March 2014, Milla Sanes and John Schmitt

While the unionization of most private-sector workers is governed by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the legal scope of collective bargaining for state and local public-sector workers is the domain of states and, where states allow it, local authorities. This hodge-podge of state-and-local legal frameworks is complicated enough, but recent efforts in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and other states have left the legal rights of public-sector workers even less transparent.

In this report, we review the legal rights and limitations on public-sector bargaining in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, as of January 2014. Given the legal complexities, we focus on three sets of workers who make up almost half of all unionized public-sector workers: teachers, police, and firefighters, with some observations, where possible, on other state-and-local workers. For each group of workers, we examine whether public-sector workers have the right to bargain collectively; whether that right includes the ability to bargain over wages; and whether public-sector workers have the right to strike.

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