Labor Relations and Union Compliance: Everything You Need to Know

In order to succeed in business and avoid any legislative violations, employers must understand the legal nuances of dealing with unions, negotiating collective bargaining agreements, and complying with the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). They also need to brush up on other labor laws to maintain a healthy work environment while ensuring union compliance. 

Learn more about how you can balance labor relations and union compliance within the workplace. This article also provides practical tips and strategies to streamline labor relations. 

Dealing With Unions — Legal Considerations

The National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935. Among other things, the NLRA encourages collective bargaining by protecting workers’ right to join associations or unions for the purpose of pursuing better working conditions. The NLRA also allows employees to designate representatives without fear of retaliation by the employer.

As of 2023, just 10% of the U.S. workforce belongs to a union. However, this small percentage of employees and their representatives are unceasingly active in the fight for better working conditions, higher wages, and general fairness in the workplace. 

According to a 2022 National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) report, unfair labor practice (ULP) charges increased by 10% in 2022. The year before that, ULP charges increased by 19%. These trends demonstrate that unions frequently report violations of the NLRA and strive to hold employers accountable for encroaching upon the rights of employees. 

What does this mean for your HR team? It simply means you must ensure that your actions do not interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of their rights to organize. You also cannot interfere with employees’ ability to collectively bargain.  

Navigating Union Organizing Campaigns

If your employees launch a union organizing campaign, it’s critical to understand what constitutes lawful communication and how to draft policies that respect employees’ rights. While you can certainly convey the company’s position on the matter, you must do so in a respectful and professional manner. 

Upon the formation of a union, your company must recognize and engage with the entity as a representative of its employees. This recognition involves adhering to legal requirements for bargaining and avoiding unfair labor practices. Once employees have chosen a union representative, employers may not to bypass the union and deal directly with employees the union represents.

Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBAs)

Collective bargaining is a legally regulated process in which the employer and the union negotiate in good faith to reach an agreement on working conditions, wages, and benefits. Before you enter into negotiations, it’s vital that you understand which subjects are mandatory parts of the bargaining process and which can be included. 

Typically, mandatory subjects of bargaining include matters that directly impact:

  • Wages
  • Working conditions
  • Hours

Permissive subjects are matters that either have an indirect impact or no effect on wages, hours, and working conditions. Some permissive subjects may include pensions for retired members (e.g., a cost of living increase for retirees), the supervisor’s conditions of employment, or the makeup of either party’s bargaining team

Your company can refuse to discuss permissive subjects. However, it must bargain over mandatory subjects if either party makes a proposal. Some examples of mandatory subjects include:

  • Pay for training
  • Sick and holiday leave
  • Hours of work
  • Grievance procedures
  • Promotions
  • Wages
  • Shift premiums
  • Job duties
  • Seniority

Make sure to educate yourself on state and federal law so you are familiar with all mandatory bargaining items. Also, remember that you do not have to bargain on all of these issues unless the representatives make a proposal on them. 

Finally, employers have a legal duty to bargain in good faith with their employees’ representatives. This means you can bargain hard, provided you seek in good faith to reach an agreement without resorting to surface or piecemeal bargaining.

Implementing Agreements

Once your company and the employees reach a collective bargaining agreement, both parties are legally bound to adhere to its terms. You should ensure that your organization’s policies and practices comply with the current CBA. Also, make sure that you train managerial staff on these terms so that they can correctly implement any provisions. 

Disputes may arise regarding the interpretation or application of CBA terms. Naturally, each party will lean toward the interpretation that favors that party. Your HR team should be prepared to engage in grievance procedures as outlined in the agreement and act in good faith to honor the CBA. 

With that being said, it can be difficult to act objectively when representing the organization. Therefore, it’s wise to include clear arbitration regulations in the CBA. Many businesses rely on a neutral third-party arbitrator to settle disputes between the union and the organization. This approach ensures objectivity and helps with enforcing the CBA fairly. 

Sustaining Union Compliance

You need a strong knowledge of the legal landscape to achieve and sustain union compliance. When working with an employee union, you should act in good faith, work for the benefit of your organization, and strive to do right by your employees. 

By understanding the legal aspects of dealing with unions, mastering the intricacies of collective bargaining agreements, and ensuring compliance with the NLRA, you can foster positive relations that benefit everyone. Maintaining this balance is not only a legal necessity but also a strategic advantage that contributes to a stable, productive, and harmonious work environment.