Labor laws are the laws that govern the relationships between employers and employees when employees unionize. Labor laws regulate whether employees can join together to negotiate employment terms collectively. When laws allow collective bargaining, they determine the obligations and rights of the employer and employees.
Where do labor laws come from?
Lawmakers pass labor laws with the goal of making the employer-employee relationship fair to everyone involved. Proponents believe that workers have an unfair bargaining position compared to the resources and power of a corporation. They believe that laws requiring corporations to participate in unionized negotiations in some circumstances are beneficial to society and to the economy.
Today, lawmakers and courts see the right to unionize as a First Amendment protection. The First Amendment guarantees citizens the right to associate with the people they choose. Because employees negotiate together when they form a union, their activities are protected by the First Amendment.
Union laws are changing and controversial
Despite laws allowing labor unions, the United States has one of the lowest rates of unionized labor in the industrial world. In its early history, American lawmakers were outright hostile to idea of organized labor. The first court decisions regarding labor unions overwhelmingly favored employers. It wasn’t until the 20th century that laws and court decisions began to recognize labor unions in the United States. Laws including the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and the Clayton Act of 1914 established federal minimum wage laws and guaranteed the right to organize.
The National Labor Relations Board
In 1935, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act. The Act created the National Labor Relations Board. The Board oversees union voting and negotiations in the United States. When the Board receives allegations of violations of the National Labor Relations Act, they can investigate. They have the power to prosecute violations and authorize sanctions. The National Labor Relations Board has offices throughout the United States.
The Union Process
Employees can vote to unionize. The process is democratic. If a majority of employees want to form a union, they can pursue it. If employees vote to unionize, the employer must come to the table to negotiate in good faith. The National Labor Relations Board oversees the process to make sure that both sides negotiate in good faith. The Board can’t force either side to enter into an agreement. Rather, they ensure that both sides approach negotiations with an honest attempt to reach an agreement.
A union might operate by electing delegates. The delegates may in turn elect executive leadership. In other cases, employees directly elect their executives.
Union leaders have a fiduciary duty to handle funds honestly and fairly. Both common law and the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 direct union leaders to be judicious with union funds. Leadership can face finds and prison if they embezzle or try to embezzle funds from the union.
Unions typically have to file their bylaws with the Secretary of Labor. Most union bylaws are also posted online. The Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 says that all union members have the right to vote. They may attend meetings and speak. They have a right to vote on whether to increase union fees.
A union can take collective action. They can strike. They can collectively negotiate issues that include wages, notices before layoffs, just cause for termination and procedures for dispute resolution. However, a union can’t demand to sit on the corporation’s board or demand to share governance of the corporation.
Knowing what laws apply to the case
A lot of labor law comes from the federal government. However, states are free to make their own labor laws too. In fact, most states have at least some labor laws in place. These laws often provide for at-will employment relationships that allow employers to discharge employees without cause.
Generally, states are free to create their own laws as long as they don’t conflict with federal laws. When parties litigate labor issues, knowing what laws apply can be confusing and debatable. Labor lawyers have to know whether to apply federal law, state law or both. They must also read past precedent carefully to make sure that the decisions are both binding and relevant to their case.
Labor attorneys must keep in mind that union disputes often have their own procedures. In most cases, aggrieved union members must file a demand before pursuing formal action. They might have to wait several months before they can bring their claim. In addition, many union issues are negotiated and arbitrated. Labor attorneys must know these requirements and know their limits. Knowing and following procedures is critically important to helping the client navigate the union process and requirements successfully.
Labor law litigation
Even though a lot of labor law involves negotiations and arbitration, union agreements are enforceable in court. Because the courts have the power to enforce and strike down agreements, labor attorneys occasionally litigate the issues in a formal, judicial setting. Labor attorneys must be prepared to draft and file lawsuits as well as use the rules of civil procedure to conduct discovery and argue their case in court.
Labor laws have changed greatly over time in the United States. Early government officials were wary of unions. In fact, the first U.S. union formed in 1834 with the hope of negotiating a 10-hour workday. Even though the United States now has labor laws and unions, they are small and limited compared to other industrialized countries.
Major legislation throughout the 20th century has drastically changed the relationship and interactions between employer and employee. Because the laws that are in place are so significant, both corporations and unions rely on lobbyists to advocate for changes in the law. Labor attorneys might find themselves working to help lawmakers understand their positions as they draft and consider changes to labor laws on a state or national level.
Other employment laws
Labor law is only one part of employment law. In addition to labor laws, there are laws that govern all employment relationships in the United States. These laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age and disability. They create safety standards for employees. They establish programs for compensation for employees who are hurt while working. Labor lawyers must know and work with these laws in addition to the laws that specifically govern unions.
Who practices labor law?
Attorneys who practice labor law work in all types of legal employment. They might work on behalf of the union in order to negotiate a contract with an employer. On the other hand, they might work on behalf of a corporation to negotiate with the union. A labor lawyer might be an employee, or they might work in private practice and offer services to the union or employer on a contract basis.
In addition to attorneys who work in private practice, labor attorneys also work for the National Labor Relations Board. When the NLRB steps in to oversee the unionization process, lawyers do their part to carry out the Board’s work. When the Board prosecutes violations of labor laws, lawyers perform these tasks. They might also serve in an adjudicative capacity in order to determine whether violations have occurred and issue appropriate sanctions.
Why Become a Labor Lawyer?
Labor law is big business. That makes it big business for the attorneys who work to represent both corporations and their employees. Labor attorneys perform important work that impacts many people. It’s important to know the laws well and help clients understand their rights, obligations and the likely outcome of any proposed course of action. Labor attorneys help their clients weigh the pros and cons and strategically bargain for their interests. Labor attorneys are often paid well for undertaking this difficult work.
Labor attorneys perform the important work of creating a mutually agreeable work environment. They help employees create acceptable and favorable working conditions. They also help employers pursue their interests. Whether they represent employers or employees, many labor attorneys find satisfaction helping their clients with these important tasks.
The Business of Doing Business
Labor laws shape the way that Americans do business. Labor attorneys shape, challenge and implement labor laws. Their work impacts nearly all Americans directly or indirectly. Lawyers who practice labor law enjoy the challenges and the rewards of this high-profile and high-stakes area of law.