What is a labor union? Who has the legal right to organize? Who protects these rights? Get the facts about unions, workplace organizing and the federal agencies that protect these rights.

A labor union is a group of two or more employees who join together to advance common interests such as wages, benefits, schedules and other employment terms and conditions. Joining together - or "acting collectively" - workers represented by unions have a powerful voice that strengthens their ability to negotiate with their employer about their concerns. Higher wages, health insurance, vacation days, paid sick leave and retirement benefits are a few examples of what workers achieve through their unions. Workers also pursue other enhancements - such as flexible scheduling, protections against harassment and safer working conditions - that improve the quality of jobs and workers' well-being.

Unions are membership-driven, democratic organizations governed by laws that require financial transparency and integrity, fair elections and other democratic standards, and fair representation of all workers. Learn about the laws that govern unions:

Collective bargaining is the mechanism or process for an organized group of workers ("labor") and their employer ("management") to pursue mutual agreement over workplace issues. The results of these labor-management negotiations are contained in a collective bargaining agreement. The CBA is a legally enforceable, written contract between a union representing a group of employees ("bargaining unit") and an employer in a workplace.

Often, workers who organize a new union find it difficult to reach agreement with their employer on their first collective bargaining agreement. The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service provides training, mediation and facilitation at no cost to the parties to support collective bargaining and to help the parties reach an agreement. In addition, the Federal Labor Relations Authority helps to resolve disputes between labor and management in the federal sector.

When workers form a union, the collective bargaining agreement with their employer contains agreements on pay, benefits and other employment terms and conditions. The agreement includes pay levels and scales for different jobs and brings transparency to the process and helps ensure equity and fairness in pay for workers.

When concerns or problems arise, the CBA includes the "grievance and arbitration process," a straightforward way to resolve issues. The process spares union workers the time and expense of pursuing a claim in court or seeking government assistance.

Millions of workers in many industries and occupations are eligible to become union members. In very general terms, non-managerial employees who work for private-sector employers, including airlines and railways, and those employed by the federal government, and by state, county and local governments in many - but not all - states, may form and join labor unions.

Some employees, even non-managerial, do not have the right to unionize and collectively bargain with their employers as they are specifically excluded from federal, state, or local laws providing those rights. For instance, domestic workers, independent contractors and agricultural workers are not covered by federal labor laws that allow organizing and bargaining rights. In some states, public employees do not have collective bargaining rights. In the U.S., the type of employer for whom you work dictates which government labor agency, if any, oversees the process of forming a union at your workplace, and otherwise protects your rights to organize and collectively bargain. The following information can be helpful:

If you are employed by: You should contact the:  
A private sector employer or the U.S. Postal Service National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)

National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)

An airline or railway National Mediation Board

National Mediation Board

A federal government agency Federal Labor Relations Authority

Federal Labor Relations Authority

A state, county or local government Your state labor agency*

Your state labor agency

Like other workers, immigrant workers can form and join unions. The law prohibits employers from retaliating against any worker, including an immigrant worker, for trying to form or join a union. Immigrants working for private employers who believe their employer has violated these rights should contact the National Labor Relations Board at 1-844-762-6572 for assistance in filing an unfair labor practice charge. They may also contact their closest NLRB Field Office or submit a charge on the NLRB's website. Charges must be filed with an NLRB Field Office within six months of the potential violation. If a worker has filed a charge or has witnessed the alleged violation - and the worker or their representative tells the NLRB that immigration relief is needed to protect workers exercising their rights - the NLRB will consider seeking immigration relief for employees at that worksite. This relief may include deferred action, parole, U or T visa status, or other relief.

The NLRB has developed a factsheet on protections for immigrant workers (nlrb.gov)

The NLRA generally excludes domestic service in the home from coverage, so they do not have a right under the NLRA to unionize or bargain collectively. However, some states have passed laws with protections for certain domestic workers and childcare providers who seek to unionize or bargain collectively under state law.

Domestic workers include housecleaners, nannies, caregivers, and other household-based service workers. Approximately 10 states have enacted Bill of Rights type laws to enhance workplace protections for domestic service workers. California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, and Virginia are the states that have enacted Bill of Rights protections for domestic workers.

The majority of national unions are part of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, a federation of national and international unions headquartered in the U.S. The AFL-CIO also includes hundreds of state and local federations comprised of unions at state and local levels. Several major U.S. unions are not part of the AFL-CIO, including the Service Employees International Union, the National Education Association, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. Many small, independent unions are also not part of a national labor organization.

