Considering a Career in Labor Law: What You Need to Know


If you’ve ever come across news stories about teacher unions going on strike or large companies wrapping up union contract negotiations, you were witnessing labor law in action. Labor law governs the formation of unions and the relationship between employees and employers when a union represents workers in a workplace.

Understanding Labor Law

Labor law is a specialized field that focuses on protecting workers’ right to organize and join unions, as well as employers’ rights during bargaining processes. Major labor laws include the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, and the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. These laws were enacted at a time when employers held significant power, and they aimed to level the playing field by empowering employees to form unions. By banding together, employees gain better leverage in negotiating with large corporations, as opposed to acting as individuals. This collective bargaining is a cornerstone of labor law.

What Sets Labor Law Apart from Employment Law?

Although the term “labor law” might bring to mind employment-related issues like discrimination or sexual harassment, those cases fall under a separate branch of law known as employment law. Labor lawyers primarily handle cases directly related to unions and the associated relationships. Employment lawyers, on the other hand, address all other legal matters concerning employment.

The Role of a Labor Lawyer

Labor law plays a crucial role in the United States legal system, and pursuing a career as a labor lawyer means advocating for workers or employers. Many labor lawyers work closely with unions or corporations to facilitate negotiations, resolve disputes, and manage interactions between the two parties. Often, labor lawyers argue cases in front of arbitrators rather than judges. They must be adept at presenting cases, drafting relevant documents, conducting research, and gathering evidence to ensure success.

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Labor lawyers may also collaborate with lawmakers to bring about changes in labor law at the state or federal level. Some may work for the National Labor Relations Board, which aids employees and employers in the unionization process. Additionally, labor attorneys might join private practices, providing guidance to companies on training managers and supervisors in effective employee relations and collective bargaining.

What Skills Do You Need for Labor Law?

Becoming a labor lawyer entails attending law school and studying relevant subjects, such as labor laws, unions, significant legal precedents, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Gaining practical experience through internships with labor law firms or working alongside state and national agencies like the National Labor Relations Board will equip you with valuable training specific to this field.

In addition to legal knowledge, negotiation skills are crucial for success as a labor attorney. You will spend a significant amount of time engaging with both sides of a case, whether representing a union or an employer. Taking a negotiation class during law school can provide the necessary foundation for developing these skills.

Conflict resolution skills are also vital, as negotiations can become tense and even break down at times.

Opportunities for Labor Lawyers

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented numerous challenges for employers and employees, ranging from workplace safety to medical and bereavement leave. Interestingly, the overall rate of unionization actually increased during the pandemic due to shifts in the employed population caused by layoffs. Many of these pressing issues are still being negotiated, as unions strive for better resolutions regarding health, safety, and working conditions. Labor lawyers will play a critical role in these negotiations.

Moreover, workers are now demanding different working arrangements following the widespread implementation of remote work during the pandemic. Particularly in sectors like education, employees are advocating for improved safety in increasingly hazardous school environments. Resolving issues related to student assaults and teacher safety will require the expertise of labor lawyers representing both unions and employers.

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The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 10 percent increase in lawyer employment from 2021 to 2031, which is above average. This suggests that the demand for lawyers, including labor lawyers, will continue to grow.

Understanding OSHA

OSHA, or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, falls under the U.S. Department of Labor. Its objective is to ensure safe and healthy working conditions by establishing standards, enforcing them, and providing training, outreach, education, and assistance. U.S. employers must comply with OSHA standards, and failure to do so can result in liability if a worker sustains an injury due to an OSHA violation. While employment attorneys commonly handle OSHA violations, labor lawyers may need to intervene when violations affect a larger group of employees.

How Do Unions Form?

When a group of workers wishes to form a union, they must obtain support from at least 30 percent of their fellow employees, either through signed cards or petitions. At this point, the National Labor Relations Board steps in to conduct an official election. Alternatively, the employer can voluntarily acknowledge the employees’ desire to form a union. Once a union is established, the employer engages in negotiations with a union representative. As a labor attorney, you’ll be involved in these negotiations and provide advice either to the employer or the union representative.

Key Protections for U.S. Workers

Several labor laws have significantly shaped workers’ rights. Here are four noteworthy examples:

  • Norris-LaGuardia Act (1932): This law granted workers the right to strike, organize through unions, and protest unsafe working conditions.
  • Fair Labor Standards Act (1938): The FLSA standardized the eight-hour workday, established the first guaranteed minimum wage, and prohibited the employment of children under 16. While still impactful today, this law does not effectively address modern workplace issues such as the “gig” economy and remote work arrangements.
  • Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (1959): Also known as the Landrum-Griffin Act, this legislation aimed to regulate union elections, ensuring equal rights for all union members and combating corruption and organized crime within certain unions.
  • Occupational Health and Safety Act (1970): This act applies to businesses with two or more employees, requiring employers to maintain hazard-free work environments. It grants workers the right to be aware of job-related dangers, file complaints with OSHA, and be protected against retaliation for exercising these rights.
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Major Labor Law Cases

As a labor lawyer, familiarity with important cases that have set legal precedents is essential. Here are five significant cases that have had a profound impact on labor law:

  • NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel (1937): This case upheld the constitutionality of the Wagner Act, which guaranteed employees the right to privately organize labor unions without interference from companies. It established Congress’s authority to regulate commerce and support workers’ rights.
  • NLRB v. Washington Aluminum Co. (1962): In this case, the Supreme Court affirmed the right of non-union workers to strike if they were acting collectively for their mutual aid or protection, even without union representation. This decision clarified the scope of workers’ rights.
  • Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1970): This class-action lawsuit challenged discriminatory employment practices. The Supreme Court ruled that employment requirements must be directly related to the job itself and not arbitrarily discriminate against certain groups.
  • Hoffman Plastic Compounds, Inc. v. NLRB (2002): This case dealt with the employment of an undocumented worker who attempted to form a union. The Supreme Court decided that the worker was ineligible for back pay after termination due to his lack of authorized work status in the United States.
  • Janus v. AFSCME (2018): The Supreme Court ruled that unions representing government workers cannot collect agency fees from non-members. This decision was based on the argument that requiring non-members to pay fees infringed upon their First Amendment rights.

Study Law at St. Francis School of Law

If you’re considering a career in labor law, St. Francis School of Law offers an online JD program designed to provide you with the necessary skills for success. Our program combines the flexibility of online learning with a rigorous curriculum and expert instruction. Contact us today to learn more about our program and begin your journey in labor law.

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