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Know the Law Regarding Union Organizing

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) is the federal law that governs the relationship between unions and private employers.  It does not generally cover public employers or public employees.  This is a highly contentious area of law that can easily confuse both employees and employers.  Although less than eight percent of private employers are unionized, portions of the NLRA apply to all workers.

Q: What are Section 7 rights?
A:
 Section 7 of the NLRA gives employees the right to form, join, or assist labor organizations and to choose a representative to collectively bargain on their behalf.   Section 7 also gives employees the right to refrain from engaging in such activity, for the most part.

Within reason, Section 7 is broadly interpreted by the National Labor Relations Board (the government administrative agency that enforces the NLRA); therefore, nearly anything that affects a term or condition of employment is protected under Section 7.

Q: What are authorization cards?
A:
 An authorization card is a legal document signed by an employee to allow the union to act on his or her behalf for collective bargaining.  Authorization cards are very important because they give a great deal of power to the union.  They are not cards that employees simply sign to learn more about the union or to be included on the union’s mailing list.  Rather, an authorization card is a legal contract that may ultimately require an employee to pay union dues and subject an employee to the union’s constitution and by-laws. 
 
Q: Does it cost money to belong to a union?
A:
 Yes.  There is typically an initiation fee, monthly dues, and possible assessments and fines.  A union’s largest—and sometimes only—source of income is dues.

Q: Can a union guarantee better wages or benefits?
A:
 No.  Employees who join a union have an opportunity to bargain for higher wages, better benefits, and more employee-friendly terms and conditions of employment.  However, an employer is under no obligation to agree to a union’s proposals or to grant concessions to the union.  The employer is only required to bargain in good faith with the union. Bargaining is a “two-way street.”  During negotiations, employees’ wages and benefits can go up, down, or stay the same.

Q: If the union calls a strike and I go on strike, do I automatically get my job back when the strike is over?
A:
 Not necessarily.  Under the law, if a union calls a strike to try and force an employer to agree to economic demands, an employer is typically free to permanently replace the strikers.  On the flip side, if a union calls a strike because of what the NLRB finds to be an “unfair labor practice,” (i.e., a violation of The National Labor Relations Act), then those striking employees are normally entitled to return to their jobs when the strike ends.

Q: Are there restrictions on what a supervising member of a company’s management team is allowed to do to influence employees during a union organizing campaign?
A:
  Yes.  An easy way to remember what a supervisor cannot do is to think of the acronym “TIPS,” which stands for Threaten, Interrogate, Promise, and Surveillance.

Supervisors are not allowed to threaten employees that adverse employment action will occur if they vote for a union.  Supervisors cannot interrogate (ask questions of) lower-level employees regarding their opinion about unions or whether those employees will vote for or against the union.  Supervisors cannot promise benefits in exchange for a vote against unionization.  Lastly, supervisors cannot spy on lower-level employees in an effort to ascertain employees’ stance regarding unionization.

However, supervisors are allowed to express facts, opinions, and give factual accounts of union experiences to lower-level employees without violating the law. 

12/28/2009

This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association.  It was prepared by attorney Matthew Austin of the Mason Law Firm Co., LPA in Dublin.

Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from an attorney.

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