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Union Organizing in the United States

Labor union membership in the private sector has decreased dramatically in the past few decades in the United States. But with the advent of a new union coalition – Change to Win, there has been a renewed emphasis by both the new group and the AFL-CIO to recruit more members. Often these new recruits are in fields that normally weren’t unionized.

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Typically, if a labor union is trying to organize employees within a company, a few telltale things occur. Often the process begins when an organizer who works for a union contacts a number of employees. Or employees could contact the union on their own accord. The union next will gather employees’ signatures, showing that they want the union to represent them. The union needs signatures from 30 percent of the employees in a proposed bargaining unit before asking the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold an election.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) is the primary federal law governing the relationship between labor unions and employers in the private sector. The NLRA guarantees the rights of employees to organize and bargain collectively with their employers. The NLRA provides for two primary processes by which a labor union can be certified as the bargaining representative for a company’s employees – the card check and the secret-ballot election.

HR Guide to Employment Law: A practical compliance reference manual covering 14 topics, including labor unions and organizing

Card check
The first process is voluntary recognition, which involves a card-check process. In essence, a labor union seeking to represent a group of employees provides the employer with authorization cards signed by a simple majority (50% plus one) of the employees. The employer may voluntarily accept those cards as proof that the employees desire union representation. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) then certifies the union as the employees’ collective bargaining representative.

The use of card checks has been so effective for labor unions that they have been pressuring Congress to pass legislation, such as the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), to do away with the right to an NLRB election. Labor unions have been seeking this type of legislation for years. None has been enacted to date, but with changes in Congress and the election of President Barack Obama the unions expect to find a more receptive ear to their requests.

Secret-ballot elections
If an employer says no to the card check voluntary recognition of the union without an election, the labor union will continue gathering signatures of employees interested in hosting an election. Once an election petition has been filed, the NLRB sharply limits what management can say and do. Violating the rules is called an unfair labor practice, and the union is likely to complain to the NLRB about any such violations and use them against the employer in the union organizing campaign.

A labor union must win the election by a majority vote of the workers, meaning it needs the approval of at least 50 percent of the employees. If the union wins the election, it represents all employees in the bargaining unit. Employees in the proposed bargaining unit vote by secret ballot. The losing side can contest the election to the NLRB.

Basic Training for Supervisors – easy-to-read training guides, including union avoidance

What employers need to know when a union wants to organize their workers
During a union organizing campaign, management must obey a long list of rules about what it can say and do. For minor violations, the NLRB will merely order the employer to stop. But if the violation is serious and the labor union loses the election, the NLRB could order a new election. For an extremely severe violation, the NLRB can rule that the labor union wins the secret-ballot election by default.

Generally speaking, employers can limit the union’s campaign activities on their property and using their resources the same way they limit other solicitations. If an employer has been lax in enforcing its solicitation rule, it can’t suddenly start enforcing it when a union shows up.