What is a Labor Dispute?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
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  • Last Modified Date: 15 February 2020
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A labor dispute is a conflict which arises over the terms negotiated in collective bargaining agreements mediated by a union. Labor disputes can occur while the union is working with the employer to negotiate an agreement, or when an already established agreement is violated. If labor disputes escalate, they can develop into strikes, in which the employees do not report for work until the dispute is resolved. This can become extremely costly very quickly and can lead to situations in which governments may be forced to intervene.

The origins of labor disputes can lie in any number of disagreements about the terms of an agreement. Employers may balk at wages, limits on hours, and other aspects of an agreement. Likewise, unions may refuse to endorse an agreement which they feel does not offer enough benefits to their members. Labor disputes can also occur as a result of violations of the agreement which result in a report to the union. For example, an employee who is not compensated properly would report it to a union representative, who would take the employee's case up with the employer in order to resolve it.


Workers, unions, and employers all want to avoid labor disputes. Missing work as a result of a dispute hurts employees as well as employers, and being unable to negotiate an agreement is not helpful either. However, there may be certain things which people view as nonnegotiable, and sometimes that results in situations in which disputes arise because neither side wants to give way, or one side feels that its sticking point is important enough that it cannot compromise to end the labor dispute.

Representatives of the union and employer, including lawyers, can attempt to negotiate a labor dispute before it snowballs into a strike or similar employee action. Sometimes these negotiations attract attention from the media, especially when the dispute involves an industry in which many people are interested. A labor dispute at an airline, for example, may be followed closely because it can lead to a strike which may complicate air travel.

The goal of the union is to represent the interests of the employees and to make sure that they are protected. Unions place a high priority on safe working environments, fair compensation, and limits on how employees may be utilized. Many labor disputes stem from one of these three issues, because they are so key to the union and they can become critical points in contract negotiations which turn into a labor dispute.


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