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Employees should have the choice of joining public unions

September 30, 2019

All Public Sector Workers Should Have the Right to Join a Union

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-liner 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 Middle Class Continues to Struggle as Union Density Remains Low

Workers’ incomes may finally be slightly above the level they were in 1999, but the share of income going to the middle class remains low. New data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that the middle 60 percent of households, by income, took home just 45 percent of national income in 2018, basically unchanged from 2017, when they earned a record low 44.7 percent. In contrast, the share of income going to the highest-income households remains at a near record high. This decadeslong trend of growing inequality is closely related to the decline of American unions. As union membership rates dwindle, prospects for the middle 60 percent of American households shrink as well.

Figure 1 shows this trend. In 1967, when 28.3 percent of American workers belonged to a union, 52.3 percent of national income went to middle-class households. (see Figure 1) But over the past five decades, both those numbers have steadily declined. In 2018, just 10.6 percent of American workers were unionized, a record low, and only 45 percent of income accrued to the middle class—less than in 1967.
While the middle class has lost ground, the share of income going to America’s wealthiest households has skyrocketed. In 2018, the top 20 percent of households by income took home more than half of total U.S. income- almost 20 percent more than in 1968. And the share of income going to the top 5 percent grew even more, rising from 17.2 percent in 1967 to 23.1 percent in 2018.

To be sure, weakened unions are not entirely to blame for these trends. Since the 1980s, global competitioncorporate consolidation, and changes in tax law that favor the wealthy but do little to increase business investment have all worked to wrest economic power from workers. Additionally, the U.S. economy has spent far less time at full employment in recent decades than it did from 1949 through 1979—a period during which union membership rates were higher—which has weakened the bargaining position of middle- and low-wage workers. Still, there is clear evidence that lower union membership has contributed to rising income gaps and a shrinking middle class.

Unions strengthen the middle class
Unions play a major role in constraining income inequality and fortifying the middle class. Indeed, sociologists Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld estimated in 2011 that the decline in unions explains one-third of the growth in wage inequality among men in the United States. Research also suggests that, at least in certain industries, union decline may be a bigger contributor to wage inequality than market forces such as computerization.

Unions help workers in many ways. Unions workers make roughly 12 percent more, on average, than similar nonunion workers, and they are more likely to receive benefits such as employer-provided health insurance, a workplace retirement plan, and paid leave. In addition, unions can help narrow pay gaps for women and people of color, in particular Black and Hispanic workers. When unions are strong, everyone benefits. For instance, regions with high union membership have lower rates of working poverty and tend to have greater economic mobility for low-income children.
Moreover, unions make democracy work better by acting as a counterbalance to corporate power in politics and encouraging the democratic participation of workers. Indeed, unions are one of the few types of interest groups whose positions consistently line up with the economic interests of the working class.

Corporate attacks continue to weaken unions
A 2018 Gallup poll found that 62 percent of U.S. adults approve of labor unions—a 15-year high. But despite the fact that a majority of Americans support unions, only 10.6 percent of the workforce belonged to one in 2018. Union density today is roughly one-third of what it was in the mid-1960s and is almost as low as it was in 1930, prior to the passage of the National Labor Relations Act.
Unions’ role in raising worker pay and fighting for pro-worker policies has made them a target of corporate interests. In recent decades, employers have become increasingly aggressive in their efforts to avoid unionization in the private sector, and the majority of workers encounter serious opposition when they try to organize. What’s more, in recent years, the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling, which eased restrictions on political spending, further accelerated political attacks on unions.

Public policies have also played a significant role in union decline. Since 2010, six states have passed “right-to-work” laws, which prohibit unions from compelling workers to become members as part of their job or otherwise requiring fair-share fees to cover the costs of negotiating a collective bargaining agreement. In addition, several states have launched targeted attacks against their public sector unions. Wisconsin—which virtually eliminated collective bargaining for most government employees in 2011—saw public union membership fall by more than 50 percent as a result. In June 2018, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) delivered another blow to public sector labor unions by banning all fair-share fees in the public sector.

The current administration is further enabling employers to avoid unionization. For instance, President Donald Trump’s National Labor Relations Board appointees have made it easier for companies to misclassify workers as independent contractors exempt from federal labor law protections and are also working to roll back joint employer protections, which would impede the ability of workers employed by subcontractors and franchises to hold employers liable and form unions.

