Unions Shift Focus to
State and Local Government

Labor groups treading water nationally but succeeding in blue states, cities

Protestors march in support of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour / AP
• December 13, 2016 1:30 pm


Seattle labor groups used an anti-sexual harassment ballot initiative to tilt the scales for union workers, a tactic that labor watchdogs say could become more popular at the state and local level.

Seattle voters overwhelmingly supported Initiative 124 on Election Day. The ballot measure aimed to crack down on sexual assault and harassment of hotel housekeepers by requiring employers to provide staffers with panic buttons.

Buried in the language are a number of new regulations that would limit the number of square feet a housekeeper can clean and force employers to provide Cadillac health benefits to those workers. However, unionized hotels would be able to get around those costs through collective bargaining exemptions.

Critics say the measure is designed to boost union power in the city by driving labor costs higher and pressuring firms to unionize.

"This not only gives existing unions more bargaining power at the negotiating table, but it incentivizes non-union hotels to cooperate with union organizers in the hopes of mitigating the damage of the new legislation," said Maxford Nelsen, a labor policy expert at the pro-free market Freedom Foundation.

Unions have been unable to advance their policy goals through national legislation since Republicans reclaimed control of the House of Representatives in 2010 and the Senate in 2014. Labor has made gains in recent years through regulations and rules created by the Obama administration, although it has suffered defeats in federal courts on several key issues, such as the Persuader Rule and overtime regulations.

A Trump administration could undo many of the provisions passed by regulatory appointees from the Obama administration, a reality that could cause union activists to shift their focus to the state and local level.

Nelsen pointed to the Fight for $15 movement as the inspiration for this change of strategy. While Congress rejected President Obama's push for a $10.10 minimum wage, several states—including four in the 2016 elections—voted to raise the minimum hourly rate to $12 or $15 through ballot initiatives.

"While much handwringing has gone on in the business community, it has rarely been able to marshal more than token opposition to minimum wage hikes," Nelsen said. "The relative popularity of minimum wage laws and similar employment regulations has led unions to increasingly wrap their true goals in populist-sounding ballot measures."

Unions have had some success lobbying state and local officials to adopt policies that Congress has resisted.

California, New York, and Washington D.C. all passed $15 minimum wage laws in 2016. Paid sick leave bills have passed in many major cities, as well as Connecticut, in recent years.

Matthew Haller, spokesman for the International Franchise Association, said he expects these tactics to spread over the next four years as unions cope with their loss of influence at the national level. He predicted that labor's November defeat would cause unions to double down on bypassing federal lawmakers to pass regulations

"While we may see a rollback of federal rules and regulations, employers need to remain vigilant and engaged fighting back in blue states like New York, California, Oregon, Washington, Connecticut, and in those blue dot cities in red states," Haller said. "They have learned nothing from this election which showed how out of touch their members were with the policies supported by big labor and Secretary Clinton and how a cohesive economic message resonated with voters at all income levels."

Nelsen said such a trend would lead to a divided country when it comes to work rules.

"While red states will likely adopt some long-overdue government union reforms, public-sector unions in blue states will seek to further entrench themselves and use their political leverage to aid organizing," he said.