Protecting Your Rights: Can You Be Fired for Joining a Union?

Unions have been around for decades, with many still in place today. Their role is to help protect employee rights, ensure equal pay, and address trending workplace issues.

Historically, corporations and unions have had a contentious relationship. Many TV shows focus on this part of the relationship, which can paint a picture in your head that joining a union could be detrimental to your career, and even leave you wondering, “Can you be fired for unionizing?Another question that may come to mind is whether your boss can legally fire you for talking with union organizers or attempting to join or assist a union? The simple answer is no. As a matter of fact, your company can’t even legally fire you for organizing a union. Does this mean you won’t get fired for participating in union activities? Once again, the simple answer is no.

Are Unions Making a Comeback?

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that in 2021, the union membership rate continued to decline, following suit from previous years. The rate declined from 10.8% in 2020 to 10.3% of all wage and salary workers in the U.S. belonging to unions. The 2021 union membership rate of public-sector employees, which was 33.9%, continued to be significantly higher than that of private-sector employees, which was 6.1%. Education, training, library, and protective service occupations had the highest unionization rates among workers.

Though the overall rates of unions declined, there’s no sign that unions are going out of style. Younger employees tend to see unionization as one of the only ways to ensure wage equality, prevent discrimination in the workplace, and improve workplace conditions. 

Can You Be Fired for Unionizing?

While there are federal and state laws in place, depending on where you live, that are designed to protect employees’ rights to unionize, employers may take corrective action or other actions outside of termination in response to unionization. While this is not always lawful, it can be a delicate issue and a fine line to walk.

Although a company can’t say they’re firing you for union activities, it can say they’re firing you for something else. The onus is then on you to prove otherwise. And proving your case in a court of law can be costly, both financially and time-wise. Even if you are able to prevail, the punishment usually amounts to no more than the company compensating you for lost wages (minus any money earned at your current job) and offering you your job back.

This is not to discourage you from speaking up or taking action when you feel your rights are being compromised or working conditions are sub-par. Unions exist to protect workers, fight for fair wages, and make the workplace safer. These are basic rights that every worker should be entitled to. It’s just that you should always proceed carefully and respectfully. Understand the workplace culture in which you’re operating and arm yourself with knowledge.

What Laws Exist to Protect Employees’ Rights to Unionize? 

Many people, particularly those working in the government sector or trade industries, might already work in companies where unions are in place. In this case, it’s usually customary to join, although not mandatory. But even if you work in a non-unionized private sector position, there’s usually little harm in exploring your options during non-working hours.

If you’re serious about organizing a union and interested in mobilizing others, you need to educate yourself, both on your rights, as well as the ins and outs of labor laws. Legally, you are protected under the government’s National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which “guarantees the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively with their employers, and to engage in other protected concerted activity.”

The law states that you have the right to:

  • Organize, join, or assist a union to negotiate with your employer concerning your wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment
  • Bargain collectively through representatives of employees’ own choosing for a contract with your employer setting your wages and working conditions
  • Discuss your terms and conditions of employment or union organizing with your co-workers or a union
  • Take action with co-workers to improve your working conditions by raising work-related complaints directly with your employer or with a government agency, and seeking help from a union
  • Strike and picket, depending on its purpose or means
  • Choose not to do any of these activities, including joining or remaining a member of a union

Additionally, it is illegal for your employer to:

  • Prohibit you from soliciting for a union during non-work time, such as before or after work or during break times; or from distributing union literature during non-work time, in non-work areas, such as parking lots or break rooms
  • Question you about your union support or activities in a manner that discourages you from engaging in that activity
  • Fire, demote, or transfer you, or reduce your hours or change your shift, or threaten to take adverse action against you because you join or support a union, or because you choose not to engage in any such activity
  • Threaten to close your workplace if workers choose a union to represent them
  • Promise or grant promotions, pay raises, or other benefits to discourage or encourage union support
  • Prohibit you from wearing union hats, buttons, t-shirts, and pins in the workplace except under special circumstances

That said, you should always practice good judgment. Although the law might permit you to solicit during break times or even distribute union literature in company break rooms, sometimes it’s far better to be discreet and plan for meetings and events outside of the workplace.

How to Form a Union Without Getting Fired

There’s no guarantee that a company won’t try to retaliate if it learns of your activity, but you can best prepare yourself by keeping careful documentation of important emails, evaluations, notes and personal work journal entries.

The key is to try to be as diplomatic as possible and stay on good terms with your supervisors and co-workers. The goal for everybody involved is to strengthen the company by making it a better place to work.

If you and your coworkers select a union to act as your collective bargaining representative, your employer and the union are required to bargain in good faith in a genuine effort to reach a written, binding agreement setting your terms and conditions of employment. The union is required to fairly represent you in bargaining and enforcing the agreement.

On the flip side, if the workers in your company do become unionized, it’s important to note that unions can’t threaten you or refuse to process a grievance for not supporting them.

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