The National Labor Relations Act (In a Nutshell)
The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) (also known as the Wagner Act) is a cornerstone of U.S. labor law. It was enacted in 1935 and it guarantees the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively with their employers, and to engage in other protected concerted activity.
The NLRA covers most private-sector workers, including in manufacturing, health care, retail and private education. So, it’s probably easier to start with who’s not covered. And that includes…
- Rail and airline workers (covered under the Railway Labor Act)
- Federal, state and local government employees *
- Agricultural workers (with employer who only employs agricultural workers)
- Independent contractors
* The NLRA does cover private contractors who work for the federal government.
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB): The NLRA created the NLRB, which serves as the chief enforcer of the law. They are tasked primarily with conducting union elections and resolving unfair labor practice charges. The Board officially consists of five members, although two seats remain vacant at press time. Board members are appointed by the President and serve five-year terms. The NLRA also creates a General Counsel, also appointed by the President, who serves independently of the appointed Board members. There are 26 regional offices, each of which is led by a regional director. This is where your election and unfair labor practice proceedings start.
Worker Rights Under the NLRA:
- Organize a union to negotiate with your employer concerning wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment
- Form, join or assist a union
- Bargain collectively through representatives of employees’ own choosing for a contract with the employer setting wages, benefits, hours, and other working conditions
- Discuss terms and conditions of employment or union organizing with their co-workers or a union
- Take action with one or more co-workers to improve working conditions by, among other means, raising work-related complaints directly with the employer or with a government agency, and seeking help from a union
- Strike and picket, depending on the purpose or means of the strike or the picketing
- Choose not to do any of these activities, including joining or remaining a member of a union.
Unfair Labor Practices By Employers
According to the NLRA, it’s a violation of the law for employers to:
- Threaten employees with loss of jobs or benefits if they join or vote for a union or engage in protected concerted activity
- Threaten to close the plant if employees select a union to represent them
- Question employees about their union sympathies or activities in circumstances that tend to interfere with, restrain or coerce employees in the exercise of their rights under the Act
- Promise benefits to employees to discourage their union support
- Transfer, layoff, terminate, assign employees more difficult work tasks, or otherwise punishing employees because they engaged in union or protected concerted activity
More Information on Your Rights
Check out the NLRB interactive section on the laws that are protected for employee rights.
Contact the NLRB Public Affairs Office at 202-273-1991 or one of the 26 regional offices.
It is Possible to Organize Outside the National Labor Relations Act
The Independent Drivers Guild: The some 45,000 for-hire vehicle drivers in New York City needed a voice. But since they are classified as independent contractors, they were not eligible to form a traditional union under current NLRA rules. The IAM stepped up to fill that void anyway when District 15 reached a five-year agreement establishing a new affiliated guild to represent Uber’s New York City drivers. The Independent Drivers Guild (IDG) provides Uber drivers the right to go before an appeals panel with representation if they wish to challenge their deactivation, deeply discounted legal services and the ability to raise work-related issues directly with Uber management via a works council-type body. They have also become a major legislative and policy advocate on behalf of for-hire drivers. Barely a year old, the IDG has already helped Uber drivers in New York and around the country score a major victory by leading the fight to secure an in-app tipping option for Uber drivers nationwide.
The IAM Maine Lobstering Union (IMLU): The IAM Maine Lobstering Union was recently able to purchase a wholesaling lobster business and form a co-op for its members. This is a huge step forward for lobstermen in Maine and will allow members to sell their lobsters directly to the union cooperative at market price, then receive a share of the wholesale profits at the end of the year. The IMLU, which was founded in 2013 and currently has roughly 500 members, has also been able to score major legislative wins. They collectively lobbied their Maine state representatives to defeat two bills that would have had negative effects on their industry, and also helped pass a bill that allows lobstermen who leave to serve in the armed forces to maintain their license when they return from duty. While Maine Lobstering Union Local 207 is a chartered chapter of the IAM, its members are self-employed and don’t have a collective bargaining agreement. Their gains have come outside the NLRA.
Enforcing your rights
The best way to encourage your employer to recognize your union and negotiate a fair contract is to build a strong organization where you work.
It’s important that you immediately write down specifics of potential violations. If you believe your or a co-worker’s rights under the NLRA have been violated:
Keep Written Notes of any incidents in which company officials or supervisors threaten, harass, or punish workers because of union activity. Include what was said or done, who was involved, where and when it happened, and the names of any witnesses.
Immediately Report any such incidents to your organizing committee and the union staff.
The company is legally responsible for what supervisors say and do.
Record the facts to back up a possible unfair labor practice charge!
Keep a notebook and pen handy or take notes on your phone.