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What Is Labor Law?

Labor laws affect anyone who has a job or has employees. Labor and employment law covers the employer-employee relationship. It protects employee rights and ensures employers obey all federal and state laws when hiring and firing workers.

Labor law focuses on the relationship between employers and unions. Since labor unions first gained power in the 1930s, federal laws have described how employers must deal with unions, the formation of unions, and the role of unions in bargaining agreements.

Purpose of Labor Law

Labor law affects workers' rights and collective bargaining agreements. Although any worker may have an employment contract, employees have more negotiating power in groups. In the past, workers' unions negotiated for better working conditions, higher pay, and regular hours. Eventually, legislators codified those demands into the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

Unions also protect their members' legal rights. In cases of wrongful termination, workplace discrimination, or other legal issues, union members receive legal representation from their union.

The National Labor Relations Act

In 1935, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). This law established the government's position in promoting collective bargaining and the freedom of workers to establish labor unions in the workplace.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) oversees the NLRA and hears complaints against employers and labor organizations. The NLRB investigates charges of unfair labor practices before they go to litigation.

Under the NLRA, workers can establish unions and create safer workplaces legally. These include the right to:

  • Form or join a labor organization
  • Choose representatives for their organization
  • Engage in collective bargaining negotiations with employers for wages and benefits
  • Refuse membership in a labor organization as a condition of employment

If employers violate the NLRA, employees may take legal action against them for unfair labor practices. These unfair practices include:

  • Interfering with the establishment of a labor union
  • Discriminating against union members by threatening termination or layoffs
  • Discharging or threatening whistleblowers for testifying in union legal matters

The NLRA does not prohibit unions and employers from negotiating to require new employees to join the union as a condition of employment. This issue was left for state labor laws and "right-to-work" regulations.

Fair Labor Standards Act

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) determines what employers and labor unions negotiate for. The FLSA sets wages and hours, including overtime, across the country. FLSA standards are the minimum allowable. States may have higher wages, but not lower. The FLSA does not cover salaried employees (exempt employees), independent contractors, and workers in some specialized professions.

The FLSA basic standards include:

  • Minimum wage: Federal minimum wage is presently $7.25 per hour. Many states have doubled this figure.
  • Overtime pay: Covered nonexempt workers must receive time-and-a-half pay for any hours worked over 40 hours per workweek.
  • Child labor: The laws allowing teenagers to work are strict. Employers who hire workers under 18 should consult an employment attorney before hiring juvenile workers.

State Labor Laws

States have their own labor offices separate from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). Each state may set its own rules on labor negotiations and other employment laws as long as they at least meet federal requirements.

Labor Laws and Right-to-Work

As originally written, the NLRA allowed businesses and unions to form "closed shops." This meant that unions and employers could agree that any worker must be a union member. It also allowed businesses to fire anyone expelled from the union regardless of the reason.

Later legislation, the Taft-Hartley Act, prohibited closed shops. States could pass legislation forbidding contracts that required all workers to belong to a union and pay union dues.

As of 2024, 28 states and the U.S. territory of Guam are right-to-work states. The remaining states still allow employers to require union membership. But many states, such as California, have used state laws to replace the benefits of collective bargaining, ensuring all workers receive equal representation in employment contracts.

Practice Area Notes

Labor laws vary from state to state. Federal law regulates how certain industries allow employees to organize. Independent contractors and workers in federal employment and management cannot form unions. Public service workers, such as police and firefighters, have other employment issues. They need their own bargaining arrangements with the city or county that employs them.

Related Practice Areas

  • Employment Law: Labor law sets standards for employer and employee conduct in the workplace. It plays a major role in many employment law cases.
  • Wage and Benefits Law: Wage and benefits cases often look to labor law to determine the relevant minimum wage.
  • Education Law: Teachers and other public sector employees are much more likely to be union members than other professions. Contracts negotiated with teachers' unions often have a major impact on education policy.

Get Legal Advice

If you need legal advice about any labor law question, contact an employment law attorney in your area. State and local rules greatly impact your legal matter, and you will need an attorney who knows these regulations.

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