Collective Bargaining Rights for Public Employees

Public employees work for states, cities, and counties, providing vital services such as healthcare, sanitation, and education. In many states, including West Virginia, public employees have no legal framework for collective bargaining. North Carolina and Virginia explicitly ban collective bargaining for public employees. In two states with long-established and comprehensive collective bargaining laws for public sector workers, Republican governments have gutted them, Wisconsin in 2011, and Iowa in 2017. The right of public employees to collectively bargain remains endangered in numerous other states. 

The right to collectively bargain is essential for workers to improve their wages and working conditions. Collective bargaining rights also enable public workers to fight for better services for the communities they serve. Denial of collective bargaining in the southern states is a vestige of slavery and Jim Crow. UE Local 150 brought members of the International Labor Organization, an office of the United Nations, to North Carolina, who ruled that the state’s ban on collective bargaining for public-sector workers violates international human rights standards.

The Southern Workers International Justice Campaign and the Hear Our Public Employees (H.O.P.E.) Coalition, initiated by UE Local 150, are leading the fight to repeal the prohibition of collective bargaining in North Carolina, forging unity and solidarity between the labor movement and the civil rights movement. The work of our statewide unions in North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, with their multi-racial membership and leadership, represents a powerful weapon for social progress. 

While our union fights to repeal the bans on collective bargaining, there are many rights that workers can secure to establish basic standards. State mental health workers and municipal workers in UE Local 150 have developed strong Workers’ Bill of Rights campaigns to elevate basic demands such as safety, adequate staffing levels, proper training and equipment, the right to refuse excessive overtime, family-supporting wages, and more. Many advances have been made establishing standards across the state regarding wages, excessive heat policies, union rights and access, and more, as part of the Workers’ Bill of Rights struggle.

The most vicious recent attack on public sector collective bargaining occurred in 2017 in Iowa. The Republican governor and legislature were ruthless in their attempts to bankrupt and dismantle the public-sector unions. The attack itself was funded by outside sources (the Koch brothers) with a specific aim to rid the state of the unions who are able to organize and mobilize their members and their community. The governor and legislature were successful in banning dues checkoff and eliminating all but one mandatory topic of bargaining, wages, for the non-safety bargaining units.  Even on wages, unions are limited to negotiating a 3 percent increase each year or the current inflation rate, whichever is less.  The law also forces public-sector bargaining units to go through recertification elections every time the contract is up. In a show of support for their union, the vast majority of UE’s bargaining units have voted to recertify by an overwhelming margin.

The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, introduced in late June by a group of Democrats including newly-elected Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer (D-Iowa), would set minimum standards for collective bargaining rights for public sector workers nationwide, ensuring that states such as North Carolina create a legal framework for exercising those rights and restoring those rights in states such as Iowa where they have been curtailed. 

While this is a welcome development, public-sector collective bargaining rights were originally won through struggle.  In the 1970s, a series of strikes happened across the country at federal, state, and local levels. These strikers had no legal protection, and could have been terminated for their participation, but worker unity was strong enough to protect their jobs.  Ultimately, public officials decided to “tame” the ferocity of public employees through the offering of collective bargaining rights — usually in exchange for a ban on strikes and forcing workers through legalistic methods of contract settlement such as arbitration.

In order to restore what rights have been lost, and to bring them to states where they were never won, worker power must be a credible threat to the employer — we must return to a period of widespread workplace agitation. The new round of “illegal” teachers’ strikes sweeping the country could lead to a new expansion of bargaining rights for the public sector. We must develop and revitalize public sector worker unions and unite with allies to establish laws that grant full labor rights to all public-sector workers.


  1. Calls for the union at all levels to initiate campaigns for public-employee collective bargaining rights, including the right to strike, which will gain these rights in states where we lack them, retain and strengthen them in states where they exist, and restore them where they have been stripped away;
  2. Demands that the states of North Carolina and Virginia repeal their bans on collective bargaining;
  3. Demands that the state of Iowa reverse its 2017 changes to its collective bargaining law;
  4. Demands Congress pass the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act;
  5. Supports the Southern Workers Assembly in its call to organize the South;
  6. Supports the Southern Workers International Justice Campaign;
  7. Supports the education of elected officials and the general public regarding the need for collective bargaining for public employees;
  8. Supports work at the international level challenging the violation of public workers’ rights;
  9. Calls on the union at all levels to support Workers’ Bill of Rights campaigns for public sector workers in states where collective bargaining is currently banned;
  10. Calls on locals to mobilize in support of candidates for elected office who will restore and improve collective bargaining rights for public-sector employees.