The Short Answer: Anyone!
Any worker can form or join a union at its most basic: a group of workers who take collective action to win material changes in their workplace. You don't need to work in a specialized industry, make a certain amount of money, or be a certain kind of worker.
However, only some union workers have the full protections of US law. The major piece of legislation protecting workers’ right to unionize is the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which was created to protect the US labor force.
Although most workers are eligible, certain people are excluded from the NLRA's protections.
The Long Answer: Conflicts of Interest
These employees cannot form legally-protected unions in any state, as their role makes it impossible to have a fair negotiation with their employers.
Supervisors and Managers
Employees who are tasked with managing other employees, or making major company decisions with their own independent judgement, cannot join unions. They are classified as part of the company’s bargaining power, not the employees. This includes anyone who uses their own judgement to:
- Make employment decisions about other workers, including hiring, firing, or promoting.
- Direct employees, including re-assignment or changes in workflow.
While supervisors can be powerful allies and advocates in your workplace, joining the actual union would blur the line between “worker” and “employer.” It could also make the union vulnerable to retaliation tactics, while simultaneously making it difficult to prove in a court that those tactics were used.
If any part of your work is related to assisting in confidential labor relations, you are not eligible to join a union, because you are part of the brand’s bargaining power, similar to management. According to the National Labor Relations Board’s Guide for Hearing Officers, this includes “persons who formulate, determine and effectuate management policies with regard to labor relations.”
Employed by Parent or Spouse
These workers are not protected by NLRA union rules as there is an implied conflict of interest due to the close nature of the relationship between you and your employer.
The Long Answer: Not Protected under NLRA
While these workers are not protected by the NLRA, there are alternative ways - often provided at the state level - for them to organize and get their voice heard.
Anyone who is not an employee - that is, who does not file a W2 form - is not eligible to join a union under the NLRA. However, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to organize! Many states have seen non-NLRA protected unions emerge.
While the NLRA does exclude agricultural workers from union protections, there are other ways for you and your peers to apply pressure to your employer. We encourage you to look into your state protections, and get in touch with the National Farmers Union.
The success of a union relies on the majority of workers banding together - which means they’re impractical if you’re the only worker, or one of a handful. While there is no protection for domestic workers federally, defined as “in the domestic service of any family or person at his home,” we urge those looking for help to watch the progress of the 2020 proposed Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act and get in touch with the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
Because public employees are often those responsible for keeping the peace, responding to emergencies, and generally keeping society running, they were not included as a protected employee type in the NLRA. However, three quarters of all states do allow for unionization of this sector, and those local unions have power! In fact, the majority of union members nationally are public employees. Make sure to track the progress of the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, which will amend that decision and is likely to pass in 2021.
If you’re a railway employee, you can, in fact, unionize! However, your rules are governed under a different piece of legislation called the Railway Labor Act. Get in touch with Railroad Workers United to get started with advocating for your rights.
Workers Outside the US
Employees living and working in the US are eligible to form or join unions, regardless of their individual citizenship or visa status. Employees who live outside of the US are governed by the labor laws in their country of residence and are rarely included in US-based unions. There are exceptions depending on the business structure, such as employees who temporarily relocate out of the country.