A majority of workers in the private sector have a legal right under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to have a union and act together to address issues at work.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) gives most workers a legal right to build and participate in a union and to work together with other workers to speak up about workplace issues.

Workers have the right to:

  • organize or join a union;
  • bargain as a group with your boss;
  • go on strike to improve working conditions;
  • participate in "concerted activities" – when a group of workers do something together.

The law also protects workers even when they are not building a union, like when workers talk together about working conditions and how to make things better. For example, if a group of workers signs a petition to their boss or goes together to the foreman to complain, that's protected activity.

You also have a right NOT to support or participate in a union.

The NLRA says:
Section 7: "Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representation of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining . . . ."

Workers have legal protection when they:

  • Go to meetings about a union or workplace issues
  • Read or hand out union flyers in non-work areas during breaks or lunch time
  • Wear union buttons, T-shirts, stickers, hats or other items on the job at most worksites (talk to the union or the NLRB if your company has dress code rules)
  • Sign a union authorization card
  • Sign a petition or file a grievance about problems at work
  • Ask other employees to support the union or to do other things on this list
  • Talk with coworkers about wages or working conditions.

Basically, if it's something that you can do if it wasn't about the union, you can do it for the union. For example, if you are in a place and time of day when you can talk to co-workers about the football game or weekend plans, you can talk about the union; if you can wear a button or t-shirt with your child's picture or a ball team logo, you can wear a union button or shirt.

Remember - you still have to follow the rules of your workplace. When you are standing up for your rights, be careful not to give your boss an excuse to fire you. You have some protection - but not if you break rules. Technically, you can't be held to different standards than other workers, but it's better to keep your actions completely above debate.

Section 8(a): "It shall be an unfair labor practice for an employer . . . to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in section 7. . . ."
That means that the Company is not supposed to:

  • ask what you think about the union, if you signed a union card, or who is involved in the union campaign
  • try to buy you off to stop workers from building a union with raises, promotions, or promises
  • threaten to or actually fire you, lay you off, cut your pay, or cut hours or benefits because you support a union
  • treat workers who support the union differently, including disciplinary actions and transfers
  • try to stop workers from talking to each other about the union
  • refuse to bargain with a union that represents their employees
  • discriminate against workers who have filed a charge or testified to the NLRB
  • be involved within the union or other employee group, including giving money to support it
  • spy on union activity (usually to figure out who is involved)

Unfortunately, management often breaks these rules to try to keep workers from standing up for their rights. The penalties are not very harsh. Keep notes (with witnesses, dates, times, and locations) of each time management breaks these rules. It may be important during your campaign or to protect workers who are threatened.

If your boss breaks the law by discriminating against you because of union activity, you have to show that:

  • you participated in a protected activity
  • your job is covered by the law
  • your boss knew that you were involved (it’s not enough that everyone knew)
  • something bad happened to you

You have 180 days to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, the government agency responsible for enforcing the National Labor Relations Act. Usually, your union organizer will help you file the charge.

Call the NLRA office for your area and ask for the Officer of the Day or the Information Officer. They will help you and answer questions.

There is a campaign to pass a law to strengthen workers’ rights to build a union, called the Freedom of Choice Act.