Across America, millions of workers are reporting that they want to collectively bargain for themselves on the job, with workers interested in joining unions and union approval ratings at their highest levels in more than half a century. Worker boards offer an additional means for workers to negotiate for better working conditions on the job—benefits that also apply across an entire sector.
What are worker boards?
Worker boards bring together representatives of workers and employers in a forum, alongside government, to help set and enforce workplace standards that cover all workers in a particular industry and jurisdiction—for example, fast-food workers in California or farmworkers in Colorado. These boards are often empowered to make recommendations on a broad range of interrelated workplace issues such as wages, training, safety, and scheduling. As part of this work, they often stage hearings and engage in outreach activities while issuing reports on their findings. Unlike most commissions or other bodies, their recommendations carry significant legal weight and usually trigger governmental review and action and, in some cases, even set legal standards directly. Industry councils, worker standards boards, and wage boards are all alternative names for this same concept.
This year, Colorado, Minnesota, and California all contributed to the growing momentum for passing policies that establish worker boards to bring together workers and employers in the process of setting workplace standards for an entire sector. Six states and three local governments have enacted this type of policy since 2018, and additional cities and states are considering action; all told, with several jurisdictions having enacted more than one worker board law, 12 such laws have been passed since 2018—four more than catalogued in a prior Center for American Progress column.
Momentum for worker boards grows among states and localities nationwide
Since 2018, six states and three cities have passed laws enabling workers and employers to help set industrywide standards.* This includes several jurisdictions that have passed more than one such policy:
- Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act: In 2022, California’s governor signed into law a bill creating a Fast Food Council with the authority to establish standards for wages, working hours, and conditions. The council comprises employers—both franchisees and franchisors—workers, and government.
- Industrial Welfare Commission: California provided new funding in 2023 for its Industrial Welfare Commission to convene industry-specific wage boards and adopt orders on wages, hours, and working conditions in high-poverty industries, reinvigorating a long-standing but disused law.
- Agricultural Work Advisory Committee: Colorado passed a law in 2021 establishing a committee made up of agricultural employers and workers to analyze working conditions in the industry and make legislative recommendations.
- Direct Care Workforce Stabilization Board: In 2023, Colorado created a board comprising representatives of workers, employers, consumers, and government, to review the direct care industry and develop recommendations for minimum employment standards. The home care industry offers home-based and community-based direct care to individuals who require assistance in accomplishing activities of daily living.
- Nursing Home Workforce Stabilization Council: To address challenges faced by the nursing home industry during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI) signed a 2021 executive order creating a council of nursing home workers, employers, and residents, along with members of government, to review existing policy and offer recommendations for legislation and administrative action for increasing nursing home staffing, improving career development, and raising standards.
- Nursing Home Workforce Standards Board: In 2023, the state of Minnesota enacted a law to bring together workers, employers, and government to set minimum workplace standards for nursing homes to help improve working conditions and help address staffing shortages.
- Farm Laborers Wage Board: The state of New York passed a 2019 law allowing the labor commissioner to convene a board of labor, farm, and public representatives to receive testimony and recommend whether and how to reduce the minimum number of hours a farmworker must work per week before receiving overtime.
- Home Care Employment Standards Board: In 2021, Nevada created a board of home care employers, workers, and recipients—along with a representative from state government—to offer recommendations to the state Department of Health and Human Services for improving wages and working conditions for workers in a state or local home care program.
- Industry Standards Board: The Detroit City Council passed a law in 2021 establishing a local Industry Standards Board, allowing workers, employers, and city representatives within an industry to convene and offer recommendations for workplace wage, safety, scheduling, and training standards.
- Domestic Workers Standards Board: Since being authorized in 2018, a board of domestic workers, employers, households, worker organizations, and members of the public has offered suggestions to the mayor and Seattle City Council on how to improve working conditions for domestic workers in the city.
- Transportation Network Deactivation Appeals Panel: Passed in 2019, a Seattle law was designed to allow transportation network company (TNC) drivers to contest their deactivation before a panel consisting of members representing the interests of the TNC driver and the TNC, as well as a neutral arbitrator.
Additionally, there are even more examples of bodies that empower worker representatives to set or recommend industry standards but lack employer representatives, such as the Harris County, Texas, Essential Workers Board founded in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The growth in the number of worker boards since 2015—when New York state used a long-standing wage board law to raise fast-food workers’ wages to $15 per hour by 2018—is remarkable and having an impact on working conditions. The state of Nevada, for example, raised home care worker wages from around $11 per hour to $16 per hour in its 2023 budget as part of the recommendations of its Home Care Employment Standards Board.
There is also growing momentum around the world for involving workers in setting standards across entire sectors. In 2022, the European Union passed a groundbreaking new law that encourages member countries to promote sectoral bargaining, and New Zealand and Australia both passed policies to jump-start sectoral bargaining in their countries.
Worker boards benefit both workers and employers
Worker boards are particularly useful in the context of today’s economy. Nationally, just 6 percent of private sector workers are union members, and large firms increasingly outsource employment in ways that make it difficult for workers to engage in the type of traditional work-site-level bargaining protected by the National Labor Relations Act. Worker boards can ensure that all workers, including those who are prevented from unionizing or who work in industries with significant barriers to collective bargaining, are covered by high standards and have a voice in the standards that govern their industry.
These standard-setting bodies can be good for workers and employers alike. Worker boards give workers a place to come together across workplaces and regions to assert their voice and advocate for themselves to help push an industry forward. For employers, worker boards offer a forum to discuss issues with workers and other firms in their industry; they also level the playing field in the industry since all competitors must meet the same standards for their workers rather than placing high-road employers at a disadvantage. This ensures that companies compete on the basis of productivity rather than by undercutting wages and benefits. By avoiding a race to the bottom and including employers in the process, worker boards can help make sustainable gains for workers. Furthermore, because worker boards promote standardized compensation, they can help rein in pay discrimination.
In short, state and local governments are increasingly passing new worker board and industry council-style laws to bring workers and employers together. The policies set standards for an entire industry by delivering for workers, employers, and the public.
* Note: Most of these policies require an equal number of worker and employer representatives, though a few provide workers with a greater number of representatives. These data are an update of 2021 research from the Center for American Progress.