All Public Sector Workers Should Have the Right To Join a Union
By David Madland, Center for American Progress, June 25, 2019

All Americans should have the right to join a union and bargain collectively. These are basic human rights. They also help workers have power in the economy and a voice in democracy in order to secure decent wages and benefits and to ensure that elected representatives are responsive to the concerns of workers. With wages stagnant for decades, economic inequality near record levels, and a government too often captured by corporations and the rich, these rights are more important now than ever.

The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, to be reintroduced in Congress today, would take significant steps toward supporting workers’ rights and reversing these troubling trends by ensuring that all state and local governments provide public sector employees the right to form unions and bargain. Some state and local governments already provide workers with these rights, but many do not—and several states have recently taken away workers’ rights as part of a campaign orchestrated by a few very wealthy free-market ideologues and corporate special interests looking to further rig the system in their favor. The U.S. Supreme Court has also become increasingly hostile to unions as hard-line conservatives have taken over and issued decisions that have weakened the ability of public sector unions to raise the resources necessary to advocate for their members. One court decision, for example, allowed public sector workers to enjoy the benefits of union contracts without paying any of the costs of negotiating and enforcing them. The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act would guarantee that those states that do not currently provide bargaining rights are obliged to do so.

When unions are strong, entire communities benefit

Unions benefit all Americans by raising worker pay and benefits, combating racial and economic inequality, helping ensure that government services are of high quality, and giving workers a strong voice in the nation’s democracy. Unions are particularly important for government workers, who typically receive lower compensation than comparable private sector workers. Studies show that the compensation gap between public sector workers and private sector workers is much smaller in states that protect public sector bargaining, since unions raise wages and benefits. Public sector unions are particularly important for women and African American workers, since they are overrepresented in the public sector.

When unions are strong, entire communities benefit. For example, research shows that higher statewide unionization rates reduce rates of working poverty for both union and nonunion households. Furthermore, areas with higher rates of union membership increase the likelihood of children moving up the economic ladder. Without unions, the middle class suffers. Indeed, sociologists Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld found that the decline of unions from 1973 to 2007 explains one-fifth and one-third of rising wage inequality among women and men, respectively.

Unions representing government workers help improve the quality of public services and ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent efficiently. For example, research finds that school districts with strong teachers unions are more likely to dismiss underperforming teachers and retain high-quality teachers than districts with weaker unions. After the state of Wisconsin enacted the highly controversial Act 10—a law that virtually eliminated collective bargaining rights for most government employees, including K-12 teachers—turnover rates among teachers increased, and the percentage of teachers with low levels of classroom experience increased. Emerging research by E. Jason Baron finds that the Wisconsin law lowered average performance on statewide exams, especially in already lower-performing schools. In Chicago, the union representing garbage collectors saved the city $7 million by identifying more efficient truck routes. In California and New York, unionized health care workers in the two largest municipal health systems in the country worked with employers to institute quality and efficiency improvements that resulted in increased patient satisfaction and shorter wait times; lower asthma readmission rates among children; and improved workplace safety.

Finally, by providing ordinary Americans a stronger voice in the nation’s democracy, unions ensure that democracy works for all Americans, not just corporate interests and the wealthy. Indeed, voter turnout is higher in states with strong unions, since union members are more likely to vote than nonunion members and often play a role in getting out the vote. Unions are one of the few interest groups in American society with the power to successfully advocate for economic policies that help the working class and to serve as a counterbalance to the corporate lobby. Unions have played an instrumental role in passing, protecting, and promoting the Affordable Care Act and have been at the forefront of state and local efforts to raise the minimum wage. Unionized workers have also used contract negotiations to make demands that benefit their broader communities. In Chicago, for instance, unionized teachers obtained access to medical and mental health services for students and expanded funding for after-school programs. Labor organizations in Oakland helped launch a successful campaign against a predatory banking deal that was harming taxpayers. And in Massachusetts, unionized child protective services workers partnered with the state to launch systemwide reforms to address a history of neglect in the foster care system. 


The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act is an important step toward protecting workers’ rights, improving the quality of public services, and getting the U.S. economy and democracy back on track. While many more changes are necessary to achieve these goals—including those that promote the rights of private sector workers, promote full employment, and reform campaign finance—this bill is a critical part of the way forward.

Following the Supreme Court’s Janus Decision, Hirono, Cartwright, Senate & House Democrats Introduce New Legislation to Strengthen Rights of Workers to Join Unions & Bargain Collectively

Democrats’ Legislation Would Establish Clear Right for Public Sector Workers to Unionize, Act Concertedly, and Bargain Collectively Throughout the Country
Senator Mazi K. Orono, U.S. Senate, Hawaii
June 28, 2018

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senator Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii), Representative Matt Cartwright (D-Penn.), Senate HELP Committee Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Wash.), House Education and Workforce Committee Ranking Member Bobby Scott (D-Va.), and House DPCC Co-Chair David Cicilline (D-R.I.), and nearly 50 Senate and House Democrats introduced bicameral legislation to guarantee the right for public employees to organize, act concertedly, and bargain collectively in states that currently do not afford these basic protections.

The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act will ensure public sector employees across the country have the legal right to form and join a union and to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing over wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment. Public employers are also required to recognize their employees’ union and to commit to any agreements in a written contract. The bill reaffirms that it is the policy of the United States to encourage collective bargaining as a way of promoting stable, cooperative relationships between public employees and their employers.
“The Supreme Court’s decision in Janus is just the latest blow in a decades-long attack on unions and their ability to lift American families into the middle class,” Senator Hirono said. “Far-right groups like the Koch Brothers will continue this assault because they know that when public-sector employees are able to organize they stand as a powerful force to fight for American workers. We need to pass the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act to protect and strengthen the fundamental the ability of unions to organize and collectively bargain for fair wages and working conditions that are critical to public-sector employees.”

