The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is a federal organization that oversees the establishment and conduct of union organizations as well as the conduct of businesses involved with unions. Its national headquarters are located in Washington, DC, and the organization maintains an informational Web site at www.nlrb.gov.
HISTORY AND PURPOSE OF THE NLRB The NLRB was created in 1935 by Congress to administer the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRA is the law that governs relations between labor unions and employers whose operations involve interstate commerce. Though there are other federal and state laws which also protect the rights of employees, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the NLRA is the Act specifically tied to the NLRB and to union organization.
The Act itself gives employees the right to organize and bargain collectively with their employers, as well as the right not to organize. In short, employees may join a union or not, as they so choose. Coverage of the law is relatively exclusive, covering only employees working for employers involved in interstate commerce with a few exceptions (airlines, railroads, agriculture and government). The act ensures that employees can choose their own representatives for the purpose of collective bargaining, establishes procedures for secret-ballot elections, and defines unfair labor practices, to which both employers and unions are subject.
The NLRB conducts elections and prevents and remedies unfair labor practices. It is made up of two different "arms." The Board is a group of five persons based in Washington, D.C., who act in a judicial capacity, though they are not judges. This group decides whether improper labor practices have actually occurred, either during an election campaign or during management-union bargaining sessions. The General Counsel is the prosecutorial side of the Board. It has offices throughout the country and is charged with the investigation and prosecution of those who engage in unfair labor practices. The NLRB is designed to be completely equitable, taking sides for neither management nor union, acting as a sort of "referee" in what is usually an emotionally charged action between employees and employers.
IMPACT ON BUSINESS The employees of any business may seek representation by filing a petition with the NLRB requesting an election. The NLRA requires that representation must be by a "labor organization," as defined by the NLRA. The definition of a labor organization is fairly liberal, and entrepreneurs should always be familiar with both large and smaller unions that might seek to organize a business' employees. The larger ones, such as the AFL-CIO or the United Auto Workers (UAW), are well known, but there are many smaller organizations as well.
Once an election has been held and employees have determined that they want representation by a union for the purposes of collective bargaining, the employer is required by law to bargain with no other organization for the workers in that business. All workers are covered by the decision, whether they become members of the union or not. Generally, such employment concerns such as wages, hours, and working conditions are included in the collective bargaining agreement, which is set up during meetings between the employer and the union representatives.
UNFAIR LABOR PRACTICES The judicial arm of the NLRB becomes involved when there is a dispute about the conduct of the employer or the union during a union election campaign or during bargaining. The General Counsel investigates the charge to determine if it is valid and should be pursued. The charge can become a local level complaint at this stage, or can be dismissed. The great majority of charges filed with the NLRB are settled or withdrawn at the stage when investigation has been completed, before a complaint has been issued.
If a complaint is filed, the case is heard before an Administrative Law Judge, part of the judicial arm of the NLRB. The Administrative Law Judge's decision on the case is adopted by the Board. If exceptions are made, the transcript, briefs, and other documentation of the case is sent to the Board in Washington for a decision. The NLRB rarely hears oral arguments; it usually making decisions based on the documentation from the Administrative Law Judge.
The NLRB decisions do not have the impact of law because the NLRB is an administrative agency. Their decisions are recommendations, but NLRB opinions carry a great deal of weight in courts of law. If either the union or employer is unwilling to follow the guidelines set down in the decision, the NLRB files a petition in the Court of Appeals—the level directly below the Supreme Court—for the district where the case arose. If this decision is contested, the Board will request that the United States Supreme Court hear the case.