Labor law and employment law each concern the relationship between employers and workers but these bodies of law address distinctly different aspects of the employer-employee relationship. The focus of labor law is on the collective bargaining process – the rules regulating how labor organizations obtain rights to represent workers and the negotiation of collective bargaining agreements and their administration (mainly labor arbitration). Roughly 50 million wage and salary workers in the nonagricultural workforce are covered by collective bargaining agreements. This represents more than 10 percent of the workers in that sector of the U.S. economy. So, labor law is an important, vibrant, and ever-changing body of law.

By contrast, employment law relates to legislation that protects workers irrespective of whether or not they are represented by unions. Typical issues are: when is a worker an employee at will? What protections from termination are available to workers who are not represented by unions? What types of policies may employers require of their employees (drug testing, vaccination requirements, background checks)? What health and safety requirements apply to employers? How do civil rights protections apply in the workplace? Are workers in the gig economy employees for purposes of benefitting from the protections of the employment laws? Employment lawyers work on these types of questions on a day-to-day basis.

Employee benefits law is an important subset of labor and employment law. Through the federal statute entitled the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) federal law regulates various aspects of employee benefits, primarily pensions.

Labor law is regulated primarily by the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act of 1935) as amended by the Labor Management Relations Act (Taft-Hartley Act of 1947). Employment Law is based on several statutory foundations, including the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Occupational Health and Safety Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Employment lawyers therefore must have a grasp of the workings of a variety of statutory and regulatory schemes.

There are many occupational opportunities in the field, both in private practice and with the government. In the private sector, many labor unions have large and sophisticated law departments that primarily handle labor law matters but also sometimes handle employment law and employee benefit law matters. Corporations also have in-house law departments with lawyers who specialize in labor and employment law. Private law firms of all sizes handle labor and employment issues. Many represent labor unions and their members. Some just represent employees in employment law disputes. Still others represent employers, which may involve litigation, but also entails crafting employment policies, drafting employment contracts, participation in dispute resolution, or advocating for legislative and regulatory changes.

In government, many agencies concern themselves with labor-related matters. On the labor law side is the National Labor Relations Board. It employs lawyers at its headquarters in Washington, D.C. and in regional offices throughout the U.S. In the NLRB regional offices, the work entails mostly administering petitions for the NLRB to conduct union representation elections. Much of the work also entails litigating what are referred to as unfair labor practices -- mostly cases alleging employer misconduct but also cases against unions. On the employment law side, the Department of Labor, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and various offices within the Department of Justice are the primary sources for legal employment. On the state and local level, agencies are tasked with regulating state and local employment laws.

Students interested in pursuing labor law and/or employment law should take some or all of the foundational courses listed below. Administrative Law is also useful. When choosing Menu courses required for graduation, courses in Corporations, Agency, and Agency and Partnership may be of particular interest.

Foundational Courses

  • Labor and Employment Law
  • Fair Employment Law
  • Labor Relations in the Public Sector
  • ERISA: Pensions (Tax Policy)

Specialization Courses

  • Administrative Law
  • Civil Rights Law
  • Immigration Law: Employment, Family and Naturalization
  • Sports and the Law Gender, Law, and Policy
  • Human Trafficking Seminar

Clinics, Skills, and Externships

  • Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy Clinic
  • Conducting Internal Investigations
  • In-House Counsel
  • Interviewing, Counseling, and Negotiating Skills
  • Mediation and Arbitration Skills

Students should consider externships at any number of government agencies, including the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB); Department of Labor, the EEOC, OSHA and the Pension Benefits Guarantee Board (PBGC).

Faculty: Professors Hartley, Jefferson