Labor and Employment

Union Employees: Are You Protected From Layoffs?

Updated by Lisa Guerin, ​J.D., Boalt Hall at the University of California at Berkeley
Union employees usually have some protections from layoffs in their collective bargaining agreements.

If you are a member of a union, you probably know that your union bargained with your employer over many aspects of your employment, including pay scales, work hours, health benefits, and pensions or other retirement accounts. The agreement between your union and employer, called a collective bargaining agreement (CBA), also covers the rules an employer must follow when conducting a layoff or reduction-in-force (RIF).

If layoffs are imminent at your workplace, you’ll want to know what your CBA requires, particularly how workers will be selected for layoff and what benefits laid off workers will receive. Below, we explain some common CBA provisions on layoffs; your union representative can help you understand your rights under the CBA in place at your job.

Layoff Provisions in Collective Bargaining Agreements

A CBA is a contract negotiated between a union and an employer, so no two CBAs are exactly alike. However, any CBA will include terms related to layoffs or RIFs. Typically, layoffs will be based, at least in part, on seniority: how long you have worked at the company. (For more on how CBAs work, see our article on collective bargaining.)

Seniority Plus

Some CBAS provide that layoffs will be based on “seniority plus,” which means that one or more other qualifications will be taken into account, in addition to seniority. For example, the CBA might provide that you will not be laid off if you have seniority and you are qualified to do one of the remaining jobs or have qualifications substantially equal to a worker with less seniority.

For example, let’s say you have worked for your employer for 15 years and a coworker has been there for 12 years. The available position requires certification to operate a particular type of machinery. If neither of you are currently certified but could get trained to do the position, you will likely stay on the payroll because you have more seniority and are similarly qualified. If, however, your coworker is certified and you are not, you might lose your job even though you have more seniority.


Reassigning jobs based on seniority is called "bumping." The CBA may allow you to "bump" a worker with less seniority to fill an open or remaining job. Some CBAs allow you to bump a worker with less seniority anywhere in the company. Other CBAs limit bumping to your specific job classification or title, or to a lower job classification or title. So, for example, you might not be able to bump an employee with less seniority who has a different job in a different department.


Superseniority provisions protect union representatives or shop stewards. These are workers who are elected to represent the employees in the bargaining unit in dealings with the employer. By giving stewards superseniority, the CBA guarantees that they are the last workers to be laid off and the first ones to be recalled. This ensures that a union representative is always on hand to make sure that the union members' interests are protected and the CBA is followed.

No Layoffs

Some CBAs don't allow layoffs even when the employer claims that it doesn't have enough money to pay everyone on payroll. Other CBAs require the employer to maintain enough work for union members, for example, by preventing the employer from laying off union workers and replacing them with non-union workers. Similarly, many CBAs bar employers from laying off union workers and subcontracting out their jobs.

Some CBAs give workers the option of being laid off, reducing their hours, working part time, or getting retrained. If your CBA has such a clause, your employer can't make you choose the best or least expensive option for the company. For example, you can choose to be retrained, even if reducing your hours would cost the company less.

Recall Provisions

Many CBAs require employers to "recall" or rehire laid-off workers once the need for the layoff subsides (for example, when work picks up again). The right to recall might expire after a certain date, such as six months after the layoffs. Or, your CBA might provide that you can be recalled only to a job with the same or lower pay than your old job, or that you can be rehired only for your previous job.

Reductions in Hours or a Layoff?

Sometimes, an employer reduces the number of hours you are scheduled to work. Unless your CBA states otherwise, a reduction in hours is not a layoff, and your employer doesn't have to follow the CBA's layoff rules, such as seniority and bumping rules.

CBAs commonly provide that layoff and bumping provisions don't apply during short-term work suspensions, such as for one or two weeks. However, if a shutdown or RIF is caused by a lack of business, the CBA's layoff provisions will apply unless the CBA says otherwise.


The federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act might apply if you're being laid off. Generally, WARN requires employers with 100 or more workers to give at least 60 days' advance notice of plant closings and mass layoffs. WARN applies only when a large number of percentage of employees are going to lose their jobs.

The idea behind WARN is to give you time to find a new job or train for one. WARN makes various tools available to help you do this, such as job search assistance, placement services, and education and retraining benefits. Also, many states have similar laws to WARN that may provide you with more notice, benefits, or protections. To find out more about WARN, see Advance Notice of Layoffs Under the WARN Act.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can I be recalled under a CBA if I’ve already found a new job?
  • What can I do if I believe I should have been able to bump a coworker to keep my job?
  • Do I have the right to any severance under my CBA?
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