National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Definition

What Is the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)?

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is an independent federal agency created by the U.S. Congress in 1935 to enforce the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)—a landmark piece of legislation designed to protect the rights of most private-sector employees to collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions with or without the help of a labor union.

Key Takeaways

  • The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is an independent federal agency created by the U.S. Congress in 1935 to enforce the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).
  • Its objective is to protect the rights of most private-sector employees to collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions, and prevent employers and unions from engaging in unfair practices against them.
  • The NLRB has two principal functions: protect employees from unfair treatment from employers, unions, or both, and give employees the freedom to choose union representation via secret ballot elections.
  • Complaints are dealt with by regional offices and may be passed on to the five-team board, which acts as a quasi-judicial body. 

Understanding the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)

The NLRA, otherwise known as the Wagner Act, is one of the most groundbreaking labor laws ever enacted in the United States. Its mission, in short, is to allow private-sector employees working for companies that do business across state lines to join forces and engage in activities such as protests or strikes with or without a union. Should those rights not be respected and lead to unfair treatment, it’s the NLRB’s job to investigate and, if necessary, take action.

The NLRB was given the power to resolve labor disputes through quasi-judicial proceedings and was assigned two principal functions:

  1. Giving employees the freedom to decide whether they want union representation and, if yes, by which union by conducting secret ballot elections.
  2. Preventing and remedying unfair labor practices orchestrated by employers, unions, or both.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was amended by Congress several times, including in 1947 through the Taft-Hartley Act, in 1959 through the Landrum-Griffin Act, and in 1974 when the NLRB was given jurisdictional authority over nonprofit hospitals and nursing homes.

National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Responsibilities

According to its website, the NLRB’s core duties are:

  • To help employees conduct elections: Workers wanting to form or join a union, or dissolve an existing one, can file an election petition by contacting an information officer at their local regional office.
  • Investigating allegations: Employees whose NLRA rights have been violated can file a charge against an employer or labor union by completing a relevant form and getting in touch with a local information officer.
  • Negotiating settlements: The NLRB encourages people to reach a settlement with employers or unions rather than pursue litigation.
  • Deciding cases: If a settlement cannot be reached, a hearing with a NLRB administrative law judge is organized. These hearings operate similar to a regular court proceeding, with both parties invited to present evidence, witnesses, and arguments.
  • Enforcing rules: Circuit courts evaluate the NLRB’s orders and then decide whether to enter a judicial decree forcing the order to be abided by.
  • Improving NLRA rules: As the labor market changes and evolves, the NLRB comes up with new ways to protect employee rights, including by modifying the NLRA that it is responsible for administering.

National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Structure

The NLRB is a fairly small agency, with 26 regional offices dotted across the United States. Workers who believe their rights have been violated, or who have witnessed an employer or union engaging in unlawful conduct, can contact one of these offices and file a charge.

The agency is governed by a five-person board and a general counsel, who are each appointed by the U.S. president with the consent of the Senate. The board’s job is to determine whether labor violations have occurred, while the general counsel acts as a supervisor and prosecutor.

The Board

Each year, a new board member is appointed by the president, with the blessing of the Senate, for a five-year term. There are five people in total on the NLRB’s board. It is their duty, when called upon, to hear labor disputes and resolve them through quasi-judicial proceedings.

The General Counsel

The general counsel is responsible for supervising the NLRB’s field offices and processing of cases as well as investigating and prosecuting unfair labor practices. This individual is appointed by the president for a four-year term and functions independently from the board.

On its 80th anniversary, celebrated in 2015, the NLRB reported that more than 90% of the cases it receives are dealt with by its regional offices without requiring the board to intervene with formal litigation.

Examples of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Defending Employee Rights

Since its inception in 1935, the NLRB has successfully defended the rights of private-sector employees across all types of industries. Its work often makes the news and has helped to shape American labor practices.

High-profile cases in which the NLRB has been involved include when it helped to end a baseball strike that culminated in the 1994 playoffs and World Series being canceled. With the game in disarray, the NLRB persuaded then-District Court Judge Sonya Sotomayor to issue an injunction that required team owners to reinstate the provisions of the old collective bargaining agreement. Former President Barack Obama once claimed that this move “saved baseball.”

The NLRB continues to be in the news. In November 2021, the agency gave workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama a second shot at unionizing after concluding that the ecommerce giant interfered in the first election. This is just one of a series of examples of the kind of power that the NLRB possesses. And on Dec. 14, 2022, the Los Angeles office of the NLRB agreed to look into a case filed by the National College Players Association (NCPA) alleging unfair labor practices on behalf of University of Southern California football and basketball teams. This is part of an ongoing debate about whether student athletes are in fact employees of universities and should be protected as such.

NLRB Enforcement Power 

The NLRB has no independent statutory power to enforce its decisions and orders, but it may seek enforcement through a U.S. court of appeals. The agency’s board is also not permitted to act on its own motion and can only pursue cases that have been initiated by employees, employers, or unions. It also helps employees conduct union elections.

What is the Purpose of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)?

The NLRB’s objective is to safeguard most private-sector employees’ rights to bargain for better wages and working conditions, either with or without a union.

Which Jobs and Sectors Are Not Protected by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)?

The NLRB covers most of the private sector. Those it cannot help to protect include public-sector employees, agricultural and domestic workers, independent contractors, workers employed by a parent or spouse, employees of air and rail carriers covered by the Railway Labor Act, and, in some cases, supervisors.

What Is the Difference Between the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA)?

The Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) has a similar mandate to the NLRB. Where they mainly differ is in the portion of the workforce they serve. The FLRA is charged with safeguarding the rights of certain non-postal federal employees, while the NLRB protects the rights of most private-sector employees.

The Bottom Line

The National Labor Relations Board is a federal agency that enforces the National Labor Relations Act. It protects the rights of most private-sector employees, who can petition it for help in efforts to collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions. Employees can file a charge against and employer and labor union at one of its 26 regional offices and the NLRB will investigate. The NLRB cannot open cases on its own.

Article Sources
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  1. National Labor Relations Board. “National Labor Relations Act.”

  2. National Labor Relations Board. “1935 Passage of the Wagner Act.”

  3. National Labor Relations Board. “1947 Taft-Hartley Substantive Provisions.”

  4. National Labor Relations Board. “1959 Landrum-Griffin Act.”

  5. National Labor Relations Board. “1974 Health Care Amendments.”

  6. National Labor Relations Board. “What We Do.”

  7. National Labor Relations Board. “Regional Offices.”

  8. National Labor Relations Board. “About NLRB.”

  9. National Labor Relations Board. “Who We Are.”

  10. National Labor Relations Board. “National Labor Relations Board: 80 Years,” Page 11.

  11. National Labor Relations Board. “Impact of the NLRB on Professional Sports.”

  12. The New York Times. “Sotomayor’s Baseball Ruling Lingers, 14 Years Later.”

  13. The Washington Post. “Labor Board Calls for Revote at Amazon Warehouse in Alabama in Major Victory for Union.”

  14. National Labor Relations Board. "University of Southern California."

  15. National Labor Relations Board. “Are You Covered?

  16. Federal Labor Relations Authority. “Introduction to the FLRA.”

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