Collective Bargaining Rights for Public Workers

Protecting public workers’ rights is crucial for creating thriving workplaces and communities. Public workers provide vital services such as healthcare, sanitation, and education at all levels. But in many states, public workers do not have the right to collectively bargain with their employer. While their labor is vital to communities across the country, these public workers are left without a voice in their workplace. Silenced and unprotected, these public workers are exposed to unfair treatment and unjust working conditions. Violating public workers’ right to collectively bargain is not only unjust to the workers, it is unjust to the communities they serve. UE is committed to fighting for public workers’ rights to collectively bargain and fights for those workers in states where collective bargaining is banned or nonexistent. In those latter states, UE stands by public workers demanding to be respected by their employers.

Collective bargaining is a right for all workers. The right to collectively bargain is essential for public workers in the fight for better working conditions and better public services for local communities across the country. Through collective bargaining, workers can directly participate in deciding the conditions of their labor. When workers have a voice, workplace democracy is possible. 

In 1935, the U.S. passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which protected private-sector workers’ rights to collectively bargain.  However, the Act was silent on the issue of public employees. Due to the lack of federal protections for public workers, the right to collectively bargain varies drastically from state to state. For example, in West Virginia public workers have no legal framework for collective bargaining, and in 2022 the right for payroll deduction for union dues was rescinded. In North Carolina, public workers are explicitly banned from collective bargaining. State governments have gutted long-established collective bargaining laws for public workers in Wisconsin and Iowa.

Brought to North Carolina by UE Local 150, members of the International Labor Organization (UN) ruled that the state’s ban on public-sector collective bargaining violates international human rights standards. Denial of collective bargaining in the southern states is a vestige of slavery and Jim Crow; the fight for public-sector collective bargaining requires multi-racial and multi-generational coalitions to come together and fight for workers’ rights.

Despite legal setbacks, public workers are speaking up and fighting back with renewed energy. In response to organizing efforts, Virginia partially repealed their ban on collective bargaining for public workers in 2020, demonstrating that the legacy of Jim Crow can be repealed. The new legislation provides that individual municipalities can pass resolutions allowing their workers to bargain collectively. Municipal workers in Virginia Beach, the state’s largest city, are actively organizing with UE and have made significant progress towards passing such a resolution.

In North Carolina, the Southern Workers Justice Campaign and the Hear Our Public Employees (H.O.P.E.) coalition are leading the fight to repeal the prohibition of collective bargaining, forging unity and solidarity between the labor movement and the civil rights movement. The work of our locals 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, public workers on the ground can fight for their rights with “Workers’ Bill of Rights” campaigns. A Workers’ Bill of Rights is a list of demands that articulate the basic rights of workers in a given workplace. For example, 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 as part of Workers’ Bill of Rights campaigns.

The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, introduced in the last Congress, 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. Reintroduction and passage of the Act would result in a sea change for millions of public workers at the state and local level.

While new federal legislation would be 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 and mobilization. We must develop and revitalize public-sector worker unions and unite with allies to establish laws that grant full labor rights to all public workers.


  1. Calls for the union at all levels to initiate campaigns for public worker collective bargaining rights, including the right to strike. Campaigns will fight to establish 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 North Carolina repeal its ban on collective bargaining, General Statute § 95-98 that prohibits state and local governments from entering into collective bargaining agreements with their employers and strikes;
  3. Calls on local governments in Virginia, specifically the city of Virginia Beach, to pass resolutions protecting public workers’ right to collectively bargain;
  4. Demands that the state of Iowa reverse its 2017 changes to its collective bargaining law;
  5. Demands the state of Wisconsin repeal Act 10 of 2011, which stripped public workers of their rights;
  6. Demands Congress pass the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act;
  7. Supports the Southern Workers Assembly in its call to organize the South;
  8. Supports the Southern Workers Justice Campaign building awareness and support for collective bargaining rights of public workers in North Carolina and Virginia;
  9. Encourages locals to discuss with their members solidarity dues and donations to the Southern Worker Justice Campaign. 
  10. Supports the education of elected officials and the general public regarding the need for collective bargaining for public employees;
  11. Supports work at the international level challenging the violation of public workers’ rights;
  12. 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;
  13. Calls on locals to mobilize in support of candidates for elected office who will restore and improve collective bargaining rights for public-sector employees;
  14. Calls on state and local governments to stop attacks on public employee’s right to pay union dues through payroll deduction, including bans and charging high administration fees.