How Labor Unions Work

Labor Union Laws

In 1935, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to “encourage a healthy relationship between private-sector workers and their employers” [ref]. Prior to the NLRA, employers were not required by law to recognize a union or to bargain in good faith. By establishing employees’ basic rights to join unions and engage in collective bargaining, Congress hoped to reduce work stoppages, strikes and other conflicts between labor and management that had all too often resulted in violence. The act also created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) as the organization to enforce the NLRA.

The NLRA accomplished three significant objectives:

  1. Allowed workers to have elections to decide if they want to be represented
  2. Established laws protecting employees from discrimination based on union- or group-related activity
  3. Created the NLRB as an administrative organization to enforce the law

Perhaps most importantly, the NLRA allowed unions to represent employees under the law. The act’s text states that it covers employees whose employers are involved in interstate commerce, but this is a broad definition, one that is easily applied. The act also outlined the basic rights for workers, something many had been lobbying about for decades. In addition to the right to union representation and participation, the NLRA allowed employees to engage in collective bargaining and protected concerted activities -- with or without a union -- that attempt to improve working conditions. The NLRA also granted employees the right to choose not not to take part in any of those activities, hopefully preventing unions or employers from exerting undue pressure on employees.

Some workers are specifically excluded from the protections of the NLRA:

  • Agricultural laborers
  • Domestic service workers
  • People employed by a parent or spouse
  • Independent contractors
  • Supervisors (supervisors who have been discriminated against for refusing to violate the NLRA may be covered)
  • Railroad and airline employees
  • Federal, state and local government employees
  • Employees of any entity that does not fit the NLRA’s definition of an employer
  • Confidential employees