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Federal Labor Law and Worker Organizations—An Overview

Federal Statutes Protect the Rights of Workers to Engage in Collective Bargaining

Labor LawIt’s a story as old as time—when one person provides labor to another person, both seek to maximize their return, causing an inherent conflict. An employer seeks to keep costs down by minimizing wages and avoiding fringe benefits, if possible. Workers want a fair wage that allows them and their families a decent standard of living. Unfortunately, the parties to this relationship are not on equal footing—the employer often has far more leverage than the employee, particularly when there’s a glut of available workers. Accordingly, there’s a long history of worker exploitation in the United States, which frequently has led to worker strikes and other employment unrest. To address the rights of both employees and employers, the Congress has enacted a number of laws, setting forth the rules and guidelines for unions and collective bargaining.

A Brief History of Federal Labor Law

The earliest efforts by workers to organize and enhance their rights occurred prior to the American Revolution. Though not formally unionized, tailors in New York City came together in 1768 for the first recorded labor strike in North America. Nearly 30 years later, shoemakers in Philadelphia formed the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers, the nation’s first labor union.

Labor unions exploded across the United States throughout the 1800s, as the Industrial Revolution changed the face of work and employment, putting large numbers of skilled and unskilled laborers to work in factories. Initially, unions were almost exclusively local, often affiliated with a single employer. In the mid-19th century, though, regional and national labor organizations arose, bringing together smaller unions of similar workers into larger and more powerful national entities.

Most early organizing was among skilled craftsmen. Starting in the 1880s, though, the Knights of Labor, one of the most powerful national trade unions, increasingly attracted unskilled workers, many of whom were paid less than subsistence wages and worked in dangerous or unhealthy environments. In order to deal with such exploitative conditions, unions began agitating for higher wages and improved working conditions. Strikes and boycotts, previously avoided by unions, became a common tactic. Those workers favoring a more aggressive approach broke off from the Knights of Labor and formed the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

Over the next 50 years, the power of national unions waxed and waned. All that changed, however, with the Great Depression. Discord within the labor movement led to the formation of a new national entity, the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO). Congress enacted the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (also known as the NLRA and the Wagner Act), which guarantees certain basic rights to workers. By 1945, more than 12 million American employees were members of a trade union. In 1947, Congress passed additional laws related to collective bargaining, limiting certain actions by trade unions and union members.

The Goals of Labor Law in the United States

Federal labor law governing collective bargaining is intended to level the playing field as far as the bargaining power of employers and employees. To achieve this objective, the law protects the rights of employees to form and belong to trade unions but also curtails or prohibits certain actions by workers that would be unfair to employers or other employees.

Labor law protects workers’ rights to form and join unions because unions have proven to have a number of advantages for workers:

  • Unions provide many benefits not afforded to non-union workers. For example, most workers are considered to be employed “at-will,” meaning they can be terminated at any time for almost any reason. That’s not the case with most union workers—typically, union employees may only be fired in accordance with the terms of a collective bargaining agreement.
  • Unions typically lead to higher wages and better benefits.
  • Unions have been responsible for many significant workplace improvements, including the five-day work week, minimum wages, OSHA protections, and wage-and-hour laws.
  • Unions make it easier to bring about positive change.

Key Statutes Governing the Rights of Workers to Form and Join Unions

The Wagner Act, named after its sponsor, Senator Robert F. Wagner, grants the federal government the ultimate authority to regulate and resolve labor relations and disputes in the United States. Enacted in 1935, the act, also known as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), applies to most employers and employees involved in businesses that affect interstate commerce. The NLRA created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which has the power to hold proceedings to resolve labor controversies. The NLRA also specifically conveys to employees the rights to join a trade union, to strike, and to participate in collective bargaining, and it enumerates certain “unfair labor practices,” including:

  • Any interference with, coercion, or restraint on a worker’s right to join a union or engage in union activities
  • Any interference with the formation or administration of a labor union
  • Any discrimination in hiring, firing, or other conditions of employment intended to encourage or discourage membership in a union
  • Discrimination against any employee who files a complaint related to unfair labor practices or who testifies in any such type of proceeding
  • Refusal to recognize an authorized trade union or to bargain collectively with the union

The Taft-Hartley Act, also known as the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, amended the NLRA to target unfair practices by unions and unionized employees, such as:

  • Closed shops, where a collective bargaining agreement requires all workers to belong to a union
  • Wildcat strikes, in which workers strike without union approval or authorization
  • Secondary boycotts, which involve strikes or similar actions by workers unrelated to the labor dispute
  • Secondary and mass picketing
  • Monetary donations by trade unions to federal political campaigns

The NLRA was further amended in 1959 by the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure (Landrum-Griffin) Act, which requires unions to hold secret elections and protects union members from violation of certain constitutional rights.

Employers and employees not subject to the NLRA may have their relationships governed by other federal or state statutes. The Railway Labor Act governs labor relations in the railway and airline industries. The employees and agencies in the federal public sector are subject to the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Act, which is administered by the Federal Labor Relations Authority.

States extensively regulate the employer–employee bargaining relationship. They may regulate employers and employees not covered by the NLRA.

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