Restore Freedom to Negotiate at Work

“I worked hard for this company for 5 years, sometimes 72 hours a week—and never had any performance-related complaints. I did, however, wear a union shirt. And I had union stickers on my water bottle. And I believed that a union would make us safer, and would make the company more organized and more efficient.”



Our American tradition guarantees working people the freedom to join together with co-workers to negotiate for a fair return on work. When workers have the freedom to band together in unions and negotiate with their employers, they and their families gain from improved wages and benefits, safer working conditions, and fairer treatment on the job—and even workers who are not part of a union benefit. 76 Yet because unions enable working people to build power, the freedom to come together in unions is under attack by corporate interests aiming to maximize their own wealth and power. Decades of attacks on workers’ freedom have eroded the ranks of union members and undermined their strength, significantly contributing to the stagnating wages and growing income inequality of the last 45 years.77  As workers’ power to negotiate declines, inequality increases.

When working people bridge racial divisions and stand together for their fair share of the wealth they create, their union can be a powerful force for both racial and economic equity. For this reason, greedy corporate interests have consistently manipulated racism to turn working people against each other, pushing down wages, undermining solidarity, and weakening workers’ freedom to join together. Like almost every institution in the U.S., unions themselves are struggling with a legacy of racial and gender discrimination. Yet today, nearly half of union workers are women and more than a third are workers of color.78 Black workers are more likely than workers of any other race to be represented by a union.79 Unions offer pay transparency, protections from discrimination, and clear processes for raises and promotions that protect all working people from bias. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders recognized, the freedom to join unions is essential to advancing racial justice.

The 1935 National Labor Relations Act guarantees working Americans the freedom to join together in unions, negotiate, and take collective action for better terms and conditions at work. The passage of the law contributed to a dramatic increase in workers joining unions and building power. Through unions, workers negotiate for their own benefit but also raise workplace standards for entire industries, improving pay and working conditions even for workers who are not union members. During the height of workers’ power, between 1948 and 1973, the hourly compensation for the typical worker rose in tandem with the productivity of the overall economy, meaning that economic growth benefitted working people as well as corporate profits and the very highest earners.80 But corporate lobbyists were already pushing to take back power: The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act restricted workers’ freedom, prohibiting workers from striking or boycotting in solidarity with another union, taking away independent contractors’ freedom to join unions, and enabling states to enact laws that undermine workers’ freedom to join together and negotiate, among other provisions. A series of anti-worker laws and legal decisions over the decades further chipped away at Americans’ freedom to join together and negotiate. The Janus v. AFSCME case facing the Supreme Court in 2018 is the most recent effort to rig the economy against working people, attacking public sector workers’ ability to form strong unions.

Today, the legal consequences for violating workers’ freedom are so weak that many employers regard penalties for breaking the law as an acceptable cost of doing business: Employers routinely make illegal threats against workers trying to organize unions, unlawfully fire union activists, and pay millions of dollars to union-busting consultants.81 When other negotiating tactics fail and working people resort to their most powerful tool, the right to walk out on strike, employers may retaliate by hiring permanent replacements, often destroying the workers’ union and their power to stand together. Even when workers overcome these obstacles and succeed in forming a union, employers regularly use legal loopholes to endlessly delay contract negotiations: Two years after a successful election, 37 percent of unions in the private sector still had not signed their first contract.82

These corporate attacks on unions have contributed to their decline; the proportion of U.S. workers represented by unions shrank from 35 percent in 1954 to just 10.7 percent in 2016.83 As unions have declined, so has workers’ ability to get a fair share of economic growth. Since the end of the Great Recession, the top 1 percent of households has taken home 52 percent of all income growth, while wages for the typical worker have remained largely flat.84 Studies find that union decline can explain one-third of the rise in wage inequality among men and one-fifth of the rise in wage inequality among women from 1973 to 2007.85



61% of Americans say they approve of labor unions, and approval is increasing.86

75% of young people (ages 18 to 29) say they have a favorable opinion of labor unions.87



Restore workers’ freedom to join together in unions and negotiate for a fair return on work. While the federal government preempts much state action on labor rights, states still have important opportunities to increase workers’ rights.

  • Eliminate so-called “right to work” laws. Corporate lobbyists have promoted deceptively named “right to work” laws, which are now in effect in 28 states. These laws are designed to take rights away from working people and drain resources from workers’ organizations by allowing free riders to benefit from union representation without paying their fair share. States should repeal “right to work” laws where they exist. In Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma and South Dakota, “right to work” is written into the state constitution and requires a constitutional amendment to repeal.
  • Guarantee public employees the freedom to join unions and negotiate. Provide state and local workers, including people working as firefighters, teachers, sanitation workers, and in other public jobs, with freedom to join together in unions and negotiate for a fair return on their work. In anticipation of a Supreme Court ruling that would harm public sector workers’ freedom to form strong unions, a number of states are considering legislation to streamline the process for unions to contact workers and collect dues.  
  • Expand freedom to negotiate to workers left out of federal labor laws. States should extend the right to band together in unions to agricultural workers and home health care workers, who are excluded from federal labor law. California has extended the most comprehensive labor rights to agricultural workers, not only ensuring workers the right to unionize and negotiate but also establishing a state labor relations board that can order mediation if employers and workers cannot agree on a contract. California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Washington have granted home care workers who are paid through Medicaid and other public programs the right to organize unions and negotiate with the state as public employees.88
  • Use state purchasing power and policy to help expand opportunities to negotiate. All employers that receive state contracts, grants, loans, tax incentives, or other funding must affirmatively notify workers of their rights, and refrain from activity aimed at interfering with workers’ ability to join a union and bargain collectively. These requirements are often called “labor peace agreements” and seek to ensure that labor unrest does not inhibit state-funded efforts. Labor peace agreements have recently been used at airport projects in Illinois and in California’s legal cannabis industry.89
  • Ban non-compete agreements. As many as 18 percent of American workers are covered by non-compete agreements, which prohibit them from working for a competing employer within a certain period of time after leaving their job.90 By preventing working people from taking their skills elsewhere, non-compete agreements reduce workers’ negotiating power and can suppress wages. Several states, including California, have made non-compete agreements unenforceable.



