Your Right to Organize
Your Right to Organize
* This information sheet is provided as a resource for general education and is not provided for the purpose of giving legal advice of any kind.
A Voice on the Job Leads to a Better Job. When workers stand together they are more likely to win improvements and protections at work. Having a legally established union means that the employer is REQUIRED to negotiate a written agreement about the terms and conditions of your job – that includes wages, benefits, and much more. But even without a union, when working people act together they can create the power they need to have a collective voice on the job.
Learn the Basics
5.1 Federal Protections to Organize a Union
The National Labor Relations Act protects the basic right to take action with coworkers to improve wages and working conditions in the private sector. This is called “concerted activity.” The National Labor Relations Act protects most private sector workers’ right to organize a union and collectively bargain with their employers.
As a worker covered by the National Labor Relations Act, you have the right to:
- Talk about a union during breaks, or before or after work, but usually not during work time.
- Distribute union literature to your coworkers. You can do this on your own time in non-working areas (for example the cafeteria or parking lot).
- Attend union meetings.
- Encourage your coworkers to form a union.
- Wear union buttons, t-shirts, stickers, hats and other union items on the job as long as your dress code does not prohibit those kinds of things generally. If you are allowed to wear a Sierra Club or Rotary Club button at work, you should be allowed to wear a union button.
It is against the law for your employer to:
- Threaten to fire you for supporting the union.
- Spy on you about your union activity.
- Discriminate against you (treat you worse) when it comes to hiring, promotion, layoffs, benefits or other working conditions because you support the union.
- Make threats or promises related to union activity. An example of an illegal threat is saying that the workplace will close if workers form a union. An example of a promise is that if workers’ reject the union, the employer will raise wages.
Who Is Not Covered by The National Labor Relations Act?
The National Labor Relations Act does not apply to farm workers, domestic workers, public sector workers (federal, state, county, and municipal employees), true independent contractors (see: Am I an Employee?), supervisors or managers who can hire or fire people, and confidential employees.
What about public sector workers?
Workers in the railroad or airline industries are covered by the Railway Labor Act. For more information go to the website of the National Mediation Board (http://nmb.gov/).
Public Sector Workers: Most public sector workers do have the right to form unions under similar state and federal laws.
State and local public sector workers: Public Employment Relations Commission www.perc.wa.gov.
Federal workers: Federal Labor Relations Authority www.flra.gov.
5.2 What is a Union?
A union is a democratic organization of workers who join together to improve the terms and conditions of their employment by bargaining collectively (together) with their employer.
Union Members Have…
- The right to collectively bargain a contract guaranteeing the terms and conditions of employment.
- The right to vote for some union leadership positions, on contracts, and on whether to strike.
- Constitutions and bylaws that explain how the union operates internally.
- Elected officers.
- To make a financial contribution: In most cases, everyone who benefits from a union contract puts in money (called “dues,” and usually paid through payroll deduction) to cover costs such as professional staff, legal advisors, etc. Employees who do not want to be union members are still covered under the union contract and pay fees to cover the cost of their union representation.
- The opportunity to be part of a larger labor organization like a local, state, or national labor federation that works on behalf of all working people in the community.
Why Have a Union?
The largest union benefit is having a stronger voice for employees on the job. Union members usually earn more than non-union workers doing similar work because they are able to bargain legally binding contracts (called collective bargaining agreements) with the employer. Union members also are more likely to have better employee benefits, including employer-provided healthcare, pensions, paid leave and job security.
Can My Union Protect Me from Being Fired?
In Washington State, workers not covered by a union contract are considered to be "at-will" employees. This means an employer can hire and fire you for any reason or no reason at all. There are exceptions—you cannot be hired or fired for discriminatory reasons (race, sex, national origin, etc.), in retaliation for defending your workplace rights, or for a limited set of other prohibited reasons (like whistleblowing).
Having a union usually means your employment is no longer “at-will”--an employer must prove that they have "just cause" (good reason) to fire you, suspend you, or otherwise punish you for misconduct.
I Want a Union! Where Do I Start?
A union organizing campaign is complex. Before beginning you should seek out resources and people who can help you. See the end of this chapter for some suggestions. Before starting you should consider the following things:
5.5 Alternatives to Unions - Workers’ Organizations
Some workers, including agricultural workers, domestic workers, and independent contractors do not have a legal right to collective bargaining, but they can still organize to improve their working conditions. They can form workers’ organizations that look out for their well-being.
The steps to form a workers’ organization that represents your interests are the same whether or not you have a legal right to collective bargaining.
- Identify the issues that workers care about and the changes they want to make.
- Build a leadership committee that can communicate with workers all over the workplace.
- Find allies in the community – unions, community organizations, teachers, etc. – who understand how your workplace organizing will make a positive contribution in the community.
- Use collective actions to ensure the employer follows all laws that protect workers even if they don’t have a union.
- Engage in grassroots fundraising from workers and your community to help create and maintain a strong organization.
- Develop productive ways to discuss job issues with your employer. This might include a labor-management committee.
- Find ways to protect each other if the employer tries to divide you.
- Keep good records about what is happening on the job, and celebrate your victories!
Some groups are excluded from federal labor union laws, including public-sector employees (employees of state, federal and local governments and their sub-divisions), agricultural and domestic workers, independent contractors, workers employed by a parent or spouse, employees of air and rail carriers covered by the Railway Labor Act, and supervisors.
Am I an employee?
See Chapter 8 Am I an Employee? to determine if you have been misclassified as an independent contractor.