Press Release

Welch Joins Legislation to Strengthen Rights of Public Sector Workers to Join Unions, Bargain Collectively 

May 21, 2024

 Bill would address current lack of federal protection for public sector workers to join a union or collectively bargain  

WASHINGTON, D.C. U.S. Senator Peter Welch (D-Vt.) cosponsored the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, bipartisan and bicameral legislation introduced by Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Representatives Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.-08) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.-01). The bill would guarantee the right of public sector employees to organize, act concertedly, and bargain collectively in states that currently do not afford these basic protections.  

While all workers’ labor rights are under threat throughout the country, unlike private sector workers, there is currently no federal law protecting the freedom of public sector workers to join a union and collectively bargain for fair wages, benefits, and improved working conditions. As of 2022, there were over 19 million public workers across the U.S. 

“Public servants are at the heart of our country and are essential to the functioning of our communities. The work of public employees—from our teachers to health care professionals to firefighters—is invaluable, and they deserve fair wages that reflect the important work they do every day,” said Senator Welch. “This bill will ensure that public sector employees have federal protections to form a union and collectively bargain in their efforts to secure better pay and safer working conditions for their essential work.”  

“Private sector workers are guaranteed the right to organize under federal law, so too should public sector workers,” said Senator Hirono. “The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act will help ensure every public employee has their voice heard in the workplace, protecting their rights to organize for fair wages, benefits, and working conditions. I’m proud to lead this legislation to preserve and strengthen the right to unionize for public sector workers who teach our children, protect our safety, and keep our communities moving forward.” 

In addition to Senators Welch and Hirono and Representative Cartwright, the bill is cosponsored by Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Laphonza Butler (D-Calif.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), John Fetterman (D-Pa.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). Read a full list of House cosponsors. 

Specifically, the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act will provide the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) with the authority to determine whether a state, territory, or locality provides public employees and supervisors the right: 

  • To form, join, or assist a union, to bargain collectively, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid (including the filing of joint, class or collective legal claims) or protection; 
  • To have their union recognized by their public employer if the union is freely chosen by a majority of employees, to bargain with the employer through the union, and to commit their collective-bargaining agreement to writing; 
  • To be free from forced recertification elections of their already-recognized representative and decertification of their chosen representative within one year of an election or the expiration of a valid collective bargaining agreement; 
  • To have a procedure for resolving impasses in collective bargaining culminating in binding arbitration; and 
  • To authorize employers to deduct fees to the union from their payroll when employees consent. 

The FLRA approach gives states wide flexibility to write and administer their own labor laws, provided they meet this minimum standard. If a state substantially provides for the rights and procedures laid out in the bill, that state is unaffected by this bill. States that do not provide for these rights or only partially provide for these rights, however, will be compelled to meet these basic labor standards. The FLRA must issue regulations within one year of the bill becoming law and they can enforce the law through federal court. The bill also creates a private right of action to enforce compliance in federal court but only if the FLRA has not yet filed suit seeking relief for the same issue.  

This legislation is supported by American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME); American Federation of Teachers (AFT); Communications Workers of America (CWA); International Brotherhood of Teamsters; Transport Workers Union of America (TWU); International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM); International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers; United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW); United Steelworkers (USW); International Union of Painters & Allied Trades (IUPAT); Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU); International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE); Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO (DPE); International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW); Utility Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO.  

“The Teamsters are proud to endorse the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, guaranteeing all public sector workers the right to organize and join a union, and this bill establishes a standard that states must meet,” said Teamsters General President Sean M. O’Brien. “These are the workers that make our cities and states run and we owe it to them to protect their right to organize and ensure they have a safe and dignified environment where they work.” 

“Our communities are safer, healthier, and stronger when public service workers – educators, state and local government employees and others – have the freedom to bargain for family-sustaining wages, good healthcare, and the ability to retire securely. When unions bargain, they don’t just bargain for their members, they bargain for the common good, and for real solutions that address the real issues that impact all of us every day, whether it’s putting food on the table or putting our kids through college. The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act would make sure that an educator in Louisiana has the same right to bargain as a scientist working in New Hampshire, because the right to advocate for a better life should not depend on the state where you live. This bill ensures that workers can protect their voice on the job, which helps them advocate for themselves, their families, and the people they serve,” said Randi Weingarten, President of AFT

“Day in and day out, public service workers provide our communities with the services they need and rely on. Just like any other workers, our public service workers deserve the right to join a union and fight for better wages, benefits, and working conditions. The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act levels the playing field by giving public service workers the freedom to join together for a voice on the job. When public service workers feel empowered on the job, it not only benefits them, but also improves the communities which they reside in,” said Dan Mauer, Director of Government Affairs at Communications Workers of America (CWA).  

“Public sector workers, including tens of thousands of TWU members across the country who work directly for transit agencies, deserve the right to organize and bargain collectively just like any other worker,” said TWU International President John Samuelsen. “It’s a shame that a public sector worker living in a state with anti-union laws doesn’t have the same rights to join and form a union like any private sector employee does regardless of where they live. The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act would fix this injustice.”  

Read the full text of the bill.