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The goal of labor laws is to equalize the bargaining power between employers and employees. The laws primarily deal with the relationship between employers and unions. Labor laws grant employees the right to unionize and allows employers and employees to engage in certain activities (e.g. strikes, picketing, seeking injunctions, lockouts) so as to have their demands fulfilled. The area of labor law is governed by federal law, state law and judicial decisions. It is also governed by regulations and decisions of administrative agencies. States are preempted from interfering with federal statutory law or with the guidelines promulgated by agencies established under federal law or by the U.S. Constitution. In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was enacted by Congress, under its power to regulate interstate commerce, to govern the employer / employee bargaining and union relationship on a national level. The NLRA was amended by the Labor Management Relations (Taft-Hartley) Act in 1947 and the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure (Landrum-Griffen) Act in 1959. Most employers and employees involved in businesses that affect interstate commerce are regulated by the act. The NLRA established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hear disputes between employers and employees arising under the act and to determine which labor organization will represent a unit of employees. The act also establishes a General Council to independently investigate and prosecute cases against violators of the act before the NLRB. The rights of employees to join labor organizations and collectively bargain is also ensured. The NLRA prohibits employers and unions from engaging in specified "unfair labor practices" and establishes an obligation of both parties to engage in good faith collective bargaining. The act also establishes guidelines and regulations to determine what union will represent a given set of employees. The right to strike is guaranteed by the NLRA. If there is a conflict between the NLRA and the Bankruptcy Code, the NLRA generally prevails. 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 (FSLMRA), 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.
Source: Legal Information Institute-Cornell University Law School


How to Unionize

The first step involved is, obviously, your decision to organize. You should also have some confidence that at least half of the workers at your workplace would be inclined to join a union. If possible, try to form a small committee of employees dedicated to the idea, but keep things quiet. The longer it takes management to find out about the unionization attempt, the better. Next, you must decide what union you wish to approach, if any. You do not need to affiliate with any union; it is possible to form your own, independent union if you so wish, and labor law will protect your independent union just as any large, international union. Talk to as many unions as you can, find out what they have to offer, how they organize, resources, etc. Don't be afraid to approach any union, regardless of their name: bookstores have been organized by the Longshoremen, office workers by the United Auto Workers.

Once you have chosen a union, you need to determine what you want the "bargaining unit" to be. That is, who at your workplace will be able to be in the union and who will not. You should include workers that have common duties, interests and similar pay. Managers and security guards cannot be included. Once you have decided what you would like the bargaining unit to be, (the "official" bargaining unit will be determined at a National Labor Relations Board hearing.) you will most likely begin having people sign union cards. These "cards" may be actual cards, or simply a petition. The cards or petition will indicate that the person signing the card would like a union to represent him or her in contract talks regarding wages, benefits, and working conditions, and are completely confidential (the employer never sees them). It is important to get a person's signature and the date on these cards, or they will not be considered valid.

Once 30% of the people in the bargaining unit sign the cards, you are entitled to submit them to the National Labor Relations Board, which views 30% as a sufficient number to warrant an election, that, if won, will certify the union in your workplace. Unofficially, you should get as many signatures as you possibly can. To win the election, you need a majority to vote "yes" and it is not unusual for some individuals who signed cards to end up voting "no." A good rule-of-thumb is that if you can't get at least 60% of the people in the bargaining unit to sign cards, you won't win the election.

Once you are ready to submit the cards to the NLRB (which entails handing the cards to an official and filling out a form), you should mail a certified letter to management indicating that you wish the union to be recognized. This is just a formality, as management will almost always refuse to recognize a union without an election. Once you have submitted the cards, the NLRB will contact the employer to schedule a hearing to determine the actual bargaining unit, and to schedule the election. At the hearing, the company will most likely try to pack the bargaining unit with workers that are likely to vote no, and try to challenge workers that are likely to vote yes. The union's lawyer will most likely handle things at this stage, so don't worry too much.

