Section 7 Rights
Doug Bonney

A while back a reporter from St. Joe called me. Somehow she had gotten wind of a meeting at which a group of hospital employees intended to discuss their work-related gripes so that they could approach their employer and air their grievances. The reporter told me that the employees did not have a union and that the meeting was going to be held away from the workplace. The reporter wanted to know whether the meeting was legal. 

I told the reporter "of course the meeting would be legal." But in thinking back on the conversation, I think the "of course" was out of place because the reporter's question shows that workers in the United States know very little about the rights they enjoy under the labor laws. 

The hospital employees' meeting is an example of the most basic workers' right: The right to engage in concerted activity for purposes of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection. That right is fundamental to all other workplace rights, and—for most private sector employees—it is guaranteed by Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act. Section 7 also guarantees the rights to self-organization, to form, join and assist labor organizations, and to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing. 

You do not need a union to exercise your Section 7 rights. Any private sector employees outside the railroad and airline industries can exercise those rights with or without a union. Non-union employees can even strike if they have enough solidarity to make it work. And it would be an unfair labor practice for an employer to fire or retaliate against its employees for exercising their Section 7 rights. If an employer like the St. Joe hospital fired the leaders who organized the meeting, those employees could file charges with the National Labor Relations Board, which would investigate the charges, hold a hearing, and—if an Administrative Law Judge upheld the charges—order the employer to put the employees back to work and to pay them their back wages. 

Although the employees do not need a union in order to exercise their Section 7 rights, a union sanctioned by a majority of the employees in the workplace does give employees additional rights, including the right to demand that the employer bargain in good faith over a collective bargaining agreement. If an employer refuses to negotiate in good faith with a majority union, it would commit an unfair labor practice and would be subject to penalties imposed by the National Labor Relations Board. Without a majority union, however, the employees cannot force the employer to the bargaining table, and the employer can unilaterally change the terms and conditions of employment (things like working conditions, wages, and insurance benefits). 

With the changes in the labor force we see in America today, many unions are considering new ways to advance worker rights. And Section 7 rights provide workers with a powerful tool even in non-union workplaces. But, in order to reap the benefits of a tool, you need to know it exists, and then you need to know how to use it. Thus, the first step is educating workers so that they know they have the protected right to engage in concerted activities. The second step is teaching workers how to use their rights. And this is where unions can help workers, even in non-union settings. At a conference of union lawyers I attended a few years ago in Chicago, for instance, a Steelworkers lawyer said his union, the USWA, will be experimenting with minority union representation, which means providing services for members in workplaces where there is not a union majority. 

Employers benefit from an ignorant work force where people, like the St. Joe reporter, do not know that workers have the basic right to act together to improve their work life. So, spread the word: Section 7 is powerful medicine for the ailing American work force.