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What Is a Labor Union?

Whether you work in an office, own a business, teach, are a police officer, or work in manufacturing, you've heard of labor unions. Perhaps you're a dues-paying union member yourself. But what exactly are labor unions? How are they created?

Labor unions and union formation have been in the news recently. FindLaw explains more about unions, their history, and what to do if you need one in your workplace.

Labor Union Definition

labor union is a group of employees who band together to protect the interests of the workers. Union members often belong to the same trade and can vary in size. The labor organization uses collective bargaining to negotiate with employers the terms of employment and further its workers' rights and conditions of employment. Unions advocate for:

  • Improved wages
  • Employee benefits
  • Pensions
  • Workers' Compensation
  • Health care
  • Working conditions

This employment contract, called a collective bargaining agreement, sets employment standards. Both sides must negotiate in good faith.

Many unions also lobby and participate in local and national elections. The idea is that union members can have more influence and achieve better results if they act together rather than individually. Members pay union dues to help cover the costs of these services and benefits.

History of Labor Unions

There are reports of unions forming, like the Journeymen Cordwainers (shoemakers) Society of Philadelphia, as early as 1794. The labor movement began to take hold in the mid-19th century. These early unions fought for better factory working conditions, higher wages, shorter work days, and an end to child labor.

The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (NLRA), or the Wagner Act, is the federal law that guarantees the right to unionize and protects union activity. The NLRA sought to equalize the bargaining power between workers and employers. The NLRA does not protect independent contractors, domestic employees, or agricultural workers.

Employee rights became protected under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA). The FLSA set a federal minimum wage and overtime pay, created a 40-hour work week, and outlawed child labor. It also protects employees or whistleblowers who report employer violations. However, the FLSA did not create rights to certain benefits, like sick leave, rest, or meal breaks.

Congress passed the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, or the Taft-Hartley Act, over President Harry S. Truman's veto. The Taft-Hartley Act limited union workers' striking and picketing. It banned closed shops that hire only union members.

Taft-Hartley paved the way for right-to-work laws. These laws allow employees to decline union membership while benefiting from collective bargaining agreements. Right-to-work laws have made unionizing more difficult for employees. Currently, 26 states and Guam have right-to-work laws. Michigan repealed its law in 2023.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned employment discrimination based on race, national origin, religion, gender, color, and disability.

Labor unions grew in popularity during the New Deal era and World War II, with membership peaking in the mid-20th century. After 1970, union membership began and continues to decline, except in the public sector.

Examples of Labor Unions and Rights of Members

Labor unions represent many different types of groups, from firefighters, police officers, and teachers to actors and hockey players. Many unions are branches of larger, more powerful umbrella organizations like the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). For example, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, known for the infamous disappearance of union president Jimmy Hoffa, is still one of the largest unions in the country.

The United Auto Workers Union has been in the news in recent years after it voted to strike against three major auto manufacturers in 2023 after contract negotiations broke down. The strike resolved with the union winning a 25% wage increase and cost-of-living adjustments.

The Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) protects the rights of all union members. These rights include freedom of speech, a say in the rates of dues and fees, and the right to nominate and remove elected officers and representatives. It further outlines the responsibilities of union officers.

Your employer cannot fire or penalize you for engaging in protected concerted activities. These activities include discussing the need for wage improvements, benefits, or potentially dangerous conditions with other employees. Should you face a backlash from your employer, the National Labor Relations Board provides protections and recourse for employees.

How To Form a Labor Union

Given the benefits of collective bargaining, you may want to start your own union at work. While various federal and state laws govern public-sector unions, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) governs private-sector unions. The NLRA is enforced by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB protects most private-sector employees. NLRB provides a process by which workers can form their own union, decertify an existing union, or report unfair labor practices their employers commit.

To begin forming a union, you should talk to your coworkers to gauge their interest and commitment to the idea. You'll need to provide the NLRB with a showing of support to hold an election, and you'll need a majority of your coworkers' votes to form the union. You will also need to file a petition with the NLRB regional office, which will assess whether to hold an election. Alternatively, you could see if there's an existing union you and your coworkers could join to improve your working conditions.

Once formed, elected leadership oversees union activities. Often, a union forms a bargaining unit representing employees when negotiating a collective bargaining agreement with the employer. The union enforces the agreement and provides arbitration and grievance procedures if it is violated.

Get Help Forming a Union or Resolving a Labor Dispute

Many laws exist to protect workers and streamline the labor dispute resolution process. Knowing which employment laws apply to you and your specific rights and responsibilities can be difficult. Whether you're an employer dealing with a labor dispute, an employee alleging a violation of labor laws, or a worker seeking to join or form a labor union, an experienced lawyer can guide you through the process. Contact a local labor law attorney today to protect your rights.

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