Trade Union

Trade Union in the United States

Trade Unions Definition

An association of workmen, usually, but not necessarily, employed in the same trade, for the purpose of combined action in securing the most favorable wages and conditions of labor. Popularly abbreviated to “union.” See more about Trade Union in the legal Dictionaries.

Trade Unionist

by Thomas Brom

For all of management’s demands for concessions, public transit employees work in rarefied air. Their campaign money assures that local politicians stay on the sidelines. Their leaders bargain with elected officials, not corporate lawyers. Their wages and benefits are paid from tax dollars, not private capital. And their contracts generally protect them from at-will discharge and arbitrary work assignments. It’s easy to forget how the other half works.

In the nonunion private sector, wages and conditions are very different. Labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan took a hard look at his clients 20 years ago in Which Side Are You On? Trying to Be for Labor When It’s Flat on Its Back (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1991). “Labor gives off now an almost animal sense of weakness,” he wrote. “Concessions, de-certs, shutdowns. It’s like the Italian army in 1918.”

And that was before manufacturing fled the country, before Wall Street became a casino. In 1991, more than 16 percent of the workforce was still organized. Today, the share is around 11 percent – and barely over 6 percent in the private sector. “Once it drops to 10, it might as well keep dropping to zero,” Geoghegan lamented.

National Labor Relations Act and Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act

To Geoghegan, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) – repeatedly watered down since 1935 by Congress and the courts to make organizing all but impossible – was part of the problem. He felt trapped in his clients’ grievance proceedings and pointless arbitrations. “The idea of a union, of solidarity, is becoming less and less acceptable,” he wrote.

Still, trade unions long to recapture the magic. Meeting in Los Angeles last September, the AFL-CIO Convention proclaimed in (Californian) Resolution 5, “The labor movement cannot be confined within bargain units defined by government agencies or limited to workplaces where a majority of employees votes ‘Yes’ [for representation]. … The labor movement consists of all workers who want to take collective action to improve wages, hours and working conditions.”

(California) Resolution 5 embraced “alt-labor,” a disparate collection of centers focused on low-wage and immigrant workers operating under section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act. The statute establishes a right to self-organization “to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”

So long as these entities maintain an amorphous legal status and refrain from bargaining directly with employers, they may engage in activities that might be prohibited as unfair labor practices under the National Labor Relations Act. It’s how Cesar Chavez and the National Farm Workers Organizing Association began in 1962.

Operating mostly from storefronts, alt-labor groups have filed suit for back wages, distributed handbills and picketed, lobbied for minimum wage laws, and exposed workplace abuses in corporate campaigns. For financial support they rely on dues, donations, union subsidies, or grants from churches and foundations. Recent targets range from local restaurants to Wal-Mart – anywhere organized labor can’t or won’t go. At last count in 2006, the AFL-CIO found more than 140 worker centers in 31 states.

As marginal as these centers may be, they have nonetheless attracted the attention of employers and members of Congress. In September the House Education and the Workforce Committee heard testimony from Stefan Marculewicz, a shareholder at the Washington, D.C., office of Littler Mendelson. Marculewicz argued in a Federalist Society article last year that worker centers are no different from traditional “labor organizations” defined by the National Labor Relations Act (29 U.S.C. §§ 142(3), 152(5) and the Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959 (29 U.S.C. § 402(i)) – otherwise known as the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA).

By Marculewicz’s reckoning, worker centers should be classified as labor organizations if they seek to engage employers to change hours, wages, or working conditions. This would make them subject to Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act requirements to have a constitution, by-laws for membership, regular meetings, and provisions for how funds may be spent. Worker centers would have the same fiduciary duties as unions, and they’d have to file financial reports with the Department of Labor (DOL). These conditions, Marculewicz testified at the congressional hearings, serve “to protect worker self-choice, to ensure a balance between labor and management interests, and to ensure the free flow of commerce.”

Nonsense, says Eli Naduris-Weissman, a labor lawyer at Rothner Segall & Greenstone in Pasadena. “The reality is that worker centers are small, community-based, shoe-string operations that function almost like charities,” he says. “Most commonly, they deal with wage theft, worker safety issues, and immigrant rights. So long as there is no intent to seek union recognition, this is protected activity under Section 7.”

Naduris-Weissman has published a tactical guide to help worker centers steer clear of labor organization status. He warns, for instance, against setting up bilateral mechanisms for “dealing with” employers, or establishing “formal negotiations” with them – or even targeting a single company in a code-of-conduct campaign, rather than an entire industry.

Yet it’s Marculewicz’s reading of labor law that’s “on the money,” according to William B. Gould IV, professor emeritus of labor law at Stanford Law School and former chairman of the NLRB. Gould emphasizes that the National Labor Relations Act was intended to promote union organizing – not to prevent groups of workers from taking concerted action. He also says the reporting requirements for worker centers would be burdensome. “But pushed to the logical conclusion of the act,” he says, “any time you pursue a company for wages or conditions, you would be a labor organization.”

Reps. John Kline (R-Minnesota) and Phil Roe (R-Tennessee) repeatedly referenced Marculewicz’s article in July when they wrote to Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez requesting a determination of the filing requirements for worker centers. Their letter referenced six worker centers that Marculewicz had scrutinized: the Korean Immigrant Worker Advocates, OUR Walmart, the Retail Action Project, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Fast Food Forward, and the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC).

A month later the Department of Labor’s Office of Labor-Management Standards responded that it routinely applies a statutory test to determine an entity’s status and considers the facts on a case-by-case basis. The OLMS stated it had twice concluded, in 2004 and again in 2008, that “ROC is not a labor organization under the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act.” The standards office also rebuffed a complaint filed this year by Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher that OUR Walmart had failed to fulfill its financial reporting requirements.

Ultimately, however, dodging labor organization status is a strategy that keeps worker centers on the periphery. And that may be just what management lawyers want. “Littler needs enemies,” Gould says. “Part of their pitch to employers is that people who support low-wage workers will begin to attack shareholders and demand they support better wages and conditions. The pitch is, ‘You need us.’ ”

Back in 1991, Geoghegan found no easy way to rejuvenate unions. “The union movement in America will always be a scandal,” he wrote. “The subversive thing about labor is not the strike, but the idea of solidarity.”

Trade Unionism

In relation to the International Trade Union Associations, the World Encyclopedia of Law explains that the chief international trade union body is the International Federation of Trade Unions, to which most of the chief national trade union bodies belogns. See in this Project more about trade unionism.

Trade Union in Foreign Legal Encyclopedias

Link Description
Trade Union Trade Union in the World Legal Encyclopedia.
Trade Union Trade Union in the European Legal Encyclopedia.
Trade Union Trade Union in the Asian Legal Encyclopedia.
Trade Union Trade Union in the UK Legal Encyclopedia.
Trade Union Trade Union in the Australian Legal Encyclopedia.

Back to Top


See Also

Trade Union Agreements
Labor Union
National Labor Relations Act History
Collective Bargaining
Labor law

Trade Union: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Trade Union. This part provides references, in relation to Trade Union, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Trade Union by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Trade Union and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Trade Union or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Trade Union and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Trade Union. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Trade Union should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Trade Union when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

*This resource guide is updated frequently. However, if you notice something is wrong or not working, or any resources that should be added, please notify us in any of the "Leave a Comment" area.

Leave a Comment