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I do understand that a union contract may specify that a unionized employee must go through a union representative in cases of contractual disputes.

But I am wondering if there is anything in the law which makes it so that unionized employees must go through their union if the contract (negotiated by the union) is violated.

Would that mean that unions have powers of attorneys over labor disputes?

If it's not mandated by law, what if a union contract does specify that unions do have the power to represent all employees in all labor disputes? Would that alone make it incumbent on the union to inform (for example, new employees) of their rights to seek representation in cases of (for example) salary disputes?

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In the USA, management may not negotiate directly with employees if a union contract is in place. Contracts I have been familiar with specified the means for a grievance, and they were to be filed through and by the union. Everything about this will be specified in the contract.

That said, even if it were allowed, management would never engage directly with an employee on these matters and would immediately ask the employee what the union had to say about it. Contract management between management and the union is a give and take arrangement, and management will never give anything that doesn't involve the union so that a future take can be on the table.

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  • I think it is understood that unions have the power to negotiate contracts. The question was about enforcement. If a single employee, or a small group of employees, believe that the contract is not being followed, do they have to go through the union to get it enforced or is it possible for a contract to allow them to seek enforcement on their own.
    – grovkin
    Oct 15 at 2:23
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The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) is the primary legislation which gives private sector unions in the U.S., that are in a unionized bargaining unit that is recognized by the National Labor Relations Board, authority to negotiate contracts and to include mandatory grievance procedures on behalf of all employees in the bargaining unit (typically some form of binding arbitration), even if the union would not have had the authority to do so otherwise under the common law of contract and agency.

Public sector unionization is a more legally complicated concept because it is regulated on a state by state basis, in addition to laws regulating federal government public sector unions that is separate from the NLRA structure, and because civil service laws that apply to almost all public employees except a small number of political appointees, address many issues that would be addressed in a private sector as part of a collective bargaining agreement and apply whether or not a particular employee is part of a public sector union, so I'll limit my answer to private sector unions in the U.S.

For what it worth, the legal theory and actual practice of union-management relations and labor law in the United States is quite atypical of most other countries, and other countries are also very non-uniform in their laws regarding union-management relations.

In France, for example (where the union movement is especially strong), while it is illegal, abducting senior managers and physically threatening them in order to secure a favorable collective bargaining agreement is a practice that is widely tolerated by both companies and the government.

Would that mean that unions have powers of attorneys over labor disputes?

This isn't the functional mechanism by which this is done (instead, it is a provision in a Collective Bargaining Agreement reached between the union and the employer). Like agents pursuant to a power of attorney, unions have fiduciary obligations to their members that impact how disputes are handled on behalf of their members and can be legally enforced by unionized employees if breached by the union. So, conceptually, the idea of the union having a POA from their members isn't far from the mark.

If it's not mandated by law, what if a union contract does specify that unions do have the power to represent all employees in all labor disputes?

Such a clause is valid and enforceable. It is also worth noting that such clauses are frequently not comprehensive, and often leave open some kinds issues that the employee may pursue separately. There isn't a uniform national rule, it is negotiated on a case by case basis. Typically, it is the employer that will push to require all cases to arbitrated by the union to keep it out of the courts and secure a more rapid resolution of recurring points of dispute.

Would that alone make it incumbent on the union to inform (for example, new employees) of their rights to seek representation in cases of (for example) salary disputes?

Employees in a unionized workplace are informed and must be informed, at the outset that they are represented by a union and are typically given access to information about the nature of that union representation by the union upon being hired or within a day or two afterwards.

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  • This question was brought on by my remembering that most grad students and university faculty are unionized. So maybe "contact your union" should have been the answer to this question. But my question would be whether it is the union that should make it clear to the incoming grad student how to contact them in case there is a salary dispute or if it is the student's responsibility to figure out what the union contract demands of him in this case.
    – grovkin
    Oct 15 at 2:32
  • @grovkin Most unions are zealous in providing that information. This particular graduate student's union, perhaps because its members don't see themselves primarily as employees, may be an exception to the rule. Faculty, while unionized, typically do not include mandatory union dispute resolution of employment disputes in their collective bargaining agreement, and instead usually provide in that agreement that employer and employee will follow the older tradition of shared faculty-administration governance by committee for such matters.
    – ohwilleke
    Oct 15 at 19:05

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