The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) plays a central role in the rights, protections and limitations of organized labor in the United States. It’s survived countless Supreme Court cases and anti-union legislative efforts, and yet while there’s much to be celebrated, cynical interpretations of the NLRA’s language and a general lack of knowledge has allowed bosses to get away with illegal actions against workers on many occasions.
Above: Bill Lumbergh (played by Gary Cole) in the 1999 comedy “Office Space” pesters his employee.
Federal law guarantees you the right to organize your workplace. However, the reality of at-will employment for non-union staff makes things more complicated. The Economic Policy Institute found in a 2019 study that bosses are charged with violating federal law during 41.5% of all union elections and nearly 1 out 5 workers are wrongfully fired for trying to form a labor organization. These are just the reported incidences.
Opening with statistics like these isn’t meant to scare you, but it’s the reality you’re up against. Under most circumstances, when you take the important step to form a union, you will be met with resistance from your boss and need to be cautious.
A quick note for those still early on in the process: managers are not legally allowed to interrogate you about unionizing. You are not obligated to answer anything, and it's not a bad idea to just say "I haven't heard anything about that". If that happens, definitely note it because you may be able to file an Unfair Labor Practice (more on this below).
How can I take action if my boss fired me?
If you’ve been fired and believe management violated your rights, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) provides a full set of forms here should you wish to file a charge. Transferring a worker to a new job or assigning them to a more difficult work task as punishment for attempting to unionize is also considered a violation. You have up to six months after an incident to file with the regional office that covers your geographical area. Our team and most unions are available to help workers through filing.
The process of vetting and investigating a claim can take weeks and findings that favor workers don't provide much. They can include back pay, not including wages earned while a worker waits to be reinstated. Even then, workers are required to mitigate damages by actively looking for new employment.
Many workers are fired for attempting to unionize before any given campaign is taken public, which makes any case brought before the NLRB that much more difficult. If management catches wind of a worker trying to organize, they may not legally be able to cite their unionizing efforts as the reason for letting that person go, but they can easily invent another justification so be careful.
While the NLRB website has a long list of potential violations that management can be charged with, union members, labor organizers, and even management-friendly websites have a lot of tips and tricks to follow. UFCW 1199 and IBEW Local 21 both provide larger lists of tactics management may use and actions that would be deemed violations under the NLRA during and before a union campaign.
You know your workplace better than anyone
The advice provided in any of these articles is meant for a wide audience, but you know your workplace better than anyone. For example, the NLRA allows workers to talk about union organizing during work hours if management has a policy in place that allows staff to talk about non-work-related things on the job. However, if you know your boss to be particularly hostile to the idea of unionizing, it’s probably wise to hold such conversations discreetly or during non-work hours.