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Labor Law

Unionization of Labor

Labor Law and Its Impact on Workers and Employers

Labor law concerns the rights and responsibilities of workers and employers in businesses that are generally unionized.

Extreme working conditions existed during the 19th century, prompting the movement toward forming unions. A union is an organized group of workers that seeks to protect employees or workers and expand their rights—and this movement has evolved into what is known as labor law. Labor law focuses mostly on unionized workers; however, labor law also applies to any legal employee, all of whom have certain legal rights. Other components of labor law refer to age requirements, family medical leave matters, and those covered by protected classes under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Congress initially passed the Norris-LaGuardia Act in 1932, which stopped federal courts from forbidding strikes, picketing, or boycotts in nonviolent labor disputes. It was considered a bold statement by Congress that workers should be allowed to organize unions. Employees had the right to use collective bargaining to improve their wages and working conditions. Collective bargaining is a method by which a union or organized body of employees negotiates wages and other conditions of employment.

In 1935 Congress passed what is now known as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the federal law that gives workers the right to bargain collectively with their employer and form unions. The NLRA is aimed at establishing and maintaining industrial peace for the benefit of commerce flow. It also encourages management and unions to actively participate and engage in collective bargaining and productivity for the betterment of workers and managers. The NLRA prohibits employers from engaging in unfair labor practices, such as interfering with union organization efforts, dominating or interfering with any union, discriminating against a union member, or refusing to bargain collectively with a union.

About 25 percent of workers belonged to a union in the 1950s. As of 2017 that number was closer to 11 percent, which was one of the lowest rates since 1916. Due to unions' decline in strength, their bargaining power is reduced.

The typical steps for organizing a union include:

  • the campaign—the organizers speak with those interested
  • the authorization cards—employees sign cards requesting the union to act as their bargaining representative
  • the petition—the union petitions the Federal Labor Relations Board for an election
  • the election—all members vote on whether they want the union to represent them
  • the final stages of organizing the union

An employer may not interfere with the union organizing effort in any manner, as courts consider employer interference an unfair labor practice.

Statutes Applicable to Labor Law

Many statutes cover employer and employee rights and responsibilities, including the U.S. Constitution, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the National Labor Relations Act, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.

The U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the land. By virtue of the 14th Amendment, which was adopted in July 1868, equal protection under the law became an important factor that applied to all states. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned segregation and forbade discrimination based on race, color, sex, or place of origin. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 brought about significant changes. People who claim certain types of discrimination are now entitled to a trial by jury of their peers, and if they win, they may receive compensatory and punitive damages in court. Millions of individuals are also now covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act.

In addition to the U.S. Constitution, a number of laws offer protections related to specific aspects of work and the workplace. These laws include the following:

  • Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)
  • Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
  • Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994
  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
  • Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA)

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 is a federal law that establishes standards, including wage and hour provisions, for both full-time and part-time employees and that strictly limits child labor. The FLSA establishes minimum wage—a required minimum rate set by federal, state, and local laws that employers pay per hour to employees—as well as overtime pay. It also sets record-keeping requirements and child labor laws. A child labor law is any federal law that ensures that the health, well-being, and educational opportunities of children under the legal age are not jeopardized by working in business or industry. FLSA covers those in the private sector and in federal, state, and local government levels. The Wage and Hour Division (WHD) is part of the U.S. Department of Labor and enforces the FLSA.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), enacted in early 1993, is a federal law providing certain employees time off for family and medical reasons. Certain stipulations apply, and FMLA users must provide medical documentation for employers. When granted, employees receive up to 12 weeks of unpaid but job-protected leave per year.

Veterans have special protection under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994, which bans employers from discriminating against veterans. This act covers civilians who serve in the reserve and allows them to have their current positions or one similar held with pay and seniority as though they never left.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids discrimination that is based on race, color, national origin, religion, or gender. Congress created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to issue rules and regulations to help educate managers and workers about the Civil Rights Act and to enforce Title VII.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967 forbids discrimination against workers who are 40 or older.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990. It bans discrimination against individuals with disabilities in regard to jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that the general public can access. Disabilities are defined as physical and mental impairments that limit major life activities, and some conditions, such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, and schizophrenia, in most cases qualify as disabilities as well.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act forbids sex discrimination related to pregnancy, childbirth, or medical conditions related to those issues.

States can offer more protection to workers under their respective constitutions, but they cannot set legal standards that are lower than those offered by the U.S. Constitution. For instance, the U.S. Constitution and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act cite protected classes as race, color, religion, national origin, and age. Other protection applies under the Age Discrimination Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Pregnancy Act. However, under the Florida constitution and laws, a person's marital status is also included as a protected class.

Labor Law Overview

There are many important federal laws that provide various protections related to employment issues. Some rights are protected by more than one law.