few exceptions.

Under the NLRA, this law does not cover government employees, agricultural workers, independent contractors, and supervisors. 

Under the FLSA, overtime pay was established for covered, non-exempt employees. Here are just a few examples of potentially exempt persons:

  • Commissioned Salespersons

  • Computer Professionals 

  • Farmworkers

  • Executive, administrative, and professional personnel who are paid salaries rather than on an hourly basis

  • Independent Contractors

  • Airline Employees

  • Live-In Domestic Employees

  • Local Delivery Drivers 

  • Taxi Drivers

  • Railroad Employees

Under the ADA, to prevent abuse of the law, various conditions deemed anti-social, or known to lead to potentially illegal behavior, are not included in the definition of a disability. Some examples of people who would be excluded from protection under the ADA are:

  • Pedophiles

  • Kleptomaniacs

  • Voyeurs 

  • Exhibitionists

Under the FMLA, workers at places of business with less than 50 employees are not covered for leave, nor are elected officials, part-time workers who have worked less than 1,250 hours in the twelve months leading up to the leave, or workers who are requesting time off for routine care.

Other exceptions, such as laws based on the number of employees at a workplace, are mentioned above in the descriptions of the laws. 

How and When to Unionize

The idea of forming a union may seem daunting. However, thanks to the work of unions and the NLRA, private sector employees have the fundamental right to form unions, join unions, assist unions, and engage in such activities as collective bargaining and strikes. 

Knowing When to Form a Union

If you want to be part of a union but don’t have one available, and if any of the following criteria apply to your situation, then it may be time to form your own union:

  • You’d like to see wage increases at your place of employment

  • You want equal pay for equal work in the workplace

  • You’re ready for more fair, consistent, or less demanding scheduling

  • Your place of work needs safer working conditions

  • You want healthcare and retirement security

  • The majority of your co-workers want the same things

Knowing How to Form a Union

The details of how to organize a union are relatively straightforward and can be found on the National Labor Relations Board website. The following are the options available to you if there is a majority of employees at your place of employment who wish to unionize:

  • At least 30% of employees can sign cards or a petition stating that they want to unionize, at which point the NLRB will hold an election. If most voters in said election choose to unionize, the NLRB will certify that union as a representative for collective bargaining with your employers. 

  • An alternative route to forming a union is that your employer may voluntarily choose to legitimize a union based on their own knowledge or evidence that a majority of employees want to form a union. 

When a new union has been certified, employers must adhere to the collective bargaining process with union leaders going forward. (Within the construction field, alternative rules apply.)

How and When to Hire a Labor Union Attorney

Whether or not you are in a union, you have rights under the NLRA. If you are experiencing workplace violations. It’s important to know your rights and to stand up for them if they have been violated. If you feel your workplace rights have been breached and aren’t quite sure of what steps to take, it may be time to contact a qualified labor union lawyer. As experts in their field, it will be their job to know the ins and outs of employment and union laws. If you feel fired up about a workplace cause requiring any amount of activism, keep in mind that union labor lawyers are less about activism and more about rules, regulations, and protecting union members. Therefore, if you are in a union, you may first want to discuss matters with your elected union leaders. They will know the appropriate steps to take when it comes to addressing union violations and/or beginning the collective bargaining process. 

The union representatives should be consulted first if you are a member of a union and feel that your workplace rights have been violated. This will allow them to take your concerns to your employers, thereby allowing them to initiate collective bargaining or contract renegotiation, as appropriate.

If you have concerns that your union or its leaders are in breach of their duties, that may be the time you choose to reach out independently to a labor lawyer

Here are some reasons either an employee, an employer, or a union representative may decide to speak with a Labor Attorney:

  • Discrimination in the workplace

  • On-the-job injury

  • Unsafe working conditions

  • Workplace Harassment

  • Retaliation

  • Wrongful Termination

  • Unfair Labor or Pay Practices

  • Compliance Concerns

  • A need for collective bargaining

  • Contract negotiation

  • Grievance litigation

  • Employer Downsizing

  • Employer Relocation

  • Employer Closings

  • Employer Bankruptcies

  • If a strike feels imminent

How to Report a Violation of Federal Labor Union Laws

Reporting a violation of federal labor union laws will depend on which laws were violated. As each federal law falls under the jurisdiction of varying federal departments, different procedures may apply for each type of violation. Elected union leaders are meant to know how to handle labor union violations, so starting with them may be a good idea. However, if you are not in a union or feel your union officials aren’t taking the necessary action when your NLRA rights have been violated, you can consider filling out a charge form with the NLRB. The NLRB receives between 20,000 and 30,000 charges each year from employees, employers, and unions. These charges cover a wide range of unfair or inappropriate labor practices. 

Once a charge has been filed, it will be investigated by a Board agent, who will gather evidence, take affidavits from the parties involved, and talk to witnesses, if appropriate. Regional Directors review board findings, and in some cases, they may also be reviewed by NLRB attorneys. As a general rule, decisions regarding the validity of a charge will be made within a few months, though exceptions apply. Often charges are resolved between parties before the review period has been completed, and/or they are dismissed by the charging party or the Regional Director. 

If the NLRB finds evidence to support a charge, it will first attempt to facilitate a settlement between parties. If no settlement can be agreed upon, then a complaint will be filed by the NLRB, at which point they will become the representative for the party who filed the charge. 

It is important to note that employers and unions may not retaliate against employees who file charges or participate in NLRB proceedings. To do so is illegal. 

If you need assistance filing a charge with the NLRB, you may contact your local Regional Office for guidance. 

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