Federal laws. Much of federal labor legislation is an effort by Congress to assist labor in its efforts to organize. The first key piece of legislation was the Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932, which deprived federal courts of jurisdiction to issue injunctions to prevent workers from forming a union or from striking. Prior to Norris-LaGuardia, management was often able to stop union activities by convincing federal courts that such activity constituted an unlawful conspiracy. The courts issued injunctions prohibiting the activity and threw violators into jail. After Norris-LaGuardia, injunctions were available only to prevent true criminal conduct or to prevent irreparable property damage.
Norris-LaGuardia also provided that employment contracts used to discourage unions were unenforceable in federal court. These contracts, called yellow-dog contracts, contained provisions in which the employee promised not to join a union and made union participation a firing offense.
The next key piece of labor legislation was the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, probably the most important labor law of all. It gave workers the right to organize without management interference and established that certain practices then in use to discourage unions were unfair labor practices. The law also created the National Labor Relations Board to enforce the new employee rights.
Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act, also called the Wagner Act, less out of compassion for the workers than a fear that the violent eruptions then occurring between labor and management would worsen unless something was done. The law is still today the most important labor law on the books.
In addition to the right to organize, the law's most important provisions included giving labor the right to bargain collectively through a chosen representative and banning discrimination against union members, retaliation against those who file labor complaints, and management's refusal to bargain in good faith.
Over the next decade or so, union strength grew. In fact, it grew to such an extent that Congress felt compelled to check labor's power by amending the National Labor Relations Act to outlaw certain labor activities. The Labor-Management Relations Act of 1947, called the Taft-Hartley Act, allowed unions to be prosecuted for activities such as secondary boycotts and mass picketing and outlawed closed shops. It also limited strikes where the nation's security was imperiled, which would be used by President Reagan many years later to overcome an air traffic controller's strike.
The final key law was the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959, called the Landrum-Griffin Act, which required financial disclosures by unions and established union election procedures. The law was enacted to protect union members from what was believed to be widespread corruption among union officials.
Organizational efforts. Under the federal laws, employees are entitled to form a union if at least 30% of them support the petition. The term used in the laws is that 30% of a "bargaining unit" must support the effort. A bargaining may be less than all of a company's employees and is defined as a group of employees with similar pay, hours worked, and type of work. Thus, at a publishing company, the employees in the print shop may constitute a bargaining unit separate and distinct, for example, from the editorial employees. To form a union, they would need only 30% of the print shop employees, rather than 30% of all of those employed at the publishing company.
Taft-Hartley gave employers the right to express its view about the organizing efforts. The employer is free to oppose the efforts, but the expression of those views cannot contain anything that constitutes an illegal activity, such as veiled threats to those join the union. Any business interested in opposing organizing efforts should talk to an experienced labor law attorney before acting. The law is fraught with ways for an employer to make a misstep, however unintentional.
If 30% of the employees in a bargaining unit support the union efforts and a petition is filed with the National Labor Relations Board, the NLRB will determine is the petition meets all the legal requirements. If it does, an election is held so that employees can vote for or against the union.
Dealing with a union. Once the union has been established, the federal laws impose an obligation upon the employer to engage in collective bargaining with it. These obligations include a willingness to meet with labor representatives and to discuss labor issues in good faith.
Employers need to remember that the union, once recognized, has the right to be the employees' exclusive representative. Thus, employers need to be careful about dealing with any employees other than the union's designated representative. Promises made in response to a particular employee's complaint may violate federal labor laws.
Strikes. At the end of a strike, employees are entitled to retain the employment status they held when the strike began. Employers cannot retaliate against those who participated in the strike. Where an employer has hired replacement workers during a strike, the striking employees are entitled to their old jobs back if it is determined that the strike was caused by an unfair labor practice.
Not all strikes are legal, of course. An employer may fire striking employees in two situations. The first situation is where any employee or group of employees strikes without union approval. The second is where the union strikes for a reason that is disallowed under federal law, such as to force the employer to stop doing business with another company or one that begins within 60 days before a labor agreement is to expire.