Unions and collective bargaining increase workers’ democratic voice; raise wages and build wealth; and improve conditions for all workers. It should be no surprise that nearly 70 percent of Americans support unions, and support is especially high among younger generations. Despite the fact that workers want and need unions, decades of weakened labor law has eroded workers’ ability to form unions and engage in collective bargaining. Yet, states have significant authority to build power for working people.
This column provides an overview of successful state action during the 2023 legislative session to strengthen workers’ ability to join unions and collectively bargain, such as repealing right-to-work laws, improving collective bargaining protections, strengthening protections for striking workers and allowing tax deduction for union dues. States also helped raise standards by banning captive audience meetings; establishing prevailing wage standards; enacting boards that bring together workers and employers to recommend industry specific working standards; and more. These measures will help grow the middle class and improve the lives of workers in these states and should serve as models for other states and the federal government.
Improving and expanding bargaining protections for public employees
States have the authority to enact public sector bargaining laws that uphold the right of state and local government workers to bargain over wages, benefits, and working conditions. However, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 decision in Janus v. AFSCME weakened the freedom of public sector workers to come together in strong unions and undermined state laws that prevented freeriding by nonmembers of unions. Several states are aiming to rebuild power for public sector workers by modernizing and strengthening collective bargaining procedures and expanding bargaining rights to additional employees.
In May, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) signed a comprehensive labor reform package into law that included several updates to the state’s Public Employment Labor Relations Act. The law ensures that new public employees learn about the benefits of union membership and allow unions to communicate with workers through modern and convenient means, including by directing public employers to provide routinely updated contact information for all employees in a bargaining unit to their representative; permitting representatives to meet with all new hires within their first 30 days of employment; and allowing communication via work email systems. Washington state similarly passed a law that requires public employers to provide employee contact information, as well as other employment information—such as the employee’s salary—to the bargaining unit representative.
Minnesota’s law also allows an employee organization to be verified as the employee-representative if they can show the government that half of the employees in the proposed bargaining unit are in favor of representation. Employees’ authorization signatures can be submitted electronically.
A new law in Maryland includes a similar measure to make it easier for unions to obtain recognition. Maryland’s law will also strengthen enforcement of public sector collective bargaining agreements and remedies of unfair labor practices and will also standardize public employees’ collective bargaining procedures by merging Maryland’s three separate labor boards for executive branch employees, higher education employees, and local school board employees into one Public Employee Relations Board.
In Nevada, a new law streamlines public employees’ collective bargaining timeline to align with the legislative and budget calendar by opening negotiations earlier, providing preselection of mediators and arbitrators, and shortening mediation periods. Oregon will now require the Employment Relations Board to develop guidelines to allow workers to designate their bargaining representatives electronically. In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) repealed a law that required wages and benefits levels for public employees to be frozen during contract negotiations; restored the right of public school employees to bargain over certain school staffing issues; and allowed public school employers to deduct union dues and fees from an employees paycheck.
States also granted more types of workers the right to collectively bargain. Washington established collective bargaining rights for academic student employees at regional four-year universities and for management service employees. California enacted a law that allows state legislative employees to form and join a union. Although these workers are state employees, they were not covered under the state’s existing civil service bargaining protections and were unable to collectively address harmful employment practices. A similar bill to California’s was introduced in Illinois.
These states’ legislation will ease public workers’ ability to collectively bargain and form unions, so they can negotiate for better wages, benefits, and working conditions that secure a middle-class status.
Finally, Colorado passed a law that grants public employees at most levels of government the right to discuss employee representation or workplace issues; organize and join an employee organization; and other workplace-related rights. It prohibits unfair labor practices by public employers, such as intimidating or retaliating against a public employee for engaging in the rights granted.
Repealing “right-to-work” for private sector employees in Michigan
In March, Michigan repealed the state’s “right-to-work” law. The new law allows a private employer and a labor organization to enter into a collective bargaining agreement that requires all employees represented by a union to pay their fair share of collective bargaining costs. Federal law guarantees that no one can be forced to be a member of a union or pay any amount of dues or fees to a political or social cause they don’t support. But, now, Michigan’s law will ensure that workers covered by a union contract that refuse union membership pay a fee covering the costs of workplace bargaining—calculated as a percentage of the full cost of dues.
The new provision will allow workers to negotiate on more even footing with employers and help support a strong middle class. Research shows that states with right-to-work laws have lower wages and union density, and such laws do not create more jobs. Michigan also put in place a similar law applying to public sector workers, which would take effect if the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus limiting public sector workers’ power were to be overturned.
