Do I have the right to form a union at work?

Private sector employees have the right to organize and join unions under federal labor law. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) is the federal law enacted in 1935 that governs the relationship between unions and private sector employers. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is the government agency charged with the administration and enforcement of the NLRA.

Section 7 of the NLRA protects the rights of employees (both union and nonunion) to form a union, and to engage in “concerted activity for mutual aid and protection.”  In other words, employees have the right to engage in activity on behalf of or with one or more coworkers with the goal of improving working conditions.  Examples of activity protected by Section 7 of the NLRA include:

  • talking with coworkers about your wages and benefits,
  • circulating a petition asking for better working conditions,
  • participating in a rally for better working conditions, and
  • wearing a union button if other buttons are permitted.

Section 8 of the NLRA prohibits employers and unions from engaging in “unfair labor practices” or “ULPs.” That means it is illegal for employers to interfere with or restrain employees’ Section 7 rights. For example, it is illegal for employers to:

  • discipline, constructively discharge, or discharge employees for engaging in protected union activities;
  • threaten employees with adverse consequences, such as loss of benefits, or less favorable working conditions if they support a union or engage in union activity;
  • promise employees benefits if they refrain from supporting the union;
  • interrogate employees about their own or coworkers’ union sentiments or activities;
  • prohibit employees to talk about the union during working time, if they are otherwise allowed to talk about other non-work-related subjects;
  • surveil or create the impression of surveillance of employees’ union activities.

Unions can file charges against employers for engaging in unfair labor practices (ULP charges) within six months of the unlawful conduct.