Use this button to switch between dark and light mode.

Good Year for Labor on Picket Line and in State Legislatures

November 20, 2023 (6 min read)

For more than half a year, labor strife has swept the country.

First, Hollywood writers went on strike in May. Then actors joined them in walking off the set a couple months later, in July.

Detroit auto workers began a series of escalating strikes in mid-September.

Tens of thousands of Kaiser Permanente nurses, ER technicians, and pharmacists participated in the largest health care labor dispute in U.S. history, striking for three days, from October 4 to October 6.

Nearly 35,000 hotel workers at 18 Las Vegas hotels threatened to strike on November 10, but a last-minute deal averted another walkout.

In every case, the disputes have ended with workers declaring victory and securing what Bloomberg called “record-breaking wage hikes.”

How did we get here? Why were there multiple, high-profile labor battles this year? And how are state legislatures responding to the “hot labor summer”?

Backlash Against Anti-Union Legislation Enacted Over Past Decade

In 2013 the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a liberal think tank, documented a series of anti-union legislation enacted by newly elected Republican governors and legislative majorities in the two years following the 2010 midterm elections.

“Fifteen states passed laws restricting public employees’ collective bargaining rights or ability to collect “fair share” dues through payroll deductions;” 19 “states introduced ‘right-to-work’ bills," making it illegal for workers and employers to enter into a contract requiring anyone who benefits from union efforts to pay union dues; "and ‘right-to-work’ laws affecting private-sector collective bargaining agreements were enacted in Michigan and Indiana,” EPI reported.

EPI also reported that another wave of GOP-supported, anti-union laws came in 2017 and 2018.

Roberta Lynch, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 31 in Illinois, wrote in 2017 that a “strictly enforced” orthodoxy within the Republican Party “not only won’t support union members but demands total opposition to workers’ rights and an aggressive strategy to eliminate labor unions from the political landscape.”

“Those who are out to destroy unions are highly organized with vast wealth at their disposal,” she wrote. “We ignore them at our peril. We cannot wait until the axe is about to fall, but must act now to prevent a takeover of our state and destruction of our rights.”

COVID-19 Pandemic Likely Exacerbated ‘Pent-Up’ Labor Pressures

Over a year ago, Thomas Kochan, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, noted an “upsurge in union organizing and collective actions,” calling it “a very, very exciting and interesting moment” for labor in the United States.

Speaking on a July 2022 Gallup podcast entitled “Are U.S. Labor Unions Making a Comeback?”, Kochan attributed labor’s growing activity to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pent-up pressures that have led to this organizing have been there for a long time,” he said. “The gap between productivity growth and wage growth—meaning that wages were flatlined and productivity and profits were increasing, and more money was going to business and capital than to labor—that had been going on since the 1980s and continued.”

“But then along comes at [sic], the pandemic, and there's really an acceleration and an amplification of all these pressures. And they kind of emerged and exploded, because workers felt that this was a time when they need to really think about their jobs, their families, what they’re achieving, what they're not achieving."

“And then those who we labeled as ‘essential workers’ have a special grievance because they bore the brunt of working during the pandemic and expected to be treated with more respect, and not enough of them see this.”

Big Gains for Labor in State Legislatures

Labor leaders in California say it is precisely this dynamic of pent-up labor pressures exacerbated by the pandemic that led to the passage this year of SB 525, by Sen. Maria Elena Durazo (D), which established the nation’s first statewide health care worker minimum wage of $25 per hour.

In fact, labor repeatedly flexed its muscle in the Golden State in 2023, helping secure the passage of multiple pro-union bills, including AB 1228, by Assemblyman Chris Holden (D), which established a $20 minimum wage for fast food workers, and SB 799, by Sen. Anthony Portantino (D), which would have permitted union workers on strike for at least two weeks to qualify for unemployment benefits.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed SB 525 and AB 1228, but vetoed SB 799, saying the state could not afford an expansion of unemployment insurance benefits.

Labor made significant legislative gains in other states as well. With the passage of SB 34, Michigan became the first state in decades to repeal its right-to-work law. Along with California, four other states—Connecticut (SB 938), Illinois (HB 2907 and HB 3396), Massachusetts (SB 1172) and New Jersey (AB 4772)—introduced bills to provide protections for striking workers. The measures in Illinois and New Jersey were enacted. Illinois (HB 2256) and Michigan (HB 4235) introduced, and Delaware (SB 72) and Maryland (HB 2) enacted, bills allowing union members to deduct union dues from their taxes.

In addition, at least two states, Maine (SB 55) and Massachusetts (HB 1877 and SB 1203), like California, introduced legislation aimed at establishing a minimum wage for health care workers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Minimum Wage Legislative Database

Emerging Trends in Pro-Union State Legislation?

Multiple states considered similar legislation benefiting organized labor this year. Five states considered, and two enacted, bills to aid striking workers. Four states considered, and two enacted, bills allowing union members to deduct union dues from their taxes. And three states introduced, and one enacted, legislation aimed at establishing a minimum wage for health care workers.

More Pro-, Anti-Union Legislation Ahead?

With unions’ recent string of successes and public support for labor near its all-time high, more strikes are likely on the way. More pro-union legislation is probably on the way too.

“I’m definitely expecting to see labor legislation in the future,” said Zaakary Barnes, senior policy specialist in Employment, Labor & Retirement for NCSL.

Barnes said one trend that seems to be emerging is legislatures considering whether to allow striking workers to qualify for unemployment benefits, with a “handful” including those in California and New Jersey, doing so this year.

Barnes also speculated that lawmakers could focus on the scope of negotiable items. Generally, in labor negotiations, unions and employers have three buckets of items: things they’re required to negotiate, things they’re permitted to negotiate and things they’re prohibited from negotiating. He said he could possibly see some legislation being introduced that seeks to move some items from the permitted bucket to the required bucket. Things that can sometimes appear in the permitted bucket include vacation hours and union dues deductions.

As for the likelihood of a red-state backlash against the union gains, Barnes said: “That’s really hard to say, given how much support labor unions enjoy with the public.” He said he didn’t know what “political calculus” could lead a lawmaker to introduce anti-labor union legislation right now. More likely, he said, some states will be slower to act on these issues.

—By SNCJ Correspondent BRIAN JOSEPH

Please visit our webpage to connect with a State Net representative and learn how the State Net legislative and regulatory tracking solution can help you identify, track, analyze and report on relevant legislative and regulatory developments.


News & Views from the 50 States

Free subscription to the Capitol Journal keeps you current on legislative and regulatory news.