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Hirono, Cartwright, Senate & House Democrats Introduce Legislation to Strengthen Rights of Public Sector Workers to Join Unions, Bargain Collectively

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Senator Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii), Congressman Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.), Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Wash.), House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott (D-Va.), and Congresswoman Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) introduced bicameral legislation, the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act of 2019, that will guarantee the right of public employees to organize, act concertedly, and bargain collectively in states that currently do not afford these basic protections. There are nearly 17.3 million public workers across the country. Unlike private sector workers, there is 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.

“One year after the harmful Janus decision, public employee unions continue to stand strong in the face of an all-out right-wing assault on working people who serve our communities,” Senator Hirono said. “Public employees are teachers, firefighters, social workers, EMTs, and police officers. We rely on them every day to educate and nurture our children and to keep our communities safe. The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act will ensure that every public employee has the right to organize, act concertedly, and bargain collectively. Simply put, the bill ensures public employees have a voice in the workplace.”

“This legislation will help teachers, police officers, firefighters, and other public employees who are vital to our American way of life,” Congressman Cartwright said. “As many of them struggle just to put food on the table, we must protect their ability to bargain collectively for fair pay and workplace protections. I’m proud to stand with unions and their members, who have historically ensured basic rights such as a minimum wage standard, eight-hour workdays, and employer-sponsored health insurance.”

“The Supreme Court’s Janus decision undermined decades of hard-won progress for working people across America. Republicans and the Trump administration, fueled by corporate special interests, have been relentless in their efforts to dismantle workers’ rights. Democrats refuse to stand idly by. Labor unions have helped countless families reach the middle class and strengthened their ability to bargain for fair wages and safe working conditions. The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act protects the American worker’s right to organize, act concertedly, and bargain collectively. It gives workers the freedom and power to secure their futures. Democrats will continue to fight for hard working Americans – the backbone of our country – and ensure that their rights are protected,” Democratic Leader Senator Schumer said.

“Despite corporate special interests’ best efforts, a year after the Janus Supreme Court decision, union membership is still strong – because so many workers understand the importance of using their collective voices to advocate for better pay and safer working conditions,” Senator Murray said. “I’m proud to stand with workers and to join Senator Hirono in introducing the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act. Democrats are going to keep fighting for workers and their unions, because our economy only works if it works for everyone, not just those at the top.”

“Our teachers, firefighters, police officers, social workers and other public employees deserve to have a voice in their workplaces and the right to bargain collectively for better wages, benefits and working conditions,” Senator Brown said. “Last year’s Janus decision by the Supreme Court was shameful for all workers – but we’re not going to stop organizing. We will never stop fighting back for the people who build our middle class, educate our children, protect our communities and so much more.”

“It is essential that we protect workers’ rights to collectively bargain,” Senator Hassan said.  “That is why I am proud to stand with my colleagues to introduce legislation that will work to reverse the implications of the anti-worker decision Janus v. AFSCME and help ensure that everyone who works hard has the opportunity to get ahead and stay ahead.”

“Nearly a year ago, the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus was a blow to workers and their families in Illinois. Special interests and corporations have worked for years to unravel the longstanding right to unionize and bargain collectively. Fair wages, good working conditions, and access to health care are fundamental to American families. Our bill would put power back in the hands of hardworking middle class Americans,” Senator Durbin said.

“State, county, and local workers – people who are on the front lines serving their communities – deserve the same right to form and join unions as federal and private sector workers.  Improving the pay, benefits, and working conditions for teachers and other municipal employees will improve the crucial services they provide,” Senator Cardin said. “The evisceration of unions over the past several decades is one of the leading causes of growing economic inequality. Restoring union rights and collective bargaining will make it easier for all workers – public sector and private sector alike – to rejoin the middle class.”

“Hard-working Americans have a fundamental right to join together to fight for fair wages and better working conditions,” Senator Smith, a member of the Senate HELP Committee, said. “By protecting the rights of public employees to organize and advocate for themselves, we are putting the power back in the hands of workers and strengthening the middle class.”

“We need to start rewarding work again in this country, and that means making sure every worker has the right to organize and fight for the pay and protections they deserve,” Senator Gillibrand said. “The Janus Supreme Court decision and sinister anti-worker state laws around the country threaten workers’ rights to form unions and bargain for fair wages and benefits. Congress urgently needs to step up and do much more to protect workers’ rights, including for our teachers, nurses, and other public sector workers. That’s why I am proud to support the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, which would help ensure that public sector employees across the nation have the legal right to form and join a union and to collectively bargain. This will not only strengthen union protections for our public servants but also strengthen the critical public services they provide in communities across the nation. I urge my colleagues in the Senate to join me in standing up for workers and pass this bill as quickly as possible.”

