National Labor Relations Act: An Overview
The focus of the traditional law of unions, which makes up the major part of the area of law known as labor law, is on workers collectively and their rights as a group. This may be distinguished from employment law which focuses more on issues relating to the rights of individual employees. The body of law of which labor law is composed is notable for the primacy of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRA is codified at 29 U.S.C. §§ 141–191 and purports to serve the national interest of the United States regarding labor relations within the country. As may be noted during periods of widespread strikes, uneasy relations in this sphere can very quickly and severely impact the entire country. Clear policy regarding labor and management encourages the best interests of the United States which is to maintain full economic production. Industrial peace is essential to a functioning economy. The NLRA seeks to limit industrial strife among employers, employees, and labor organizations which could hinder full production in the United States economy.
There are three major groups under the NLRA whose rights and roles with regards to one another are strictly defined. It is easy to understand why such a strict definition of roles is important – it allows employers, employees, and labor unions to know exactly what to expect from one another. In addition to defining and protecting the rights of these groups, it also encourages collective bargaining and eliminates certain practices on the part of labor and management.
These practices are referred to as unfair labor practices (ULPs) and have been singled out for their potential to harm the general welfare. Through the NLRA, employees are guaranteed the right to organize and to bargain collectively with their employers through representatives of their own choosing. If they desire not to exercise these rights, they are also guaranteed the right to refrain from them. The NLRA establishes a procedure by which employees can exercise their choice whether or not to join a union in a secret-ballot election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). When and at whose discretion a secret-ballot election may be exercised as opposed to other election procedures is currently a matter of contention between employers and labor groups.
Jurisdiction of the NLRA
In order to determine if the National Labor Relations Act applies to a particular case, courts look to the following factors: (1) whether or not there is a labor dispute as defined under the NLRA, (2) whether the employer’s business activity is “commerce” under the definition offer in the NLRA, (3) or whether or not the activity falls under activity that is “affecting commerce” under the NLRA. The NLRB has discretion to decline to exercise jurisdiction if interstate activities are only minimal and may leave settlement of disputes to appropriate state or local agencies. These agencies may not undermine the policies of the NLRA when reaching decisions.
Jurisdiction over Employers and Employees
In general, the NLRA applies only to those who act as employers or as direct or indirect agents of employers. However, the following employers and employees are not covered:
- Government or Union Employers.
- Certain employers are specifically excluded by the NLRA: federal and state offices, Federal Reserve Banks, employers subject to the Railway Labor Act, and labor unions and their officers and agents (except when they are acting as employers).
- Companies that have a municipal function.
- A privately-owned company with an essentially municipal function is exempted from the NLRA.
- Religious schools.
- An exception here is schools that are largely secular and not pervaded by a religious purpose.
- Agricultural workers when the business only employs agricultural employees.
- Independent contractors in many situations.
Healthcare workers were previously exempted but are now included.
Right of Employees
The NLRA, in general, covers the rights of employees, such as the rights to self-organization and collective bargaining. It also contains provisions regarding the requirements for union-security agreements. Additionally, the right to strike, the right to picket, the obligations of collective bargaining, selection of employee representatives, and a definition of ULPs are covered. The NLRA also contains provisions that protect what is known as protected concerted activity: when two or more employees acting together protest or complain about wages, benefits, or other terms and conditions of employment.
The NLRA has an enforcement mechanism written into it. It looks to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the General Counsel acting through 52 regional and field offices located in major cities all over the country. Both the General Counsel as well as the staff of the Regional Offices are responsible for investigation and prosecution of charges of ULPs. Additionally, they are responsible for conducting elections to decide employee representatives. The Board is made up of five members who are appointed by the President with consent of the Senate for 5-year terms. The appointment process is often considered to be highly political. The Board decides cases involving charges of ULPs. It also determines representation election questions that it receives from Regional Offices. The mechanism for enforcement through the NLRB is laid out in the NLRA, including the boundaries of its authority and limits to this authority. The NLRA also covers its procedures and powers in representation matters, in unfair labor practice cases, in certain special proceedings under the Act, and the Act’s provisions concerning enforcement of the Board’s orders.
[Last updated in May of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]