Even with these trends, however, there are indications that workers are fighting back. In 2018, 485,000 workers went on strike- the highest number since 1986. They joined picket lines outside grocery storeshotels, and schoolsand even on cellphones. Pro-worker policymakers have also increasingly been promoting unions. Members of Congress have introduced legislation such as the Protecting the Right to Organize Actwhich would increase penalties on companies and employers that break the law, ban right-to-work laws that undermine union finances, and enhance the ability of workers to strike- as well as the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, which would ensure that all public sector workers have collective bargaining rights. State policymakers in states such as Washington and New Jersey have also contributed, passing a number of bills to ensure that public sector workers are able to join together in strong unions. And Seattle’s significant Domestic Worker Bill of Rights took additional steps toward protecting workers historically excluded from labor laws.

10 Ways State and Local Officials Can Build Worker Power in 2019

Workers have a lot to look forward to in 2019. Progressive governors, mayors, and state and local lawmakers are gearing up to debate proposals that would raise standards for workers, including legislation to increase the minimum wage; expand overtime coverage; and protect all workers from sexual harassment, discrimination, wage theft, and abusive non-compete contracts. Yet improving minimum standards laws alone will not reverse decades of wage stagnation, especially for working and middle-class Americans. Policymakers must also work to restore the power of working people in our economy and our democracy, first and foremost by strengthening unions.
Union’s help workers negotiate with CEOs on relatively even footing for decent pay, benefits, and workplace conditions. Unions also give workers a voice in our democracy, driving voter turnout and advancing progressive priorities. However, decades of conservative attacks and a changing economy have weakened unions’ ability to advocate for working people. Between one-fifth and one-third of the rise in wage inequality over recent decades can be traced to the decline of union membership.
Working people across the country, including workers in the Fight for $15 movementpublic school educators; and Amazon warehouse workerscontinue to fight for a voice on the job. While enacting federal reforms in 2019 is unlikely, state and local lawmakers have significant power to strengthen workers’ right to bargain and provide a road-map for federal policy reforms.

10 ways that state and local officials can rebuild the power of working people in the U.S. economy are as follows:

1. Support public sector workers’ right to bargain
Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees that threatens the freedom of millions of government workers to form strong unions. To combat this attack on workers’ rights, policymakers should ensure that all state and local public sector workers are awarded bargaining rights. Moreover, they should enact laws to educate new public employees about the benefits of union membership; allow unions to communicate with workers through modern and convenient means; modernize union dues collection; strengthen workers’ power at the bargaining table; and recognize the ability of unions to provide needed goods to workers, such as workforce training. Governors and mayors should also provide guidance to ensure that dues deduction requests are processed efficiently and fight to restore funding of public services to at least pre-recession levels. States including CaliforniaMarylandNew YorkNew Jersey, and Washington have already adopted some of these goals.

2. Establish new industry wide standards with wage boards
Policymakers should bring together workers, businesses, and the government by establishing wage boards bodies that set minimum working standards for specific industries and occupations. Wage boards could set pay levels above state or local minimum wage floors and provide pay differentials for workers with additional skills or experience. In addition to improving standards, these boards would help build worker power by providing an opportunity for unions to organize workers to provide testimony. For workers covered by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), boards could help model a kind of industry wide bargaining that would provide far greater coverage than the typical enterprise-level bargaining. For workers excluded from the NLRA, wage boards could more directly encourage collective bargaining. More than three-quarters of registered voters supported the creation on wage boards, according to a January 2018 poll.  While some states, including CaliforniaNew York, and New Jersey, currently allow officials to convene similar bodies, other states would require new legislation.

3. Harness the power of government spending
State and local governments fund millions of jobs through spending on contracts, grants, loans, tax breaks, and economic development subsidies. This spending funds everything from construction of roads and bridges, to in-home care for aging residents and those with disabilities, to the ongoing maintenance of public buildings. Policymakers should use executive and legislative authorities to attach standards to government funds to ensure that taxpayers and workers receive the best possible results—not only raising standards but also helping workers have a voice on the job. Governments should, for example, help prevent labor disputes by requiring labor peace agreements; give preference to the bids of employers who have a track record of upholding high standards and complying with the law; use prevailing wage laws to ensure that all government spending upholds industry wide standards and does not undercut union wages; and track how development subsidies affect the government’s ability to provide essential goods and services.

