Labor Law

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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An area of the law that deals with the rights of employers, employees, and labor organizations.

U.S. labor law covers all facets of the legal relationship between employers, employees, and employee LABOR UNIONS. Employers' opposition to recognizing employees' rights to organize and bargain collectively with management has resulted in a system of primarily federal laws and regulations that is adversarial in nature. Modern labor law dates from the passage of the WAGNER ACT of 1935, also known as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) (29 U.S.C.A. §§ 151 et seq.). Congress has passed two major revisions of this act: the TAFT-HARTLEY ACT of 1947, also known as the LABOR MANAGEMENT RELATIONS ACT (29 U.S.C.A. §§ 141 et seq.), and the LANDRUM-GRIFFIN ACT of 1959, also known as the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (29 U.S.C.A. §§ 401 et seq.).

The railroad and airline industries are governed by the Federal Railway Labor Act (45 U.S.C.A. § 151 et seq.), originally passed in 1926 and substantially amended in 1934. Federal employees are covered by the separate Federal

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Service Labor Management and Employee Relation Act (5 U.S.C.A. §§ 7101 et seq.). Labor law is also made by the NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS BOARD (NLRB), an ADMINISTRATIVE AGENCY that enforces federal labor statutes, and by federal courts when they interpret labor legislation and NLRB decisions. In addition, state and municipal employees are covered by state law.

A basic principle of U.S. labor law is that the SUPREMACY CLAUSE of the Constitution authorizes Congress to prohibit states from using their powers to regulate labor relations. The ability of Congress to preempt state labor laws has been defined largely by the U.S. Supreme Court because the NLRA is imprecise about what states can and cannot do. The Court has set out two basic principles concerning PREEMPTION: not all state labor laws are preempted by federal statute, and conduct actually protected by the federal statutes is immune from state regulation. For example, VANDALISM committed by a union organizing campaign may be subject to state criminal and civil sanctions. A strike in an industry subject to the NLRA that is aimed at improving wages cannot be prohibited by the state.

Historical Background

Labor law traces its roots to the early 1800s, when employees who banded together to strike for improved working conditions were branded as criminals. By the mid-nineteenth century, the law changed to recognize the right of workers to organize and conduct COLLECTIVE BARGAINING with their employers. Employers, however, were not receptive to unions. Between 1842 and 1932, they routinely used injunctions to stop strikes and to frustrate union organizing. The NORRIS-LAGUARDIA ACT (29 U.S.C.A. §§ 101 et seq.) was passed by Congress in 1932 to curb the use of labor injunctions, preventing employers from going through the federal courts to quash unions. The passage of the Wagner Act three years later signaled the beginning of a new era in labor relations and labor law. The legacy of employer-union conflict shaped the new system of government regulation of labor-management relations.

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

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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...

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