“Hardworking teachers, firefighters, nurses, police officers and public servants are the backbone of Nevada’s workforce. Public workers deserve the right to negotiate for better wages, benefits and health care, and unions are a critical avenue for them to advocate for safe working conditions and fair benefits. Since no federal law exists to protect basic labor rights for public employees, I’m proud to support this bill that is so crucial to securing public workers’ ability to organize and bargain effectively,” Senator Cortez Masto said.

“The right to organize and collectively bargain is fundamentally entrenched in our democratic principles. But this right is under attack now more than ever, following the Supreme Court’s misguided Janus ruling,” Senator Van Hollen said. “Employees in Maryland and across the country should be guaranteed the ability to form unions and negotiate fair terms for their employment, regardless of where they work. I’m proud to join my colleagues in introducing legislation to ensure just that, and I urge the Senate to take it up immediately.”

“I’m proud to join my colleagues to, once again, introduce legislation to help protect the rights of Delaware’s public sector employees to form unions and collectively bargain for better pay and benefits. Last year’s Supreme Court decision in Janus vs. AFSCME Council 31 threatened the ability of public-sector employees around the country to organize and negotiate fair wages. Our country was built by hardworking men and women who organized and fought hard for workers’ rights, and we in Congress must work to ensure that their rights to collectively bargain for better pay and benefits are protected,” Senator Carper said.

“Working families built our nation’s economy, and it is our duty to protect their rights to organize and bargain for fair wages and working conditions,” Senator Rosen said. “We cannot turn back the clock on unions and collective bargaining rights, which Nevada’s teachers, firefighters, and law enforcement officers depend on. I will continue to support legislation, such as the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, that protects workers and hard-working middle class families in Nevada and across our country.”

“When workers have the ability to organize and collectively bargain, we’re all better off,” Senator Harris said. “We have unions to thank for the five-day work week, eight-hour work day, and so much more. Today, as the Supreme Court chips away at the rights of public sector unions, we must take action to reaffirm union rights and ensure that public employees maintain their hard-fought protections and keep the ability to bargain for higher wages and better benefits.”

“Public sector employees provide critical services to protect us, care for our children, and support our economy,” Senator Coons said. “In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 decision, we must protect the ability of these workers to unionize and negotiate fair wages and working conditions. I’m proud to introduce legislation with my Democratic colleagues to reaffirm the crucial role of public sector unions in fighting for workers’ rights.”

“Our public sector workers drive our buses, teach our children, and are there when we need them most in emergencies,” Senator Warren said. “The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act is an important measure to protect the rights of those workers in every state and make sure they can fight together for the better wages, hours, and working conditions they deserve.”

“We must protect the right of federal workers to collectively bargain in order to give them a fighting chance in negotiations with their employers,” Senator Menendez said. “The right to unionize has ensured that hardworking individuals in New Jersey and across the country are able to fight for fair wages, safe working conditions and quality health care coverage. While Republicans fight to turn back time, we must remember that teachers, police officers, laborers and nurses helped build the middle class and this legislation will protect their right to organize and help grow a stronger America.”

“Americans have always believed that a hard day’s work deserves a hard day’s pay,” Senator Merkley said. “As the son of a union mechanic, I know firsthand the difference unions make in standing up for families across this country. This bicameral legislation is an important step forward in marking sure America’s hardworking public servants have the same rights as any other American to organize and be treated fairly in the workplace.”

“Union rights lift up the middle class. Unfortunately, the decades long, far-right assault on labor rights has only accelerated under President Trump’s anti-union administration. All workers should have their very basic right to organize and collectively bargain protected – the public sector employees that keep us safe, educate our children, and deliver crucial services are no different,” Senator Markey said.

The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act of 2019 provides 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. 

In addition to Senator Hirono, the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act is also cosponsored by Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and U.S. Senators Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.),  Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Robert Casey (D-Pa.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). There are 27 cosponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act is supported by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Education Association (NEA), and the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers.

In June 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that public sector unions are barred from charging “agency fees” to the public employees they negotiate pay increases and benefit bumps for, if those employees decline to join the union as full members. Senator Hirono spoke out against the decision, calling it a “decades-long assault funded by far-right groups, such as the Koch Brothers, on working people.”

Full text of the legislation is available here.