4. Grant gig economy workers bargaining rights
Application-based technology firms frequently classify their workers as independent contractors, denying them collective bargaining rights and other legal protections afforded to employees. As a result, these workers often receive low pay, no benefits, and have little recourse to bargain for better standards. Domestic workers—who include housekeepers, nannies, and caregivers—are also often treated as independent contractors and similarly excluded. Cities and states can raise standards for these workers by strengthening misclassification laws, such as through the employer-employee relationship test recently established by the California Supreme Court; instituting minimum pay protections; creating worker-led platforms to deliver needed benefits; and providing a pathway for workers, companies, and the government to negotiate for industry-specific wages and benefits. For example, Washington state is debating legislation to require gig companies to contribute to worker-administered portable benefits funds, and the city of Seattle has passed a policy to set industry wide standards for domestic workers that combine many of these elements.

5. Promote high-quality training partnerships
Representatives of workers and businesses should play a central role in career and technical education programs to ensure that these programs adequately prepare workers for in-state jobs; focus on the areas in which training is most needed; and lead to high-quality jobs. Policymakers can do so by instituting training requirements for government services such as home care; promoting high-quality, high-wage apprenticeship programs; increasing the share of labor representation on state and local workforce development boards; and directing training and education funds to labor-management training partnerships. For example, Washington State partners with a union and private employers to provide required training to home care workers. The training, which coincided with pay increases, helped professionalize the workforce and improve the quality of care. Worker organizations would benefit from having a more formalized role in workforce training and greater access to workers, which would help them to potentially recruit new members.

6. Empower unions to improve workplace benefits
State and local governments can ensure that government programs reach the workers who need them and help unions and other worker organizations build relationships with workers by involving worker organizations in the provision of benefits. To improve benefit provision, for example, worker organizations can help workers navigate the unemployment insurance system and various training programs; oversee state-run retirement benefit programs; and work with companies to design more effective workers’ compensation systems. For example, states including New YorkMinnesota, and California allow unions and firms to bargain over alternative dispute resolution procedures for workers’ compensation.

7. Lower barriers to joining worker organizations
State and local governments have significant power to remove barriers that prevent many private sector workers from forming and sustaining strong unions and worker organizations. Policymakers should allow workers who are not covered by the N.L.R.A. to unionize and bargain collectively, as California has done for agricultural workers. In workplaces where unions are not present, state and local governments can enable workers to contribute voluntarily to nonunion worker organizations through payroll deductions, as New York City has done for fast food workers.

8. Repeal right-to-work laws
So-called right-to-work laws weaken workers’ ability to bargain for decent wages and benefits by allowing some workers to receive a free ride and receive the advantages of a union contract, such as higher wages and benefits and protection against arbitrary discipline—without paying any of the fees associated with negotiating on these matters. Research shows that workers in right-to-work states have lower wages and that these laws have no impact on job growth, contradicting claims advanced by right-to-work proponents. State policymakers should repeal existing right-to-work laws.

9. Partner with worker organizations to enforce the law
Evidence suggests that violations of workplace standards, such as minimum wage, overtime, and sick leave, are widespread. Policymakers can improve workplaces’ legal compliance by including community and worker organizations in enforcement efforts. Doing so will also provide an additional incentive for workers to interact with and join unions or other worker organizations. Cities such as San Francisco and Seattle are providing grants to organizations to inform workers of their rights and help them take action against law-breaking companies.

10. Use government permits to support high-road firms
Certain industries, particularly those with many under capitalized, transient businesses or those where there is a lack of competition, present challenges for workers attempting to organize or bargain collectively. Policymakers should leverage their power to license and permit businesses and construction projects to improve work standards. For example, introducing expedited building permits for construction projects that treat their workers fairly as done in Austin, Texas can encourage companies to act in workers’ best interests. Governments can also protect workers by increasing licensing requirements for industries with a history of poor worker treatment, as California has done with bond requirements in the car wash industry.

8 policies to rebuild worker power at the state and local levels

Establish new industry wide standards with wage boards
Bring together workers, businesses, and the government in a commission to set minimum working standards for industries and occupations. These wage boards would set minimum standards for wages and benefits based on economic and social factors such as industry productivity and cost of living, as well as testimony from business owners, workers, and other stakeholders. The board could even set pay levels above the overall minimum wage floor and provide pay differentials for workers with additional skills or experience. While some states currently allow officials to convene similar bodies, others would require new legislation. For workers who are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act, or NLRA, wage boards could even directly promote directorial bargaining.

Support existing industry wide standards with prevailing wages
Use prevailing wage laws to ensure that government spending, in both the construction and service sectors is not used to drive down wages. In addition to expanding prevailing wage protection to additional types of contract spending as well as grants, loans, and tax expenditures, policymakers should set predominant collectively bargained wages in a region and industry as the prevailing wage. This type of wage-setting would help ensure that high-road companies who pay their workers good wages are not undercut by companies that treat their employees poorly.

