Do I Have to Join the Union?

Every employee should have the opportunity to join a union, if they desire, but should never be obliged or compelled to join a union. Two labor relations acts established nearly a dozen years apart, address union membership in the workplace, The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 and the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which basically amends the NLRA.

The NLRA was passed to defend against perceived employer practices that would damage the rights of employees to meet and collaborate for better wages and benefits. It did away with the “Yellow-Dog Contract” that forced new employees into signing a contract that forbade them from joining a union. The workers wanted better working conditions and higher wages, while employers wanted pay cuts, no strikes, and most of all no organized unions.

Whereas the Homestead Strike in 1892 got the ball rolling toward change, the fire at the Triangle Waist Company, a typical sweatshop in New York City, in which 146 workers, mostly women either perished in the flames or jumped from windows to their deaths trying to escape the raging fire in a non-union shop in 1911 literally ignited the fire that led to labor reform. Although it took many more years, the NLRA established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to investigate unfair practices by employers and strengthened workers’ rights.

Some thought the NLRA went too far, so Congress attempted to remedy some of those excesses with the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA) most often called the Taft-Hartley Act to counter what many thought of as abuses by unions.

The Taft-Hartley Act

Taft-Hartley outlined six labor practices thought to be unfair due to Congress’ impression that some conduct by unions needed corrections. This act would amend the NLRA or what many called the Wagner Act, to safeguard an employee’s right to rebuke unions and their unfair practices. However, Congress left in place measures that allowed employers to have union shops and require their employees to join a union after their 30th day. The Taft-Hartley Act was amended again with the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) of 1959, also called the Landrum-Griffen amendment.

These amendments safeguard an employee’s rights under Section 7. Those rights protect employees from coercion or restraint by unions and prohibit an employer from discriminating against employees who exercise those Section 7 rights. These amendments also made it illegal to declare closed shops, where employers can only hire union members or participate in secondary boycotts, which prohibits a union with a dispute with one employer from applying pressure on another neutral employer to refuse any business with the first employer.

Benefits of a union to both the employer and the employed

Unions benefit both employers and employees, in that unions bargain with employers to ensure the workers get better benefits, while employers enjoy the benefit of tranquility in their workplace and fewer work stoppages. Unions were created to balance the powers of employees using the ideology of strength in numbers toward employers regarding employment terms and benefits.

State and federal laws validate and sanction the legality of unions. This would include the right to organize as a basic right of employees. It recognizes that right as independent of any legislation. Labor laws give workers the right of unionization and permit employees and employers to use certain activities, such as picketing, strikes, lockouts, and injunctions in hopes the other side would meet their demands.

Many Americans are unaware of the squalid conditions that still exist in many New York City and Los Angeles sweatshops. The Department of Labor (DOL) told a Cornell University study in 2011 that an estimated nearly two-thirds of all garment factories in both cities hire immigrant workers, mostly undocumented and force them to work for less than minimum wage, with no overtime. The DOL’s estimate concluded that a horrific number, nearly 98 percent of all garment shops in Los Angeles have deadly safety hazards.

Employee rights supported by the National Labor Relations Board

Employees have the right to form a union to band together fellow-workers to try to improve their work conditions, wages, or benefits. Likewise, they have the right to refuse to join a union. Some workers believe unions can work for them while others believe unions are a waste of their money and will cause management to look at them as the enemy or fire them. Many of these notions about unions have been handed down from generation to generation with only a smidgen of the truth about what modern labor unions are like.

Additionally, workers have a right to meet and discuss issues about work. Although some union activities are allowed at the work site if the worker is on break, such as promoting upcoming union events or providing literature about union activities such as elections. Many believe it would be more appropriate to do these activities away from the work site.

What you should do if you believe your rights were violated

The NLRB has their national headquarters in Washington and regional offices in 26 cities to help workers file petitions or charges against employers both large and small or employers against unions. The NLRB provides an electronic system on which to file. Although this system is protected against intrusion, the board suggests never providing personal information that couples your name and social security number or bank account numbers. The timely filing of complete documents is required when there is a deadline, which ends at midnight. There are no extensions due to the 24/7 nature of the filing system.

Although the law specifically states you cannot be forced or coerced into joining a union, it would be wise to get the pulse of your co-workers and management before deciding about joining.