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Journal Article

The Role of Local Government in Protecting Workers’ Rights


What this report finds: In recent years, cities, counties, and other localities have become innovators and leaders in standing up for working people. A number of localities have come to view protecting workers and improving their working conditions as part of their core municipal function. Some of the most noteworthy ways in which localities have taken action on behalf of working people in recent years include:

  • establishing dedicated local labor standards offices that enforce workers’ rights laws
  • establishing ongoing worker boards or councils
  • passing local worker protection laws
  • actively enforcing local worker protection laws
  • setting job quality standards for contractors with the municipal government
  • establishing legal consequences for labor violations among applicants for municipal permits or licenses
  • practicing high-road employment principles in relation to municipal employees
  • championing worker issues through public leadership

While other reports have done an excellent job of exploring local action on specific issues like paid sick leave, living wages, and creation of worker boards, this report identifies and examines the broader trend of increased local action and analyzes the landscape of cities and other localities’ pro-worker actions in a comprehensive way.

Why it matters: Policies and enforcement that protect the rights of workers, ensure workers are able to meet their basic needs, and support workers’ efforts to organize are foundational to building healthy, thriving, and equitable communities. Working people in the United States today face multiple crisis situations that not only adversely impact their well-being, but also undermine the health and well-being of communities. Outdated labor laws are skewed against workers trying to form and join unions, and workers who try often face retaliation and other violations by employers. Public enforcement resources are inadequate, and workers are increasingly unable to bring their claims in court because of forced arbitration. In this context, cities and localities are vitally important and necessary actors in the effort to expand and enforce workers’ rights. They are close to their residents, and often are nimble and fast-moving in responding to emerging needs. A few cities (along with a few states) are also at the vanguard of innovating on policy and piloting new approaches to expanding and protecting workers’ rights. There is very meaningful work currently happening at the local level, with untapped potential for much more local action.

What can be done about it: Local policymakers, enforcers, advocates, and community members can work together to pilot new local laws, create dedicated labor enforcement agencies and worker boards, develop strategic community enforcement partnerships, and use permits to drive compliance. Localities can fight abusive state preemption that impairs the abilities of local governments to build upon minimum standards set at the state level. Unions, worker advocates, and the public can think creatively about how to enact measures within their own localities and press for action. Other actors and observers in this space—federal and state government, the media, funders, academics, and more—should develop a greater understanding of the emerging role of cities in protecting working people. They should work to institutionalize and chronicle protecting and supporting workers as part of our understanding of what localities do. This report offers a road map of opportunities to enact policies at the local level that advance workers’ rights and improve working conditions.

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