Raise standards on government spending to improve results and support good jobs
Attach standards to government funds to ensure that taxpayers receive the best possible results. State and local governments fund millions of jobs through their spending on contracts, grants, loans, tax breaks, and economic development subsidies. This funding should be structured so that it creates good jobs that benefit the entire community. For example, governments can require labor peace agreements in order to prevent labor disputes, or give preference to the bids of high-road employers who have a track record of complying with the law.

Improve enforcement by partnering with worker organizations
Combat wage theft and other labor standard violations by including community and worker organizations in enforcement efforts and allowing workers to go to court to enforce labor laws. Governments can better enforce the law and empower workers to stand up for their rights by working with and providing grants to organizations that have day-to-day contact with workers and vulnerable populations. These groups have workers’ trust and thus have information about what is happening to them that government is not privy to, as vulnerable workers are often afraid to talk to government officials. As such, these groups can serve as key intermediaries to bring workers and government together by informing workers of their rights and by helping workers take action to receive their earned pay and benefits.

Promote high-quality training through labor-management partnerships and worker organizations
Provide high-quality training opportunities for workers by promoting sector wide training partnerships with labor organizations and industry groups. This can be done by instituting new training requirements for government services such as home care, promoting apprenticeship programs, and directing that training and education funds that state and local governments have control over go to labor-management training partnerships.

Use worker organizations to improve workplace benefits
Help ensure government programs reach the workers who need them by including worker organizations in the provision of benefits. Worker organizations can improve benefit provision in a variety of ways, including helping workers navigate the unemployment insurance system and training programs, overseeing state-run retirement benefit programs, and working with companies to design more effective workers’ compensation systems.

Use licensing and permitting so the market supports high-road firms and organizations
Use the power to license and permit businesses and construction projects to improve worker standards. For example, introducing expedited building permits for construction projects that treat their workers fairly—as done in Austin, Texas—can encourage employers to act in their workers’ best interests. Governments can also increase licensing requirements for industries with a history of poor worker treatment in order to protect workers, as California has done with bond requirements in the car wash industry.

Lower barriers to joining worker organizations
Make it easier for workers to join worker organizations by providing opportunities for worker outreach and paying dues. For workers who are not covered by the NLRA, states should allow these workers to unionize and bargain collectively and should also more actively promote membership, such as by allowing worker organizations to provide information at worksites or training sessions. State and local governments can also enable workers to contribute voluntarily to nonunion worker organizations through payroll deductions.

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. 

Strong unions help ensure that middle-class families receive a fair share of the economic growth that they create. Policymakers at both the state and federal levels must take steps to ensure that all workers, including agricultural and domestic workers, independent contractors, gig workers, and government employees, have strong rights and powers that enable them to join a union and bargain collectively. They should also act to modernize the U.S. labor law system to allow workers to come together and bargain across entire industries or regions rather than just at the firm level, and create incentives for union membership by involving unions in training and enforcement activities. Taking these steps will bolster both unions and the middle class.

Despite economic growth over the last decade, too many Americans continue to struggle. Even as working families receive little benefit from the expanding economy, corporate profits are booming and the rich are becoming wealthier and more powerful.

Many newly elected progressive state officials have already committed themselves to addressing this problem and improving the lives of working and middle-class families. For example, Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI) joined hundreds of Fight for $15 workers in Flint, Michigan, to protest for higher wages and a union; Wisconsin’s Gov.-elect Tony Evers (D) said that he will work to restore collective bargaining powers that teachers and public service workers lost under Republican Gov. Scott Walker; New Mexico’s Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) has strongly opposed so-called right-to-work legislation; and in Illinois, Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker (D) promised to ensure that state spending creates good jobs and does not undercut union work.

Today’s economy is broken. While the American economy is growing, many workers are not seeing their fair share of the growth. Instead, the wealthy few are bringing home a near-record share of the national income. As a result, these rich individuals are gaining more and more political power that can be used to further policies that help themselves at the expense of working- and middle-class Americans, creating great instability in our democracy.

Policymakers must act to restore balance to our economy and political system. Working people must have a greater say in the workplace and our democracy. Building a labor relations system as outlined in CAP’s “The Future of Worker Voice and Power,” would help achieve that goal.115

While fully implementing this vision will require federal legislation, policymakers at the state and local levels can take major steps toward this progressive agenda. This report provides a variety of policy options that state and local governments can use to move toward this better system. These policies would serve to raise workers’ wages and increase their power in the marketplace and political realm. By adopting any number of these options, policymakers can help rebalance our economy and ensure that more workers share in its growth.


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