“This isn’t jurisprudence, this is bare-knuckle politics,” Representative Cartwright said. “I will always fight to maintain collective bargaining rights for hard-working Americans, including my constituents in Northeastern Pennsylvania, where union rights are a time-honored tradition. Strong public and private sector unions built the middle class in our country, and we should not turn back the clock on those struggling families. I urge my Republican colleagues to join us and help pass this legislation that protects middle class American families.”

The Senate bill is cosponsored by Senators Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Bob Casey (D-Penn.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). 

The House bill is cosponsored by Representatives Bobby Scott (D-Va.), Don Beyer (D-Va.), Susan Bonamici (D-Ore.), Stephen Cohen (D-Tenn.), Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), Gene Green (D-Texas), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Jan Shakowsky (D-Ill.), Kurt Shrader (D-Ore.), Mark Takano (D-Calif.), and Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.). 

“The recent Janus Decision is a gut punch to working people across the country and part of the relentless attacks on unions by big corporate special interests empowered by the Trump administration and Congressional Republicans,” Senator Schumer said. “Republicans have been chomping at the bit to discredit and destroy the very unions that have built the middle class in this country, but we Democrats will not let that happen. The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act protects basic rights such as the right to organize, act concertedly, and bargain collectively for the American worker. It’s our duty to protect teachers, nurses, firefighters, librarians and all the hard working Americans that have built the foundation and make up the very backbone of this country.” 

“The Janus decision rolled back decades of progress, trampled over the sacred freedom to join in union and threatened the futures of the hard-working men and women of labor who are the backbone of our country,” Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said. “Republicans continue to give labor and public workers a raw deal, using sham lawsuits, executive orders and legislative attacks to threaten their good-paying jobs, wages and working conditions. Democrats are offering A Better Deal that safeguards workers’ rights and protects their freedom to negotiate for better futures. We will never stop fighting the Republicans’ brazen special interest attack on labor, and fighting to put the economic power back in the hands of the people.”

“Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision was a loss for workers, and yet another win for corporate special interests that have spent decades chipping away at workers’ rights and fighting to dismantle unions,” Senator Murray said. “But unions and the people they represent aren’t going to stand by and watch. They are going to organize, fight back, and make their voices heard—and that includes fighting for workers’ rights and representation—and Democrats are proud to stand with them. I am proud to join Senator Hirono to cosponsor the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act. This is one more important step Democrats are taking to stand up for workers and their unions, and build an economy that works for all—not just those at the top.”

“The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act establishes the principle that state and local public employees nationwide have the right to join a union and negotiate for fair working conditions. While the Court’s misreading of the First Amendment cannot be reversed by legislation, workers’ rights can be strengthened by this bill, which creates minimum federal standards for collective bargaining rights that all states must meet,” Ranking Member Bobby Scott (VA-03), Committee on Education and the Workforce said. “Ultimately, this bill reflects Democrats’ commitment to ensuring that teachers can earn decent pay, first responders are compensated for their service, and public service workers are assured fair treatment as they fulfill their vital roles in communities across the country.”

“If you work hard, and play by the rules, you should be able to provide for your family, buy a home, save for retirement, and provide your kids with a better life than you’ve had. In this country, we should always honor hard work with a decent wage and good benefits. That’s why we’re introducing this bill today to protect the right of working people to form a union,” Representative Cicilline said. “Unions are one of the most effective ways to move people into the middle class. Unions are the reason working people have weekends off, safe working conditions, good wages, and employer-provided health insurance. Unions ended child labor and led the fight for family and medical leave. If we want a strong and growing middle class, we need strong unions.” 

The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act is supported by the American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO, American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, and the Service Employees International Union.

“This bill is a legitimate antidote to an illegitimate Supreme Court decision that was bought and paid for by billionaires and driven solely by animus against labor unions,” Lee Saunders, President of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO said. “It would strengthen collective bargaining, putting the law on our side and additional wind at our back. If the folks in the majority up here on Capitol Hill are serious about empowering working people, they will bring this bill to the floor as quickly as they can.”

The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act is included in Democrats’ “A Better Deal,” an economic agenda to help build an America in which working people know that somebody has their back.

The legislation reaffirms that it is the policy of the United States to encourage the practice of collective bargaining as a means of promoting stable, cooperative relationships between public employees and their employers. The bill provides public employees the right to organize, act concertedly, and bargain collectively in states that currently do not afford these basic rights. Authority is granted to the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) to determine whether a state, territory, or locality provides public employees with the following basic labor rights and responsibilities: 

The right to form, join, or assist a labor organization and to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.

Public employers are required to recognize the employees’ labor organization (freely chosen by a majority of the employees voting), to bargain with the labor organization over wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment, and to commit any agreements to writing in a contract or memorandum of understanding;

Access to a dispute resolution mechanism such as fact-finding, mediation, arbitration, or comparable procedures and provide for the payroll deduction of labor organization fees to any duly-selected representative of employees pursuant to the terms of an authorization executed by employees.

Real enforcement of all rights, responsibilities, and protections provided by State law and enumerated in this section, and of any written contract or MOU between a labor organization and a public employer through a state administrative agency or in court.

The FLRA approach gives states wide flexibility to write and administer their own labor laws provided they meet this minimum standard.

The bill will not apply in States determined to meet and exceed this standard.

Public employers in States that continue to fail to guarantee these basic rights and responsibilities will be subject to federal minimum standards.

For states failing to meet the minimum standard, employer lockouts and strikes by law enforcement officers or emergency services employees are prohibited when emergency or public safety services are imperiled.  

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