Employees, Unions, Management & Federal Labor Law

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Understanding the Complexities of Union and Labor Laws

Parsons' attorneys have a strong background assisting employers with labor and union laws and can you help navigate these laws.

Unions have been in decline for decades and now represent only a very small portion of workers in the private sector. Consequently, many employers, believing that federal labor deals only with unions, conclude now that they need not worry about labor law. This is incorrect. Federal labor law applies to non-union employers just as much as it does to union employers. Indeed, in recent years, federal labor law has been used in new and surprising ways, and has caused unexpected difficulties for non-union employers.

Federal labor law (the National Labor Relations Act or “NLRA”) gives non-management employees the right to engage in “concerted activities” for the purpose of forming unions, bargaining collectively with their employers, and taking other actions for “mutual aid or protection.” An employer violates the law (commits “an unfair labor practice”) if it “interferes with” with an employee’s right to do any of the above. These employee rights and the prohibition on employer interference with them apply just as much in the non-union sector as in the union sector.

The National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) is the federal agency with authority to enforce federal labor law. An employee can complain to the NLRB about what he or she perceives to be unlawful “interfering” conduct by an employer. A union organizer trying to gain a toehold in a workplace can also complain to the NLRB. The NLRB will investigate charges of “unfair labor practices” by an employer, and has the authority to punish an offending employer and to order an appropriate remedy.

Because employees have the right to engage in “concerted activities” for “mutual aid or protection,” they are entitled to complain, criticize and agitate about their employer, its management and practices, and the terms and conditions of their employment generally. The employer cannot punish, discriminate or retaliate against them for doing so.

While employees have traditionally been free to engage in such concerted activities during their breaks and while not working, including at social gatherings, neighborhood restaurants or clubs, the rise of “social media,” such as Facebook, Twitter and other Internet websites, has changed the location and reach of legally permitted concerted activities. Employees are openly and at times vulgarly attacking their supervisors and employers to their Internet “friends.” In response, some employers have treated such activity as insubordination and disciplined offending employees. Employers have also implemented policies prohibiting such conduct. However, in doing so, employers run the risk of violating federal labor law by punishing lawful “concerted activity.” The NLRB has issued a number of decisions against employers on these grounds.

Employers should educate themselves on federal labor law and how it might apply to them and their policies governing employee conduct.