The Right to Unionize

The National Labor Relations Act gives employees the right to form or join a union.

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Sections 7 and 8 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) guarantee employees the right to create, join, and participate in a labor union without being unfairly intimidated or punished by their employers.

Employee Rights

Generally, the courts have ruled that Section 7 of the NLRA gives employees the right to:

  • discuss union membership and read and distribute union literature during nonwork time in nonwork areas, such as an employee lounge
  • sign a card asking your employer to recognize your union and bargain with it, sign petitions and grievances concerning employment terms and conditions, and ask your coworkers to sign petitions and grievances, and
  • display your prounion sentiments by wearing message-bearing items such as hats, pins, and T-shirts on the job.

Employer Limitations

Most courts have also ruled that Section 8 of the NLRA means that an employer may not:

  • grant or promise employees promotions, pay raises, desirable work assignments, or other special favors if they oppose unionizing efforts
  • close down a work site or transfer work or reduce benefits to pressure employees not to support unionization, or
  • dismiss, harass, reassign, or otherwise punish or discipline employees—or threaten to—if they support unionization.

How Unions Are Born

If a group of employees wishes to campaign for unionization of their jobs, the best place to begin is by contacting a union that might be interested and proposing the idea.

Unions are usually listed in the yellow pages of your local telephone directory under Labor Organizations. Don’t let their names discourage you. It is not unusual for meat packers to belong to the United Steel Workers, for example, or for office workers to belong to the Teamsters union, which originally represented freight drivers. The only practical way to determine which unions might be interested in unionizing your workplace is to call and ask.

If the union you approach is interested, it will assign professional organizers who will guide you through the rest of the process. If it is not interested—perhaps because your employer is too small or because you work in an industry with which it is not comfortable—that union should be able to suggest another one that would be more appropriate for you to contact. If not, contact the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), www.aflcio.org.

The National Labor Relations Act allows you to form your own, independent union to represent only the workers at your place of employment without affiliating with any established union. Such unions exist, but the complexities of labor law and the cost of running an independent union typically make them unfeasible in all but the largest companies.

Updated by: , J.D.

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