Nearly all national unions have union "locals" at the state or local level, and many have district councils and other types of regional structures. Local entities are the unions that typically get involved in resolving grievances and other issues at unionized workplaces.

To promote accountability and transparency, private-sector unions and those in the federal sector must file annual reports with the U.S. Department of Labor, which has a searchable database of these reports.

With thousands of local unions and millions of members in the U.S., workers seeking to join a union are likely to find a co-worker, neighbor or family member is a union member. Most unions offer websites to provide interested workers with membership information. The department's searchable database of annual reports filed by many unions can help you find more information.

In 2021, 14 million U.S. workers - or about 10.3 percent of the American workforce - were members of a union. Of these workers, 7.5 million union members were men and 6.5 million were women. Unions are also incredibly diverse, as nearly two-thirds of all union members are people of color or women. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that union membership is highest among those employed in education, training and library services, and protective service occupations. Union Members - 2022 (bls.gov).

Unions reflect the diversity of the workforce

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The strength of unions and areas where union membership is highest varies across the country. In some states, a small percentage of workers are union members while union membership rates are much higher in other states.

Unionization Across States

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Workers seeking to form a union at their workplace should try to determine if other workers support the idea. With support from co-workers, employee organizers typically collect union interest cards, petitions or other written statements from co-workers to show interest in union representation. Organizing efforts may be supported by an established union seeking to represent workers at a workplace. Workers may also form an independent union. Once organizers collect signed cards or petitions from bargaining unit members, there are generally two paths to follow to form a union:

Majority signup | Voluntary recognition - Once a majority of employees in the bargaining unit sign cards seeking union representation, the union may then ask the employer to recognize their union voluntarily. If the employer agrees, the union becomes the workers' legal representative for purposes of collective bargaining.

Majority signup | Voluntary recognition

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If the employer chooses not to recognize the union, the workers can file a petition with the NLRB or other labor agency and request a secret ballot election be held among the bargaining unit members.

Secret Ballot Representation Election. If workers collect cards or petitions that show at least 30 percent of the bargaining unit members want to be represented by the union, they can file a petition with the NLRB or other labor agency requesting a secret ballot election. This election gives each employee in the bargaining unit the opportunity to vote. If results show a majority of the voters vote for the union, the NLRB or other labor agency will certify the union.

Secret Ballot Representation Election

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Employers, small and large, respect their workers' rights to organize and agree to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement. For example, when employees of Pavement Coffeehouse in Boston chose to organize, their employer respected their decision and negotiated a collective bargaining agreement. At Microsoft Corporation, the company recently announced new organizing principles stating it would respect its workers' decision about forming a union.

Often, employers resist organizing campaigns using a variety of legal and illegal actions. Recent research found that, in two out of every five organizing campaigns, employers are charged with engaging in unfair labor practices, and that employers are charged with retaliating against pro-union employees in one out of five campaigns.

Employer Retaliation

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The NLRB handles charges of illegal anti-union activity in private-sector organizing campaigns. Contact the NLRB at 1-844-762-NLRB for more information or visit the board's website.

Employers cannot

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Source: National Labor Relations Board

By law, employers cannot retaliate against a worker by cutting work hours or wages, disciplining or firing them, or by trying to punish them in any way for trying to form or join a union. A private-sector worker who believes their employer has violated their rights should contact the NLRB as soon as possible and speak with an NLRB agent to discuss their concerns. If needed, a worker may file - at no cost - an unfair labor practice charge alleging that their employer violated the law. Workers do not need a lawyer to file a complaint. Once filed, the NLRB will send a copy of the charge to the employer. The law protects workers and holds employers liable if they retaliate against workers who file charges or take part in an NLRB investigation or proceeding. Contact the NLRB at 1-844-762-6572. An employer found to have broken the law may be required to pay back wages and other related expenses.

The Department of Labor's mission and enforcement depends on the cooperation of workers. DOL has published an FAQ on its process for requesting DOL support for requests to the Department of Homeland Security for immigration-related prosecutorial discretion, such as deferred action, during labor disputes. Read more in this FAQ.