Once the bargaining unit is made final, the NLRB will schedule the date of the election. The election is secret ballot, overseen by an NLRB agent, with the ballot asking the question, "Do you want the "whatever union" to represent you in contract talks with "whatever employer?" or something similar. A "yes" vote is for the union, a "no" against. A simple majority wins. If you win: congratulations! The company must enter into contract talks with the union regarding wages, benefits, and working conditions. If you lose: you must wait at least one year before trying again.

There are other options, of course: one need not rely on the NLRB process to win recognition to bargain for a contract. Employees can also try to force an employer to recognize them as a union through work actions such as strikes. This can be done even if an election was lost, although if you didn't have the strength to win the election, you may not have the strength to force recognition. You can redefine your bargaining unit to increase your chances. For example, if your unit included factory workers and office staff, and the office staff voted against you in sufficient numbers to cause you to lose the election, you might try to get just the factory workers, where there is more solidarity recognized.

The government protects the right of workers to organize in order to address issues of wages, benefits, and working conditions. The body of laws that protect this right is known as the National Labor Relations Act, sometimes referred to as the Wagner act. Of course, any questions you have regarding labor law can best be answered by a lawyer, but the following is a list of the basics:

  • Any group of workers may organize or help organize a union, except managers (supervisors) and security guards. (security guards can form their own union - they just can't be in a union with other employees)
  • Workers have the right to strike
  • Workers have the right to join a union

The Wagner Act prohibits the employer from certain acts, known as unfair labor practices. If you feel you are the victim of an unfair labor practice, contact the NLRB, which will assign an agent to look into your case or consult a lawyer.

Unfair labor practices include management:

  • Threatening to fire a worker for union activity
  • Threatening a worker in any way, implicitly or explicitly, because of union activities. This can include demotions, reprimands, etc.
  • Asking workers about union activities
  • Threatening cuts in pay or benefits
  • Promising increases in pay or benefits, beyond those normally scheduled. (Of course, this only applies until the election)
  • Spying on union activity

Also of interest: management (or the union) can be held accountable for anyone acting as an agent, even if management didn't know about or approve of the agent's actions. In other words, if an anti-union worker threatens you ("You'll lose your job if you vote yes") management can be held accountable for that threat. This is to prevent management from using workers to deliver threats and thereby get around the law.

Companies do have the right to make predictions as to what will happen if a union wins. It becomes a threat, however, anytime the "prediction" is something that can be controlled by the employer. For example, saying that a major client might withdraw its contracts with the employer if a union wins is within the bounds of free speech. The employer has little or no control over what the client chooses to do. However, saying that a union would be too expensive and that the employer would have to cut its labor force to compensate is a threat, as the employer has complete control over the size of its work force. During the entire campaign and negotiations, the employer must maintain the status quo with regards to pay, benefits, and working conditions. It cannot suddenly grant pay raises or cut pay, although regularly scheduled pay raises must be given on time. Failure to do so is an unfair labor practice.

The NLRB uses a doctrine known as "the totality of conduct" when determining unfair labor practices. This means it looks at the employer's conduct throughout the entire campaign to determine if the law has been broken. In other words, an employer doesn't have to blatantly flaunt labor law to be reprimanded. If the employer constantly bends the law, or commits many minor infractions, the NLRB may find the employer in violation. It therefore behooves all employees to write down all infractions, no matter how minor. Write down the date, who was involved, the time of day, and any witnesses. Good documentation can be critical in winning a favorable ruling from the NLRB.
Source: How to Unionize, by Shannon Matthews


Employer Neutrality and Card Check Recognition

Employer neutrality is when an agreement is obtained from a unionized company that will remain neutral in any attempt to organize its other non-union plants or suppliers.

Card-check recognition is when the employer agrees to recognize the union as the official bargaining unit representative when a majority of the workers sign union authorization cards.

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