New legislation would be transformational for public service workers nationwide

As labor unions gain in popularity, workers’ rights remain under threat. But while private sector workers have the right to form unions under federal law, public service workers lack that same guarantee.

That’s why AFSCME applauds Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Reps. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) for reintroducing the bipartisan Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act (H.R. 8426 / S. 4363). Unveiled Thursday, the twin House and Senate bills would set minimum nationwide standards of collective bargaining rights that states must provide all public service workers.

Specifically, the legislation would empower the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) to determine whether a state, territory or locality provides public service workers the right to:

  • Form a union and collectively bargain over wages, hours and terms and conditions of employment;
  • Have their union recognized by their employer if a majority of employees vote to unionize and be free from forced recertification elections;
  • Have procedures for resolving impasses in collective bargaining and filing suit in court to enforce their labor rights; and more.

The bills would give states lots of flexibility to write their own labor laws, provided they meet these minimum standards.

But if a state is unable to meet those standards, the FLRA would step in to ensure that collective bargaining takes place in that state. Public service workers in states that recently passed laws to limit or eliminate public sector collective bargaining — like in Florida, Iowa and Wisconsin — would have their rights restored. And public service workers across the country would get the respect they deserve.

AFSCME President Lee Saunders praised the legislation and urged Congress to approve it.

“With a seat at the table, we can fight for fair pay, better benefits, and safer working conditions — all of which are critical for recruiting and retaining qualified people to work in public service,” he said in a statement.

The COVID-19 pandemic cost nearly a million public service jobs nationwide. Although our country has bounced back in a big way, we have more work to do. Governments must continue to hire qualified people to restore public service employment to a level commensurate with population growth.

By giving workers a seat at the table, Congress can make inroads towards this goal. Last year, our union launched an initiative called Staff the Front Lines to build up public services. By working with governors, mayors, city council members and other leaders, we aim to recruit qualified and passionate people to work in public service.

“During a time when many public services face drastic staffing shortages and turnover, we must identify ways to strengthen this workforce,” Saunders said. “The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act will help do this and more.”

What’s more, the benefits of collective bargaining go beyond the workplace. When workers gain a voice on the job, they advocate for the communities they serve, leading to improvements in public services.

“Collective bargaining also gives us the power to protect and improve vital services — for example, keeping library doors open, getting sanitation workers the equipment they need, and ensuring there are enough paraprofessionals to help students with disabilities,” Saunders said.

Go here to learn more about S. 4363 and here to learn more about H. R. 8426.