Good Members Honor Picket Lines – and Other Important Matters for Building Trades Unions

By Alexia Kulwiec, Associate Professor

Every so often, your union likely reminds you that “good members honor picket lines,” whether in a newsletter, on social media, or at union meetings. Yet when union members see picket signs, the union representatives may not provide much information concerning the reason for the picket. Ever wonder why this is?

So-Called Secondary Activity
Section 8(b)(4) of the NLRA prohibits union representatives from “encouraging” or “inducing” certain employees from refusing to perform his or her job. This prohibition involves employees of so-called “neutral” or “secondary employers,” or rather an employer that is not the target of the dispute. Under the law, such conduct is called “secondary activity.” To avoid allegations of unlawful activity, union representatives may have been instructed not to say much at the picket line. Yet other members can choose to honor picket lines, to stand together with their sisters and brothers, and do so! A picket sign indicates that the union has a dispute with the employer, whether over the contract, the employer’s unlawful conduct, or some other dispute. As we all know, the best way to address disputes against the employer is through worker solidarity. So on seeing a picket sign, a good union member should know there is a dispute against an employer, and that one of the greatest acts of solidarity is to honor that picket line.

There are two main sections to the law prohibiting so-called “secondary activity.” One is this prohibition against encouraging neutral employees not to work, and the other involves conduct the union may and may not take against a “neutral” employer. A union representative may seek assistance from a neutral employer (ie., management level individual), but it may not threaten that employer in trying to resolve its underlying dispute. This includes a prohibition against picketing “neutral” employers. This is one reason why you may see certain gates on construction sites limited to a particular employer – the contractor involved may be limiting the location of any union picketing.

Other Matters Unique to Building Trades
This law against secondary picketing applies to all unions, but in practice most often involves construction unions. Also more unique to building trades unions are Unfair Labor Practice Strikes, in which the union pickets to protest unlawful conduct, and Area Standards picketing, in which the union protests the employer’s failure to pay the standard wages and benefits for the area. Bargaining and organizing also work a bit differently in the building trades, since bargaining often involves multiple employers and trades. Because of the short term nature of construction work, the rules under the NLRA for bargaining are slightly different – as a temporary measure they can bargain before the full complement of employees is hired or have voiced support for collective bargaining.

Because of the unique NLRA applications to the building trades, School for Workers offers building trades focused legal courses. Learn more here.