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Labor Law

Modern Labor Law

The NLRA is the most important and widely applicable U.S. labor law. Its section 7 (29 U.S.C.A. § 157) guarantees employees "the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively, through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for … mutual aid or protection." Employees are also entitled to "refrain from any or all such activities." The act prohibits employers and unions from committing "unfair labor practices" that would violate these rights or certain other specified interests of employers and the general public in various circumstances.

Labor law generally addresses one of three different situations: (1) a union attempts to organize the employees of an employer and to get the employer to recognize it as the employees' bargaining representative; (2) a union seeks to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with an employer; or (3) a union and employer disagree on the interpretation and application of an existing contract between the two. Within these three situations, specific rules have been created to deal with rights of employees and employers.

Organization and Representation of Employees Under the NLRA neither employers nor unions may physically coerce employees or discriminate against them on the job because they do or do not wish to join a union, engage in a peaceful strike or work stoppage, or exercise other organizational rights. Although an employer is forbidden to discharge peaceful strikers, the employer may hire replacement workers to carry on business.

When the employees of a particular company decide to be represented by a union, they usually contact the union's parent association or local division for aid and guidance. The union may solicit membership by holding meetings to discuss how working conditions can be improved, and by distributing leaflets.

The employees, union, or employer, may file with the NLRB a petition to conduct an election to decide whether the union should be the collective bargaining representative. This petition must meet with the support of at least 30 percent of the employees in the bargaining unit named in the petition. Once the petition has been filed, the NLRB must determine whether any obstacles exist to holding the election. If not, the NLRB will attempt to get the union and employer to agree to an election.

If the union and employer agree to an election, the NLRB conducts a secret ballot election to determine whether the majority of the employees in the bargaining unit desire to be represented by the union. During the election campaign, both employer and union may freely express their views about unionization of employees, but neither may resort to threats or bribes. If the union wins the election, the NLRB will certify it as the exclusive bargaining representative of the employees. The union may then be designated an appropriate bargaining unit of a particular category of workers.

A union is generally entitled to picket or patrol with signs reading "Unfair," for up to 30 days at the place of business of an employer it is trying to organize. To picket longer for organizing purposes, the union must file for an NLRB election. If the union then loses the election, it is forbidden to resume such picketing for a year. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right to peaceful union picketing in Thornhill v. Alabama, 310 U.S. 88, 60 S. Ct. 736, 84 L. Ed. 1093 (1940).

Negotiation of a Collective Bargaining Agreement Collective bargaining is the process in which an employer and an accredited employee representative negotiate an agreement concerning wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment. An employer and a union representing its employees have a mutual obligation under the NLRA to bargain with each other in GOOD FAITH. The primary goal of collective bargaining is to promote industrial peace between employers and employees. The parties have a duty to try reasonably to accommodate differences and reach common ground, but ultimately they have no obligation to enter into a contract.

The FEDERAL MEDIATION AND CONCILIATION SERVICE or state labor agencies may provide parties with mediators to help them negotiate. Mediators act as neutral facilitators. It is a fundamental part of federal labor policy that unions and management should resolve their disputes through voluntary collective bargaining and not through the imposition of a solution by the government. If a labor dispute becomes serious enough to significantly affect national health or safety, the president has the statutory authority to obtain an 80-day INJUNCTION from the federal courts against any strike or lockout. This procedure has been used over three dozen times since 1947, but rarely since the 1970s.

Pressure to Resolve a Contract Dispute When an employer and a union are unable to resolve their differences and negotiate an employment contract, the parties may use different types of pressure to produce an agreement. These types of pressure include boycotts, strikes, the carrying of signs and banners, picketing, and lockouts.

A labor boycott is any type of union action that seeks to reduce or stop public patronage of a business. It is a refusal to purchase from or to handle the products of a particular employer. Employees may legally exert economic pressure on their employer through a boycott, so long as they act peacefully. But a union is forbidden to engage in a SECONDARY BOYCOTT. For example, if a union's primary dispute is with a hardware manufacturer, it may not picket or use other methods to get the employees of a hardware store, who are neutral or secondary parties, to stage a strike at the store in order to force it to cease handling the manufacturer's products.

A strike is a concerted refusal of employees to perform work that they have been assigned, in order to force the employer to grant concessions that the employees have demanded. The right of employees to strike is protected by the courts. A lawful strike must be conducted in an orderly manner and may not be used as a shield for violence or crime. Intimidation and coercion in the course of a strike are unlawful. The peaceful carrying of signs and banners advertising a labor dispute is ordinarily a lawful means to publicize employees' grievances against an employer.

Picketing consists of posting one or more union members at the site of a strike or boycott, in order to interfere with a particular employer's business or to influence the public against patronizing that employer. It can be reasonably regulated. Lawful picketing is peaceful and honest. The use of force, intimidation, or coercion on a picket line is not constitutionally protected activity. In addition, employees are not acting within their rights when they seize any part of the employer's property.

A lockout is an employer's refusal to admit employees to the workplace, in order to gain a concession from them. In American Ship Building Co. v. NLRB, 380 U.S. 300, 85 S. Ct. 955, 13 L. Ed. 2d 855 (1965), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of an employer to lock out employees if the intent is to promote the company's bargaining position and not to destroy the collective bargaining process or the union.

With some frequency, lower federal courts and the National Labor Relations Board have upheld lockouts by employers. In Local 702, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers v. NLRB, 215 F.3d 11 (D.C. Cir. 2000), the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a ruling by the NLRB finding that an employer's lockout did not violate the NLRA. Employees of the union in the case resorted to "inside game" tactics, where the employees refused to work voluntary overtime and adhered strictly to company rules to such an extent that it slowed the company's productivity. The union began using this strategy during labor negotiations with the company. The company imposed a lockout of the employees in order to facilitate the negotiations and to counter the effects of the union's strategy. The appellate court, in upholding a decision by the NLRB, found that the employer had legitimate and substantial business justifications for the lockout and that the union had not proven that the employer had acted with an improper motive in initiating the lockout.

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