In 2017, New York City pioneered a policy enabling people who work in the fast food industry to contribute to a nonprofit workers’ organization, with dues automatically deducted from their paychecks if they authorize the group. Dues are not paid until at least 500 workers agree to join the organization. Because of the restrictions imposed by federal labor law, the workers’ group cannot function as a union that negotiates contracts, but it can act as a nonprofit organizing and lobbying in workers’ interests. The policy is worth considering in a broader range of industries and jurisdictions.



  • In America, we value our freedom. Just as corporate CEOs are free to negotiate their salaries, benefits, and bonuses, working people deserve the very same freedom: to negotiate a fair return on our work so we can provide for our families.91 Real freedom is about more than making a living; it’s also about having time to take a loved one to the doctor, attend a parent-teacher conference, and retire in dignity. But corporate lobbyists are trying to take away the freedoms people in unions have won for all of us. Standing together, we can fight for our freedom to prosper.
  • When working people stand together to negotiate for their fair share of the wealth they create, their union is powerful. That’s why corporations that want to expand their own power and wealth try to turn working people against each other, using racial stereotypes to weaken and divide us. If working people don’t band together to defend freedom for all of us, we stand to lose our pay, retirement security, and the future we’re working to build for our children.
  • Our workplaces have been pulled out of balance by rules that unfairly favor corporations and the rich. Our work creates enormous wealth, but in an increasingly rigged economy, the profits don’t get to the working people who produce them.92 To restore balance, working people need the freedom to join together in unions and the power to negotiate for pay, benefits, and conditions that reflect their real contributions on the job.



  • 16 million working men and women in America are represented by unions today.93 Unions are diverse and represent workers of all levels of education and in a wide range of jobs and sectors, from digital media journalists, to cafeteria servers, to factory workers, to nurses, to road builders. By raising industry standards, unions increase wages for union and non-union workers, and improve workplace benefits and safety practices.
  • Through unions, working people make communities stronger and level the playing field for everyone. For example, unions provide training and apprenticeship programs for young people, negotiate staffing ratios that protect patient health at hospitals, and win smaller class sizes in schools.94
  • In states where working people have the freedom to negotiate without being undermined by “right to work” laws, the typical full-time worker is paid $1,558 more each year and is more than twice as likely to be protected by a union contract than workers in “right to work” states.95





  1. Chris Isidore, “Tesla Fired Union Supporters, UAW Says,” CNN Tech, October 26, 2017,
  2. Josh Bivens et. al., How Today’s Unions Help Working People, Economic Policy Institute, 2017.
  3. Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld, “Unions, Norms, and the Rise in U.S. Wage Inequality,” American Sociological Review vol. 76 (2011), 513–37. 
  4. Bivens et. al., How Today’s Unions Help Working People.
  5. Cherrie Bucknor, Black Workers, Unions, and Inequality, Center for Economic Policy Research, 2016. 
  6. Josh Bivens and Lawrence Mishel, Understanding the Historic Divergence Between Productivity and a Typical Worker’s Pay, Economic Policy Institute, 2015.
  7. Kate Bronfenbrenner, No Holds Barred: The Intensification of Employer Opposition to Organizing, Economic Policy Institute and American Rights at Work Education Fund, 2009. 
  8. Bronfenbrenner, No Holds Barred.
  9. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Union Members-2016,” 2017.
  10. Emmanuel Saez, “Striking it Richer,” 2016. 
  11. Western and Rosenfeld, “Unions, Norms”; Lawrence Mishel, Josh Bivens, Elise Gould, and Heidi Shierholz, The State of Working America, 12th Edition, Economic Policy Institute, 2012.
  12. Art Swift, Labor Union Approval Best Since 2003, Gallup, 2017. 
  13. Shiva Maniam, Most Americans See Labor Unions, Corporations Favorably, Pew Research Center, 2017.
  14. David Rolf, “Life on the Home Care Front,” GENERATIONS: Journal of the American Society on Aging, Vol. 40. No. 1, 2016. 
  15. Alena Maschke, “Unions Hope to Recruit California Cannabis Workers, but Federal Regulations Could Get in the Way,” The Desert Sun, December 27, 2017.
  16. Non-compete Contracts: Economic Effects and Policy Implications, Office of Economic Policy U.S. Department of the Treasury, March 2016.
  17. Language derives from “Words that Work for Collective Bargaining,” AFL-CIO and Jobs with Justice, 2017.
  18. Language derives from Putting Families First: Good Jobs for All, Center for Community Change.
  19. Bivens et. al., How Today’s Unions Help Working People.
  20. Strong Unions, Stronger Communities, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, 2017.
  21. Elise Gould and Will Kimball, ’Right-to-Work’ States Still Have Lower Wages, Economic Policy Institute, 2015.