Labor Unions

Labor unions are generally governed by a series of federal laws, including the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which covers the majority of unionized workers, the Railway Labor Act (RLA), which applies to the transportation industries (rail, air, etc.) and their employees, the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA), and several others.  These laws give labor unions the legal right to represent employees collectively, particularly in negotiating the terms of their employment (collective bargaining), and in the grievance process.  The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) administers the NLRA, and the National Mediation Board (NMB) administers the RLA.  Complaints of violation of these laws (e.g., of unfair labor practices) are generally made either to these agencies directly, or in federal court.

In brief, the NLRA says that an employer and a union must negotiate fairly with each other to reach a written agreement that governs the terms and conditions which will apply to the members of that union who are working for that employer. Generally speaking, under the NLRA, an employer must refrain from certain actions regarding unionized workers, including:

  • Discriminating in favor of, or against, any particular employee or group of employees to encourage or discourage them from joining a union at all, or joining a particular union;
  • Interfering with efforts among its employees to form a union, or join or support a union;
  • Refusing to bargain with a union lawfully authorized to represent  its employees; and
  • Discharging (firing) or otherwise taking adverse employment action against employees who have filed (or have threatened to file) charges against the employer, or who have testified in either an NLRB or federal court proceeding against the employer.

Generally, executives, managers and even some supervisors are not protected by the NLRA, and are not eligible to either join or continue membership in workplace unions.  This is because they are considered part of the employer’s management team rather than its labor force.  Additionally, certain categories of employees are not covered by the NLRA at all, including:

  • Most domestic workers;
  • Family members of business owners; and
  • Employees in certain specific industries, such as the transportation industry (who, as noted above, are covered by the RLA).

For their part, unions are not permitted to engage in unfair practices, either.  The Labor Management Relations Act (also known as the Taft-Hartley Act), for example, prohibits unions from:

  • Pressuring or punishing members who are exercising or trying to exercise their rights under the NLRA;
  • Causing or influencing an employer to discriminate against an employee based upon that employee’s membership or non-membership in a union;
  • Refusing to bargain in good faith with an employer if that union has been chosen by the majority of employees as their collective bargaining representative; and
  • Charging excessive fees or dues to employers or its members.

If you believe that your union or employer has violated the NLRA, you can file a complaint with your local NLRB office.  The NLRB will then evaluate and investigate your complaint, and decide whether or not to bring a formal charge against the union or employer.  You may also file a legal action in federal court for breach of the duty of fair representation (a “DFR” case), if your union has failed to fairly and properly represent you. However, the time period in which you must file a DFR case is VERY short (generally six months from when the failure to represent occurred), so you should not delay in consulting with an attorney.

Legal Editor: Eric M. Nelson, January 2015 (updated February 2016)

Changes may occur in this area of law. The information provided is brought to you as a public service with the help and assistance of volunteer legal editors, and is intended to help you better understand the law in general. It is not intended to be legal advice regarding your particular problem or to substitute for the advice of a lawyer.

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