An independent, quasi-judicial federal agency, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regulates union-employer relations in the United States. Its jurisdiction is the private sector, where it has the power to intervene in unfair labor practices (see Table I for examples) by employers or unions. Each year the NLRB receives some 35,000 allegations of unfair practices, a third of which it determines to have merit. The NLRB has a remedial, rather than punitive, focus; hence, it places heavy emphasis on settlement and the vast majority of its cases are settled without going to court.


The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), also known as the Wagner Act, was passed by Congress in 1935, but was rooted in decades of unrest over labor unions. Before the NLRA, labor unions had an ambiguous legal standing and were subject to many abuses both by their leadership and by the companies they tried to organize. Establishing a series of legal rights for employees wishing to organize for collective bargaining, the NLRA was by far the strongest and most comprehensive piece of federal legislation concerning unions. The statute created the NLRB as the primary mechanism for enforcing its provisions. The NLRA was subsequently amended several times, notably through the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, thus altering the NLRB's jurisdiction and functions over time.


The principal components of the NLRB are the board itself and the general counsel. The agency is also supported by a network of 50 regional and subregional offices and a bench of administrative law judges who make initial rulings when parties refuse to settle on their own.


The board is made up of five members, one of whom serves as the chair, appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Board members, who tend to mirror the political leanings of the president who nominates them, serve staggered five-year terms. They can also be re-appointed after their term expires. The board's function is to decide cases when an NLRB administrative law judge's decision is appealed. Usually the board only hears cases with significant policy considerations or other far-reaching effects.


Largely independent of the board, the general counsel follows the same nomination process but serves a four-year term. The office of the general counsel functions as the prosecutor for cases that the NLRB regional offices deem valid and that can't be settled through mediation or arbitration. Charges that are dismissed as lacking merit at the regional level may be appealed to the general counsel. The general counsel may bring its cases before the NLRB's administrative law court or, with the consent of the board, may pursue a temporary injunction from the U.S. district courts. The latter course of action is reserved for extreme situations when allowing the dispute to run through the normal litigation process would have severe consequences, particularly when those consequences would hurt the alleged victim of the unfair practice. If there are several stages of appeal, the general counsel presents the NLRB's case at each step of the process.


The NLRB only gets involved in labor activities when a request to do so has formally been filed with one of the NLRB's regional offices. The requests take two forms:

In its first role, the NLRB serves as an impartial third party to supervise employee votes on whether to unionize. When properly petitioned by interested employees or a union, the NLRB conducts a secret-ballot

Table 1 Examples of Prohibited Unfair Labor Practices Source: National Labor Relations Board publicatins and case literature
Table 1
Examples of Prohibited
Unfair Labor Practices

Source: National Labor Relations Board publicatins and case literature

For companies and unions under the NLRB's jurisdiction, the following practices are considered illegal:
Employer Practices
  • firing workers for unionizing
  • threatening to cut compensation or benefits if an employee joins a union
  • singling out employees involved with union activities for unusual penalties or otherwise unenforced rules ostensibly unrelated to unionizing
  • offering incentives to employees expressly for not joining a union
  • screening out employees with union sympathies
Union Practices
  • threatening that employees will lose their jobs if they don't support the union
  • discriminating against union members because they don't support the union leadership
  • requiring employees to pay union dues after they have been expelled from the union

vote of all employees in the company and announces the results. This process was created to allow workers to vote their consciences without fear of election rigging or reprisal from the union or the company based on how they vote. There are several kinds of petitions that may be used for different purposes, but most require supporting signatures of at least 30 percent of the work force in order to be considered by the NLRB. The petitioning process is also used to decertify a union by majority vote in a particular workplace.

The bulk of the NLRB's work is in its second role, evaluating and pursuing charges of unfair labor practices. Charges are first investigated by the regional NLRB office, and if they are found to have merit, the regional office tries to broker a settlement by encouraging the party accused of unfair practices—either company or union—to revise its stance. If the alleged violator refuses, the NLRB issues a formal complaint and the case is heard before an administrative law judge at the NLRB, with the NLRB's office of general counsel presenting the case against the purported violator. If either party in the case is unsatisfied with the judge's decision they may appeal it to the NLRB's five-member board; board decisions may be taken up with the U.S. appeals courts and, ultimately, the Supreme Court if necessary.

SEE ALSO : Labor Law and Legislation ; Labor Unions


National Labor Relations Board. "Fact Sheet on the National Labor Relations Board." Washington, December 1998. Available from .

- The National Labor Relations Board and You. Washington, n.d. Available from .

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