Understanding How Unions Work

Learn So You Can Understand

Unions are making a comeback. As a small business owner, HR professional, or manager, it’s essential to understand how unions operate in the United States to navigate potential labor relations effectively.

  1. Formation of Unions: Unions are typically formed when a group of employees within a company decides to join together to collectively negotiate for better working conditions, wages, and benefits.

To establish a union, several steps are involved:

  1. Employee Interest: A group of employees expresses interest in forming a union, often with the help of a labor organizer.
  2. Authorization Cards: Employees sign authorization cards indicating their support for union representation.
  3. Petition for Election: If enough employees show interest, the union can petition the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold a representation election.
  4. Representation Election: Employees then vote in a secret ballot election to decide whether they want the union to represent them.
  1. Collective Bargaining: Once a union is recognized, it becomes the exclusive representative of the employees. The primary role of a union is to negotiate employment contracts with the employer, known as collective bargaining.
  1. This process includes discussing wages, benefits, working conditions, and other employment terms.
  2. Small business owners and managers should be prepared for these negotiations, which can significantly impact labor costs and policies.
  1. Rights and Responsibilities: Understanding the rights and responsibilities of both employers and unions is crucial:
  1. Employer Rights: Employers have the right to engage in bargaining negotiations, enforce work rules and policies, and manage their business operations within the boundaries of labor laws.
  2. Union Rights: Unions have the right to represent their members’ interests, negotiate on their behalf, and ensure fair treatment and workplace conditions.
  1. Labor Laws and Regulations: To effectively navigate labor relations in the USA, small business owners, HR professionals, and managers should be familiar with key labor laws and regulations, including:
  1. National Labor Relations Act (NLRA): This federal law governs labor relations, protects employees’ rights to organize, and outlines unfair labor practices for both employers and unions.
  2. Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA): This law covers minimum wage, overtime pay, and child labor standards, which can impact union negotiations.
  3. State Labor Laws: Many states have their own labor laws, which may differ from federal regulations.

-> Handling Unionization: If your employees express interest in forming a union, it’s essential to approach the situation carefully:

  • Maintain a Neutral Stance: During the unionization process, employers should avoid interfering or engaging in unfair labor practices that could violate the NLRA.

  • Seek Legal Counsel: Consulting with labor law attorneys or HR professionals experienced in labor relations can help ensure compliance with labor laws and guide you through the process.


A few resources are listed below.

  1. U.S. Department of Labor (DOL):
    • Website: www.dol.gov
    • The DOL provides valuable information on labor laws, regulations, and compliance requirements. You can find resources specific to different aspects of labor relations, including unionization.
  2. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB):
    • Website: www.nlrb.gov
    • The NLRB is the federal agency responsible for overseeing labor relations and enforcing the National Labor Relations Act. Their website offers guides, publications, and case summaries related to unionization and labor disputes.
  3. Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM):
    • Website: www.shrm.org
    • SHRM is a professional organization for HR professionals. They provide articles, webinars, and resources on labor relations and HR best practices, including dealing with unions.
  4. Small Business Administration (SBA):
    • Website: www.sba.gov
    • The SBA offers information and guidance for small business owners on various topics, including labor relations and employee management.
  5. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):
    • Website: www.bls.gov
    • The BLS provides labor market data and statistics that can be valuable for understanding labor trends, wages, and unionization rates.
  6. Labor Law Attorneys’ Websites:
    • Consider searching for local labor law attorneys in your area. Many law firms specializing in labor and employment law have informative websites with articles, FAQs, and resources related to unions and labor relations.
  7. State Department of Labor Websites:
    • Depending on your location, your state’s Department of Labor website may have specific information and resources related to state labor laws, unionization, and employment practices.
  8. Industry-Specific Associations:
    • Look for industry-specific associations or trade groups that may provide guidance on labor relations and union matters tailored to your particular business sector.

Understanding how unions work in the USA is crucial for small business owners, HR professionals, and managers to manage labor relations and maintain a harmonious workplace effectively. You can navigate these complex issues while protecting your business interests and employees’ rights by being aware of the formation process, collective bargaining, rights and responsibilities, labor laws, and best practices for handling unionization efforts.

Picture of Wendy Sellers
Wendy Sellers
Wendy Sellers, known as “The HR Lady®,” is a dedicated HR consultant and business partner of all size businesses, a conference speaker, and management trainer who specializes in understanding the unique culture and goals of organizations in order to improve business outcomes.

Sign up for email updates from Wendy Sellers, The HR Lady LLC.