Collective Bargaining: American to the Core

Freedom of Speech, Freedom of the Press and Freedom of Religion are a few of the inalienable rights celebrated by Americans each year on July 4, Independence Day. To this august list also belongs Freedom of Association. Enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, this essential freedom is defined as an individual’s right to join with others to express, pursue and collectively defend common interests.

Established in 1935 to protect workers’ right to freely associate and act collectively, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) administers the laws that allow American workers, both union and non-union, to exercise this basic and constitutionally guaranteed freedom.

The right to engage in certain types of concerted activity was written into the original 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which states that: “Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection, and shall also have the right to refrain from any or all such activities.”

As part of its mission, the NLRB recently unveiled an interactive website which provides vivid examples of how the board helped employees exercise their rights on the job.

The website www.nlrb.gov/concerted-activity tells the stories of more than a dozen recent cases involving protected concerted activity, which can be viewed by clicking points on a map. Among the cases: A construction crew fired after refusing to work in the rain near exposed electrical wires; a customer service representative who lost her job after discussing her wages with a coworker; an engineer at a vegetable packing plant fired after reporting safety concerns affecting other employees; a paramedic fired after posting work-related grievances on Facebook and poultry workers fired after discussing their grievances with a newspaper reporter.

Some cases were quickly settled after charges were filed, while others progressed to a Board decision or to federal appellate courts. They were selected to show a variety of situations, but they have in common a finding at some point in the NLRB process that the activity that the employees undertook was protected under federal labor law.

“A right only has value when people know it exists,” said NLRB Chairman Mark Gaston Pearce. “We think the right to engage in protected concerted activity is one of the best kept secrets of the National Labor Relations Act, and more important than ever in these difficult economic times. Our hope is that other workers will see themselves in the cases we’ve selected and understand that they do have strength in numbers.”