Is there a union at your company? Chances are pretty good that the answer is "no": Only about 7% of the private sector is unionized. However, that doesn't mean that employees at these companies don't have any rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the federal law that regulates the relationship between management and unions. The NLRA doesn't just protect employees who are in a union. It protects the rights of all employees to organize, discuss the terms and conditions of employment, and take action together to try to improve their jobs.
Employees in a non-union workplace have the right to come together to try to form a union -- and employers may not retaliate or discriminate against employees who try to do so or who support a union organization effort. The NLRA prohibits employers from unfairly influencing their employees' decision to join or form a union; it also prohibits them from using threats or other coercive tactics to influence the outcome of an election.
Employers also may not ban discussions of forming a union in the workplace. Instead, these conversations must be treated like any other matter not related to work. If, for example, employees are allowed to have personal conversations while working, an employer must also allow them to discuss forming a union. In other words, an employer may not single out union-related discussions for special treatment.
The NLRA gives all employees the right to take protected, concerted activity: when two or more employees take action for their mutual aid or protection regarding the terms and conditions of their employment. This right applies whether employees act through a union or on their own, and whether a workplace is unionized or not.
For example, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which enforces the NLRA, has found that employees are engaged in protected, concerted activity when they complain to their employer about working conditions, salary, or benefits; post critical comments about managers and working conditions on a Facebook page or other online site; or meet together to talk about their pay or workplace safety problems.
These rights reflect the purpose of the NLRA: to protect employees who act collectively. Whether that collective action takes place through a union or in some other form, the NLRA gives employees the right to increase their bargaining power by taking action as a group, rather than individually.
Recently, the NLRB has taken a special interest in employer action against employees who use social media to discuss or complain about working conditions. Employers that discipline employees for posting critical comments, or who adopt broad policies prohibiting employees from talking about the company online, have gotten into legal trouble for violating employee rights to take collective action. This is a rapidly evolving area of both technology and law, but it seems clear that the NLRB plans to protect employees whose discussions about the terms and conditions of their jobs take place online, in public, as well as those who come together in more traditional ways.