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A labor law attorney is a lawyer who represents employers or employees in legal disputes, generally over the terms and conditions of employment. A labor law attorney can be in private practice or work for a law firm, but some labor law attorneys work directly for employers or for labor unions. While labor law attorneys are useful in situations where employers and their employees are arguing a case before a judge, most labor law attorneys aren't involved in litigation. Instead, they specialize in consultation and negotiations intended to avoid litigation. When an employer opens a new facility, for example, consultation with a labor law attorney will be a routine part of the planning process, to familiarize the employer with things like local labor law and union activity in the region.
Labor law in the United States seems fairly straightforward, but it can be quite complex in certain circumstances, and often find themselves involved in disputes over those elements of their relationship covered by the law, and having to argue their cases before a judge. Labor law attorneys are particularly valuable in such cases.
Labor law attorneys become prime resources when an employer is the target of a union organizing campaign. A company that in such a situation, and wants to fight the union, should first exercise due diligence and learn what actions it may and may not take under the law. Many employers take union organizing efforts personally, and their response is often emotional. A good labor law attorney will counsel against capricious actions and keep the employer from taking steps that would violate the employees' rights or poison the employment relationship. Some labor law firms specialize in “union avoidance,” and have accumulated a great deal of experience guiding employers and even directing anti-union campaigns.
Labor unions, of course, have competent legal assistance when they conduct organizing campaigns, and will be quick to assert their rights and those of the workers they seek to represent, when those rights are jeopardized or violated. Just as employers can overreact to the perceived provocation of a union organizing campaign, employees can become emotional when their livelihood appears to be in jeopardy. Legal counsel will help unions, and particularly local organizing committees, from violating the law or themselves damaging the employment relationship.
Employers whose employees are represented by a union frequently employ the services of a labor law attorney to assist with collective bargaining, and many unions also bring a labor law attorney to the bargaining table. This is a prudent step even when the relationship between union and management is amicable, which is usually the case, because regardless of the good intentions of the parties, collective bargaining agreements must also follow the law. Neither side benefits from a poorly-written contract.
The parties to a collective bargaining agreement will also call on labor law attorneys to participate in formal dispute resolution processes, usually arbitration. While the arbitrator in such processes is usually also a labor law attorney, the participation of lawyers on both sides of the table is justified to ensure that each side's rights are protected and prerogatives respected.
A labor law attorney in private practice will generally tend to represent either employers or employees, though some successfully represent both. Most of the cases they deal with, on either side of the table, have to do with wage-and-hour complaints, unlawful discharge cases, harassment charges and disability claims.
As a US labor lawyer, this is much too complicated a topic to be expressed in seven paragraphs. Labor law doesn't even mean the same in North America as it does in the rest of the world (in the US and Canada labor law and employment law are considered separate fields).
Moderator's reply: Thank you for visiting wiseGEEK and participating in the discussion. You are correct: such a broad topic cannot be completely explained in 400-600 words. However, wiseGEEK articles are intended to provide easily understood brief explanations for given topics. The wiseGEEK Team always encourages our readers to do further research on topics that interest them.