Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., led a group of 155 lawmakers in introducing the bill.

Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., led a group of 155 lawmakers in introducing the bill. Andrew Harnik / AP file photo

Bill to Expand Union Rights for State and Local Workers Puts FLRA in Charge of Enforcement

It is unclear whether the Federal Labor Relations Authority would require additional resources to carry out its proposed new duties, as the agency faces an extensive existing case backlog and staffing crunch.

House lawmakers on Tuesday introduced legislation aimed at expanding the collective bargaining rights of state and local government workers to be more akin to those of federal employees. The measure would task the Federal Labor Relations Authority with enforcing the new rules.

A group of 155 lawmakers, led by Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., sponsored the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act (H.R. 5727), which would set minimum standards of collective bargaining rights for public sector employees that state and local governments must follow. The bill has one Republican cosponsor in Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa.

Although the legislation’s authors have pitched the bill as a way to “level the playing field” for public sector workers after the controversial Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision found that mandatory union fees charged to nonmember employees for representational matters violated the First Amendment, the legislation appears more targeted at restrictions on collective bargaining passed by dozens of Republican-controlled state legislatures like former Gov. Scott Walker’s 2011 Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill.

That law, among other things, ended the practice where state and local agencies would deduct union members’ dues from their paychecks, restricted topics that can be negotiated to wages and issued a cap on wage increases based on the change to the consumer price index, and required bargaining units to hold yearly votes to maintain their union status.

The bill requires states, localities and territories to allow public sector employees to bargain collectively, end regular “forced recertification” elections to confirm employees wish to remain part of a bargaining unit, and to have a procedure to resolve labor-management impasses that culminate in binding arbitration. It also requires state and local government employers to collect union dues via payroll deduction.

“Public workers serve their communities as state and local government employees, teachers, health care workers and more,” Cartwright said. “These hardworking Americans deserve the right to stand together and fight for fair pay, good benefits and safe conditions. As anti-worker forces continue to chip away at worker protections in the courts, it’s time to ensure collective bargaining rights for the millions of public servants across this nation.”

The bill tasks the FLRA with enforcement of the law, beginning with a requirement that the agency issue a determination within 180 days of which states are out of compliance with the bill’s minimum standards of collective bargaining rights. And following a two-year grace period to allow states to come into compliance, the agency may issue orders demanding compliance and petition the U.S. Court of Appeals to enforce their decision. Likewise, state and local agencies may ask the appellate courts to review adverse decisions by the FLRA.

If enacted, the bill also would put the FLRA in charge of overseeing unionization drives and elections, as it already does for federal agencies, for all public sector organizations in the United States. It also would hold hearings and issue decisions on whether groups of public employees are eligible to form a union, similar to the representation cases it hears in the federal sector.

But the bill comes at a difficult time for the FLRA. The agency is digging out from a case backlog in the hundreds, stemming from the fact that former President Trump failed to install a general counsel at the agency in a permanent or acting capacity. That challenge has been compounded by inadequate staffing, although President Biden’s nominees to serve as FLRA members and general counsel have vowed to tackle both issues quickly if confirmed by the Senate.

The FLRA did not respond to a request for comment.