What Is Collective Bargaining?

With states facing fiscal crisis, some lawmakers want to eliminate collective bargaining for state employees.  Find out what collective bargaining is and why it’s under attack.

Adam Freedman
3-minute read

Today’s topic is collective bargaining: what is it, and why is it under attack? 

And now, your daily dose of legalese:  This post does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader.  In other words, although I am a lawyer, I’m not your lawyer.  In fact, we barely know each other. If you need personalized legal advice, contact an attorney in your community.

What Is Collective Bargaining?

Legislation in Wisconsin and Ohio that would strip state public employees of most collective bargaining rights has sparked massive demonstrations and at least one court case in Wisconsin.  In today’s article, I’ll explain what collective bargaining is all about and what the recent legislation might mean for union workers.

Collective Bargaining Allows Employees to Negotiate as a Group

Collective bargaining refers to the situation where a group of employees negotiates with an employer about the conditions of their employment.  The result of these negotiations is known as a collective agreement.  Employees are typically represented by a union or similar labor organization. 

Federal Law Protects Collective Bargaining in the Private Sector

Indeed, unions and collective bargaining go hand in hand.  After all, it doesn’t do much good to join a union, unless that union can negotiate on your behalf with the proverbial “man.” 

For most workers, collective bargaining is governed by federal law.  In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act (or NLRA) granted workers the right to form unions and to have those unions represent them in collective bargaining situations.  That federal statute remains the primary source for labor rights. 

What Is the Taft-Hartley Act?

However, in 1947, Congress passed the Labor Management Relations Act in response to complaints about union officials abusing their new power under the NLRA.  The 1947 law--also known as the Taft-Hartley Act--prohibits unions from refusing to negotiate in good faith with an employer, or trying to coerce employees with respect to the selection of a bargaining representative.

Some Workers Are Excluded From the NLRA

Critics charge that collective bargaining results in unusually generous benefits for government workers.

Not all workers are covered by the NLRA.  For example, labor relations for railway workers and farm workers are covered under different laws.  More importantly--for today’s discussion--government workers are completely excluded from the NLRA.  And that’s an increasingly significant exclusion.  In fact, more union members today come from the public sector than the private sector.  For federal government workers, conditions of employment are regulated by the Civil Service Reform Act.  For state and local government workers, there are equivalent laws that operate at the state and local level.

Right to Work Laws

[[AdMiddle]In particular, some states have so-called “right to work” laws.  That means that an employee cannot be forced to join a union, even if his co-workers belong to a union.   In these states, the non-union employees still have the right to be represented by the union in collective bargaining agreements.

Wisconsin and Ohio are not “right to work” states and, at present, government employees generally have the right to enter into negotiations over all terms of employment.   According to some critics, this right has given public sector unions the power to negotiate unusually generous pension and health benefits.  That’s why politicians in these states--both of which are dealing with budget problems-- have targeted collective bargaining powers. 

Enforcing Rights

If you suspect that a union or an employer is violating your rights, you can take action.  If the union is covered by the NLRA, you can contact the National Labor Relations Board.  If you’re a public sector employee, or otherwise covered by state law, most states have an equivalent labor relations board that you can contact.

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About the Author

Adam Freedman

Adam Freedman is a lawyer and a regular contributor to Point of Law and Ricochet. Freedman’s legal commentary has been featured in The New York Times, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and on Public Radio. He holds degrees from Yale, Oxford, and the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Naked Constitution (2012).