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Workers' Rights

The Right To Join A Union

The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (49 Stat. 449) guarantees nonsupervisory employees the right to organize a union, to choose their own representatives, and to bargain collectively with their employer for higher pay, better benefits, improved working conditions, and more relaxed work rules. Workers have the right to join a union if one exists or to help organize one if one does not exist. The law prohibits employers from punishing employees who exercise their right to join a union and participate in union activities. Workers in a company who want to form a union must ask a federal or state agency, such as the National Labor Relations Board, to hold an election to determine if a majority of workers want to be represented by a union.

In certain organizations workers may be required to join a union after they are hired; such workplaces are called union shops. Twenty-two states have enacted right-to-work laws that prohibit union shops, and most are located in the South and Midwest. Right-to-work states, as of January 2006, include Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming. This means that to get or hold a job in these states, workers do not have to join a union if one exists. Closed shops, in which only union members in good standing can be hired, are illegal in right-to-work states.

By law, all workers in a bargaining unit are entitled to the benefits gained through union collective bargaining, whether they are union members or not. Nonunion workers employed by a unionized company get the same benefits as union members, even if they do not join the union.

While unions historically developed in order to represent the interests of the working class, they also have a growing presence in professional specialties. A union of physicians and dentists was formed in California in 1972 and by 2006 totaled 5,000 members. Their initiative to organize was driven partly by policy that made it possible for patients to sue for malpractice under state laws, but their efforts also provide doctors with representation in contract negotiations and in disputes with such entities as hospital administrations, HMOs, insurance companies, and medical boards.

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