Cities are leading in efforts to advance workers’ rights

This guest blog post is written by LiJia Gong, Local Progress and Terri Gerstein, the Economic Policy Institute and the Harvard Labor and Worklife Program

A recently released report, issued by Local Progress, the Economic Policy Institute, and the Harvard Labor and Worklife Program, provides a comprehensive overview of how local governments have used wide-ranging aspects of their authority to advance workers’ rights. The report covers how local governments have set high standards for their own municipal workforce, established city-level labor departments or agencies, created worker boards to institutionalize the voices of workers, taken public pro-worker stances, and used policymaking, contracting, licensing, and enforcement powers to support working people. 

Mayors might be particularly interested in how their localities can serve as model employers in relation to their own workforces. The so-called Great Resignation (which might more aptly be named the great upgrade) has hit local governments hard, as the sector has seen many workers leaving state and local government. But there is great opportunity for local executives to raise labor standards for municipal workers, furthering retention, reducing turnover, and helping meet recruiting goals. Nationally, about one-third of state and local employees are paid less than $20 per hour, and more than 15% are paid less than $15 per hour. A number of localities have raised the minimum wage paid to their own municipal workforce; recent examples include Atlanta, GA; Austin, TX; Jersey City, NJ; Milwaukee, WI; New Orleans, LA; North Miami Beach, FL; Tallahassee, FL; and West New York, NJ. More than 100 localities have passed paid family or parental leave policies for their municipal employees. 

Localities can enable or facilitate collective bargaining and unionizing among their municipal workforce. Public employee unions can be stable bargaining partners to local governments, promote labor peace, ensure the delivery of high-quality services, and attract workers who are eager to have a collective voice in the workplace. Local governments can, for example, facilitate exposure to unions during the hiring process for job applicants and onboarding process for new employees. (Some states have created legislative requirements to this effect.) Local governments can also develop guidance and labor relations materials for agencies to use in trainings for managers and supervisors regarding unfair labor practices and neutrality in union organizing campaigns. 

Recently, several cities have also established worker boards or councils to provide workers with a formal voice in local government. Worker boards can provide recommendations to local governments on, for example, minimum standards for workers in certain industries, local government purchasing and contracting policies, workforce development programs, tax abatement and incentive policies, economic development planning and community benefits agreements, distribution of local government funding, and workplace safety trainings. Worker boards can also be empowered to conduct hearings and conduct outreach to workers who may be hard to reach otherwise. The City of Seattle, for example, created a Domestic Workers Standards Board in 2019 when it passed its Domestic Workers Ordinance, and Detroit created a structure for establishing industry standards boards in 2021. 

Mayors have an important role to play in ensuring that laws protecting workers are enforced. At least 20 localities have created or are creating dedicated local labor agencies, including Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, New York, Saint Paul, San Francisco, Seattle,  and soon Tucson. These agencies typically report to the Mayor, and in some jurisdictions that do not have such dedicated labor agencies, enforcement of worker protection may sit in the Mayor’s office. Mayors can empower enforcement agencies to bring action against employers that violate local laws and publicize such efforts, leading to even greater deterrence. Mayors can promote compliance by creating systems to exclude repeat violators of workplace laws from city contracts, and by establishing consequences for license, permit holders, and applicants with a history of violations.

Finally, mayors and all city leaders can use their public platforms to demonstrate their support for working people by showing up at rallies, events, and actions, hold hearings, and uplifting the challenges faced by workers and their solutions in the media. 

This surge in local leadership on workers’ rights should be celebrated, and yet, there remains so much untapped potential at the local level to improve conditions for working people. The moment is ripe for local action and leadership on workers’ rights. 


LiJia Gong is the policy and legal director at Local Progress. She leads the development of Local Progress’s policy and research capacity to support members, and drives the development and growth of national program areas.


TerriGersteinEPI Terri Gerstein is the director of the state and local enforcement project at the Harvard Labor and Worklife Program and is also a senior fellow at the Economic Policy Institute. Previously, she worked for over 17 years enforcing worker protection laws in New York State.