Protections for workers on strike in Illinois, California, and New Jersey
In June, Illinois passed two measures that amend the state’s Labor Dispute Act to protect workers during strikes. The laws—enacted less than a year after residents voted to amend the state constitution to include protections to ensure that workers can exercise their “fundamental right to organize or bargain collectively”—will help protect workers who are striking for better wages and working conditions from any unfair legal liability, interference, or intimidation. The first establishes that any person with the intent to obstruct or interfere with a picket line, demonstration, or protest commits a Class A misdemeanor and receives a minimum fine of $500. The second protects striking workers from being held liable for unintentional property damage during a strike by limiting award of monetary damages to cases where damage to the employer’s property caused by illegal conduct.
This past April, New Jersey expanded its eligibility for workers on strike to collect unemployment insurance benefits and decreased the waiting time for eligibility from 30 days to two weeks. Both Connecticut and California advanced, but did not enact, similar legislation, and legislators in Massachusetts proposed a bill to administer benefits after 30 days. This legislation will maintain workers’ economic security while they engage in a strike.
Legislation to protect workers’ ability to strike is crucial, especially as workers across the country have gone on strike for better wages and working conditions in recent years. To negotiate a fair contract, both workers and employers must have power at the bargaining table as well as incentives to compromise. By strengthening workers’ rights on the picket line and providing a safety net while they exercise their rights, pro-worker policymakers can help to equalize power between workers and employers, allowing for more productive bargaining. For example, research shows that public sector workers with strong strike protections enjoy a small but significant pay increase over those with weak protections.
Allowing union members to deduct union dues from taxes in Maryland, Delaware, Michigan, and Illinois
Several states have either introduced or passed bills allowing union members to deduct union dues from their state income taxes. The Trump-era Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) eliminated itemized tax deduction for unreimbursed employee expenses, meaning employees can no longer deduct union dues on their federal income taxes. This law often triggers state-level prohibitions as well. By contrast, employers can deduct business expenses, including money spent on anti-union campaigns. The Center for American Progress Action Fund has previously called on policymakers to fix this unfair system by passing an above-the-line deduction for union dues, allowing union members to deduct these costs even if they don’t itemize.
In May, Maryland passed legislation to restore a tax deduction for union dues. Maryland’s previous tax law prohibited filers from itemizing an expense for state income purposes if the expense could not be claimed as a federal itemized deduction. A similar bill has passed in Delaware, and legislators in Michigan and Illinois have also introduced bills that would allow union dues tax deductions. Such legislation will create a fairer system in which workers are granted the same treatment as a corporation at a minimal revenue reduction compared to existing tax expenditures for business.
Additional wins to protect rights and raise standards for workers
In addition to reforms to strengthen workers’ collective bargaining rights, state policymakers are also moving to improve worker protections and raise job standards by:
Banning captive audience meetings in Minnesota, New York, and Maine
Minnesota adopted a ban on captive audience meetings, a technique in which companies intimidate or coerce workers to attend meetings on the corporation’s religious or political views, including opposition to unions. While the state still protects the employer’s ability to speak freely about these issues, the law prohibits companies from forcing workers to attend meetings on topics unrelated to job tasks or performance, such as voicing support for or opposition to political candidates, legislation, and campaigns; promoting religious practices or affiliations; or discussing membership in a civic, community, or labor organization. The legislation includes additional penalties for companies that punish or threaten workers that choose not to participate in such meetings. New York and Maine also passed bans on captive audience meetings—joining Connecticut and Oregon—and similar bills are pending in California and Vermont.
A report by the Economic Policy Institute found that 90 percent of employers use captive audience meetings during union elections. The National Labor Relation Board’s (NLRB) head lawyer has asked the board to rule on the legality of captive audience meetings, arguing that they infringe on workers’ rights to listen or not listen to employer speech concerning workplace collective action.
Restoring a prevailing wage law in Michigan
Michigan reinstated prevailing wage protections for publicly funded state construction projects. Policymakers can use prevailing wage levels to set minimum standards on pay and benefits for workers, which helps maintain local wage standards and prevents publicly funded contractors from undercutting union wages. Michigan’s law will mean that construction contractors and subcontractors that receive government support must pay wages and benefits that are at least the same as what other similarly employed construction workers in a locality are typically paid. This will ensure that Michigan workers on government-funded construction projects are paid fairly while also creating a highly skilled workforce to construct safe and reliable infrastructure.
Increasing wages and protections in the fast-food industry through a workers’ council in California
California passed a law that will bring together workers and employers to set wages and other working standards in the fast-food industry. The legislation establishes a minimum wage for fast-food workers of $20 per hour beginning in April 2024, raising wages for the state’s more than half a million fast food workers who made an average hourly wage of $16.21 in 2022. It also authorizes the Fast Food Council—including representatives of workers and employers—to increase the minimum wage annually and develop and propose health and safety standards and training.
These sorts of boards are becoming an increasingly popular means of improving standards and empowering workers who are prevented from unionizing or who work in industries with significant barriers to collective bargaining. Since 2018, six states and three local governments have enacted laws on worker standards boards to help set and enforce workplace standards that cover various sectors of the economy.