More information is available on worker.gov: Retaliation after filing a charge against your employer - Worker.gov

In three out of four worker organizing drives, employers hire outside consultants to engage in anti-union campaigns or "persuader" activities, in response. In nine out of 10 anti-union campaigns, employers hold mandatory "captive audience" employee meetings, where employers emphasize their anti-union views. Current labor laws do not give union supporters equal time at these meetings to present their views. While these meetings are common, they may or may not be legal. The NLRB enforces workers' organizing and bargaining rights, and answers questions about whether an employers' activities are legal. Contact the NLRB at 1-844-762-NLRB.

When employers hire outside consultants to run anti-union campaigns, the employer and the consultants are legally required to file public reports. The department's Office of Labor Management Standards collects and publishes these reports online. OLMS also offers a tip line for reporting non-compliance with the persuader reporting requirements.

Federal law protects the rights of workers to act together to address workplace conditions, with or without a union. These protections extend to certain work-related conversations on social media, such as Facebook and Twitter and give workers the right to act with coworkers to address work-related issues through open conversations with one or more coworkers. Protected conversations can include talking about wages, benefits and working conditions, or joining with co-workers to talk directly to the employer to address concerns. By law, employers cannot fire, discipline, demote, or penalize workers in any way for engaging in these activities.

Federal law protects the rights of workers to act together to address workplace conditions, with or without a union

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"Right to work" is a misleading term.  It does not actually have anything to do with a person's right to a job.  "Right to work" refers to state laws that prohibit unions from receiving "fair share" fees from workers who are represented by the union and covered by a collective bargaining agreement.  In "fair share" states, unions and employers can negotiate rules that require all workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement to pay either union dues (if they are a member of the union) or a fair share fee (if they are not a member of the union). But in "right to work" states, these "fair share" agreements are illegal.  In all states, unions are required by law to represent all workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement, regardless of whether the worker is a member of the union.  So, in "right to work" states, unions still have to provide this representation, but workers are not required to pay a "fair share" fee for the representation.  This creates a "free rider" problem that weakens unions. 

States with "right to work" laws generally have lower rates of unionization. In fact, the 17 states with the lowest union density rates all have "right to work" laws.  And these low union density states typically have lower wages and less robust public benefits than "fair share" states, as the following chart demonstrates:


17 High Union Density States (2 of which have "right to work" laws)

17 Medium Union Density States
(13.3% - 8.3%)

17 Low Union Density States (ALL of which have "right to work" laws)
(7.7% - 3.2%)

Average Minimum Wage (as of 2021)




Median Household Income




Percentage of Unemployed Workers Who Receive Unemployment Benefits




Percentage of Persons Without Access to Paid Health Insurance




Number of States Adopting the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid Expansion




Number of States with Laws Providing for Paid Sick and/or Family Leave




SourceUnions are not only good for workers, they're good for communities and for democracy: High unionization levels are associated with positive outcomes across multiple indicators of economic, personal, and democratic well-being | Economic Policy Institute (epi.org)

(According to EPI, the average minimum wage information in the above chart was current as of 2021, and the rest of the information was current as of 2019.)


The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) provides organizing and bargaining rights to covered employees, but not independent contractors.  Therefore, independent contractors are not generally protected by the NLRA, which has its own definition of who is an employee.

Some workers have filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) alleging that they have been misclassified as independent contractors under the NLRA and should have the organizing rights that the NLRA provides.  The NLRB investigates these charges, and if workers are successful, they may win organizing and bargaining rights.  A group of port truck drivers recently won employee status, organizing and bargaining rights through a settlement facilitated by the NLRB.

Employees who are misclassified as independent contractors may also be deprived of their rights under wage and hour, health and safety, anti-discrimination, workers' compensation, and other laws. The test for whether a worker is an employee or independent contractor depends on the law at issue and may differ. Employees who believe they are misclassified may bring complaints to the Department of Labor, the National Labor Relations Board, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and other relevant agencies.  Find out more:  www.worker.gov.

The National Labor Relations Act protects the right of most private sector workers to act together (called "protected concerted activity") to advocate for stronger workplace safety and health protections.  Retaliation against workers for engaging in this sort of protected activity may be illegal under both the National Labor Relations Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act.  Find out more:  Concerns: Whistleblower protections - Worker.gov

U.S. Department of Labor links:

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Any links to non-federal websites on this page provide additional information that is consistent with the intended purpose of this federal site, but linking to such sites does not constitute an endorsement by the U.S. Department of Labor of the information or organization providing such information. For more information, please visit https://www.dol.gov/general/disclaim.