What is a Minority Union?

Under federal labor law, unions are organized according to principles of voluntary majority unionism. In order for a union to exclusively bargain with an employer, it must demonstrate either by a secret ballot vote or by authorizing signatures that a majority of employees in an appropriate unit support the union.

Source: National Labor Relations Board Annual Reports and Current Population Survey. Data available upon request.

Recently, unions have had less success organizing majorities of workplaces than in the past. That combined with job losses and major company bankruptcies in unionized industries, has led unions to explore alternative models that do not rely on winning an election and demonstrating that a majority of employees support the union.

Saru Jayaraman of the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), a workers center co-founded by the forerunner to the UNITE-HERE union, explains:

One difference between [ROC] and a union is that in a union you have to get a majority of a shop. In our case we just get a group of workers, but not necessarily the majority.

This minority status combined with aggressive protests unregulated by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act creates an impossible dilemma for employers: Either violate employee rights, or face endless disruptions. Under the NLRA, it is illegal for an employer to bargain exclusively (bargain for all employees) with a minority union. Bargaining exclusively with a minority representative would allow a small portion of employees to dictate salaries/wages, working conditions, and work-time rules for all, which is considered unfair.

Additionally, it may be illegal for an employer to bargain with a minority or “members only” union on anything that might impact other employees not part of the group for the same reason. A labor attorney analyzed some of the ways that minority union bargaining can infringe the rights of nonunion employees, which are noted below.

  • Minority union members may not want the union to collectively bargain on their behalf.
  • An employer asking if members want the union to collectively bargain may break labor-management relations rules.
  • “Members only” contracts may affect nonmember employees’ working conditions.

Workers centers use minority union models to put the squeeze on employees’ and employers’ rights. Since workers centers aren’t regulated under the NLRA, it can be difficult for employers and employees to determine their rights, responsibilities, and legitimate courses of action under NLRA rules to ease the pressure.

We have prepared a list of Frequently Asked Questions about workers centers and resource pages for employers and employees of targeted workplaces so that they can determine their rights under the National Labor Relations Act. If you need further assistance or information related to your specific situation, please contact an attorney.

Terminology

Bargaining Unit: The “bargaining unit” is the group of employees that a union hopes to represent (and if it wins representation rights, will represent). To qualify as a unit, the group of non-supervisory employees must have certain characteristics of a “community of interest”—similar job functions, required skills, supervision arrangements, or compensation structures.

Exclusive Representation: Under the National Labor Relations Act, unions have the privilege to demand that employers bargain with the union to determine a contract for the entire bargaining unit including non-members of the union. The union must prove majority employee support by signature cards or a secret ballot election. This arrangement is known as exclusive representation.