Unions and Employment Law

Many people call Gold Star Law because they are in unions who will not help with certain employment problems.  The intersection between employment law and labor law is complex, and a lot of people who are in unions do not know when they need their own employment lawyer.  If you are in a union, should the union handle all of your employment law issues for you?  Should you get your own employment lawyer from the start?  When do you know it’s time to give up on the union solving your problem and seek your own representation?

“Employment law” generally refers to the area of law dealing with the relationship between the employer and the employee.  There are literally THOUSANDS of federal, state, and local laws and regulations that can apply to the employer / employee relationship, and an employment lawyer can help you determine whether your rights as an employee have been violated under any of those laws or regulations and what you can do about it.  While certain employment laws require that an employer have a certain number of employees for the law to apply, such as requiring at least 50 employees for an employer to be required to give an employee medical leave, employment law situations are almost always situations where an individual employee can assert his or her individual rights.

“Labor law” generally refers to the area of law dealing with unions and employees’ rights to engage in “collective bargaining.”  “Collective bargaining” is when multiple employees join together to negotiate with their employer regarding the conditions of their work, often through a union.  There is a federal law called the National Labor Relations Act, and several other state and federal laws, that address the rights of unions and requirements employers have for working with them.  Labor law attorneys can help employees who want to unionize, employees who have issues with their unions, unions who have issues with employers, and employers who have issues with unions.

There are certain rights that employees have with or without a union.  For example, employees are entitled to be paid legally, including minimum wage and overtime when appropriate.  Employees are entitled to a workplace that is free of sexual harassment and discrimination based on race, sex, or religion.  Employees are entitled to reasonable accommodation for disabilities so they can perform their jobs.  Unions often negotiate with employers to get additional rights for employees, such as higher pay, additional time off of work, and job protection so that employees cannot be fired without a reason.

Because unions are so involved with employees’ working conditions and rights, it is very common for them to handle issues on behalf of employees when anything goes wrong in the working relationship.  For example, even though sexual harassment is illegal with or without a union, a union may help an employee address a sexual harassment issue with an employer.  Unions often set up procedures for employees and employers to handle disputes, often called “grievances,” even if the issue is not something that is an extra right the union negotiated for on behalf of the employees.

Sometimes employers violate rights that an employee only has through the union.  For example, if your union negotiated an agreement with the employer that says no employees have to work on weekends and your employer suddenly tells you to come in and work on Saturday, this would be a union issue.  This type of problem would count as a labor law dispute, because it deals with the rights a union negotiated to get for employees, but it would not be considered employment law because it is not a violation of a state or federal employment law. When something like this happens, it is an issue to address through a union instead of with an employment law attorney.

However, unions cannot take away rights an employee already has.  Your union may negotiate and get you extra protection and rights in the workplace, but no matter what they do you have the same employment law rights and protections that you would have with or without a union.  This means that if you have an employment law issue, such as sexual harassment, you still have the right to go to an employment lawyer and sue your employer, with or without a union being involved.  Having a union may change some things procedurally, such as requiring you to go to arbitration instead of suing through the court system, but it cannot take away an employment law right you already have through state or federal law.

If you do not know whether you need to go to your union or talk to an employment law attorney, you can call Gold Star Law.  The call is completely free and completely confidential.  If your issue is one that can be or should only be handled by your union, we will tell you, and it will not cost you anything to ask.  If there is something we can do to help you, whether or not you have a union, we will let you know.