US Employment Law: Employee and Labor Relations (NLRA)
US Employment Law: Employee and Labor Relations (NLRA)
When you’re at work, and you need some coffee or want to stretch your legs for a moment, you can usually take little breaks as needed. But imagine that, as a measure to keep you working non-stop, your supervisor confined you to your work area. Let’s then say that you took a stand and told your supervisor how unsafe and demanding it is to be stuck in your workspace for your entire shift. You think, surely your supervisor will take what you said into consideration. Instead, they tell you to stay and work or be fired. If you quit, you’ll likely have a hard time finding a new job once word gets out that you stood up for yourself. If you stay, you’ll be constantly harassed and made to feel like a troublemaker. Such an uncompromising work environment is hard to imagine, isn’t it?
This scenario, unfortunately, is not an exaggeration. In fact, similar or even worse conditions occurred in early American history all across the country. Many employees were required to work up to 14 hours per day, 6-days per week, exposed to extremely hazardous and unyielding work environments. Whenever they assembled with other fed-up workers to organize and strike for better treatment, they were met with harassment, termination, and sometimes even death.
Today, we’ll be looking at the 3 pivotal laws that helped shape the labor relations movement: The NLRA, the Taft-Hartley Act, and the Landrum-Griffin Act.
NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS ACT (NLRA)
As mentioned before, unfair treatment of employees and unsafe work practices were once common in America’s workforce. Employees who became fed up with harassment, unfair pay practices, work hazards, or other adversities would often go unheard, become injured, or even be railroaded. In many cases all these hardships would apply, making it impossible for workers to get a reprieve. As groups of workers formed alliances deciding to strike, they were met with intimidation, violence, and in some cases, death. There were no regulations to protect employees. In comes the National Labor Relations Act—also known as the Wagner Act—which was passed in 1935. This bill, along with others we will mention later, are all governed by the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB. The law offered a more reasonable approach to organizing a union and collective bargaining, including settling employee labor disputes. Additionally, the bill placed an obligation on employers to bargain in good faith with the union selected by employees. The NLRA offered great promise to America’s workforce, but the bill was not all-encompassing, and this became obvious as many unexpected problems began to surface.
The Taft-Hartley Act spoke to those unforeseen circumstances, amending the NLRA. As labor unions formed, their membership and power increased. As strikes became more widespread, the conduct within the labor unions came into question. The Taft-Hartley Act revised language in the NLRA with several adjustments addressing the growing unions:
- Workers who didn’t want to join the union were no longer obligated to do so. This was so that those who chose not to participate in the union were not harassed for non-membership. It also stopped any wage discrimination against non-union members to be paid less than acting members. The only exception was when or if becoming a union member was a condition of employment.
- Before a strike could take place, a majority decision vote was mandatory.
- If the vote decided in favor of a strike, the union had to provide the company with advance notice of the strike.
- Unions were also prohibited from initiating “secondary strikes.” A secondary strike occurs if the union boycotts a secondary company that does business with the company the union is striking against. For example, consider a construction company that is in labor disputes with the union. The company which they buy their lumber from cannot be boycotted by the union to pressure the lumber company into not doing business with the construction company.
- Just as the NLRA mandated good faith negotiations for employers, the Taft-Hartley Act required the same of labor unions. Unions couldn’t arbitrarily strike during an active contract, and like the employers, they too had to be willing to negotiate throughout the process.
- Employers were allowed to express their disagreement with organizing a union—but only to a degree. They could host union avoidance meetings or provide literature to employees with alternatives. However, they were not allowed to make an outright statement that anyone wishing to organize or join a union would be fired.
- Supervisors and professional-level employees were excluded from becoming union members.
Even with the modifications of the Taft-Hartley Act, there was still room for further improvement. By the time the Landrum-Griffin Act was introduced, several labor unions were found to be involved in extortion and other illegal activity. The terms of the Landrum-Griffin Act extended focus on the issues the NLRA and Taft-Hartley Acts may not have predicted. The amendments were:
- Cases that were turned down for review by the National Labor Relations Board were heard at the State level.
- Rules regarding secondary strikes were extended to employers. They could not make agreements with the Union to cease business with other companies with which the union may also be in dispute. For example, if a steel company learns that their metal supplier is in union disputes, they cannot cease doing business with the metal supplier. It may seem strange that a company would partner with the union, considering the circumstances. Then again, the corruption that existed at the time called for employers to adjust and match their integrities as well.
NLRB VS WEINGARTEN
Now, not all labor disputes were isolated or resolved at the Union-Employer level. For instance, let’s look at NLRB vs. Weingarten. In this case, an employee of Weingarten, a grocery store chain, was called into a meeting for suspicion of theft. When the employee requested union representation, she was refused. After an investigation took place, she was cleared of the original claim against her. Unfortunately, additional details that were discovered during the investigation led to a new but related claim against the same employee. She was called in for a second meeting where she asked for union representation. She was refused again. She went to the Retail Clerks union at the time and notified them of the company’s refusal to allow her representation. They cited Weingarten’s action as an unfair labor practice to the NLRB. Weingarten appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which, in the end, ruled in favor of the NLRB. They held that employees have a right to union representation when they are in an investigative meeting that could possibly result in discipline. Thus, the term “Weingarten Rights” was formed.
LECHMERE, INC. VS NLRB
The Weingarten case offered a positive end to the NLRB’s initial claim. However, they would not receive the same victory with retail store, Lechmere, Inc. in Hartford, Connecticut. A local union placed a newspaper ad hoping to get the store’s employees’ attention and ultimately organize in the union’s favor. When the ad didn’t yield the responses they had hoped, organizers who weren’t store employees took to the store’s parking lot, and placed leaflets onto employees’ windshields. Each time the organizers were spotted by store employees, they were asked to leave, and the leaflets were removed. The organizers decided to move to an area close by which was confirmed as public property and set up picket signs. It took several months, but they also managed to obtain contact information for 41 employees. But, after repeated attempts to reach the employees via mail and phone, they were only able to secure one membership. The union later claimed Lechmere’s store owner was in violation of section 8 of the NLRA—which states that it is unlawful for an employer to interfere with or restrain employees wishing to organize or join a union. They argued that this violation occurred when the store ordered them off their property. Initially, a judge with the NLRB ruled in the union’s favor. But later, when the case made its way to the Supreme Court, they ruled that no unfair labor practice took place. They’d based their decision on Section 7 of the NLRA—which states that employers are not obligated to allow organizers who are not employees to hand out union information. The Court found that there were no barriers which prevented the union from being able to communicate with the employees in order to organize their efforts. To explain further, if the targeted employees’ workplace or living space was beyond the union’s reach where communication was far too limited to be effective or accessible, their claim of “interference” may have held more merit. But, since Lechmere’s employees were accessible outside of their workplace in a metro area, the union was not justified in trespassing on Lechmere’s private property in its attempts to gain members.
With the passing of each of these labor relations Acts, the climate of relations between employers and labor unions have improved considerably. Organizing these unions no longer results in violence or other extreme consequences, and more clarity is offered for the roles of both the union and employers. And, although perfection may be an unrealistic forecast for labor relations, onward progression of the movement has shown itself to be the next best thing.
I hope this review was helpful! Thanks for watching, and happy studying!