Who Can Form and Join a Union

Who is Eligible?

Most workers across many industries and occupations – teachers, nurses, graduate student employees, service and retail workers, professionals, construction and manufacturing workers, and more — are eligible to form and join unions. 

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.

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Some employees, even non-managerial workers, 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, although some states provide some rights to these workers. 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.

This chart shows which government labor agency enforces organizing and bargaining rights depending on the type of employer.

If you are employed by: You should contact the:

A private sector employer or the U.S. Postal Service

An airline or railway

A federal government agency

A state government agency

Yes.  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 workers performing domestic service in the home from coverage, so these workers 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.

Approximately 10 states have enacted Bill of Rights type laws to enhance workplace protections for domestic service workers, including. 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 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.  For example, 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.