Labor’s New Localism

Millions of workers in the United States, disproportionately women, immigrants, and people of color, perform low-paid, precarious work. Few of these workers can improve their workplace standards because the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) does not sufficiently protect their right to form unions and collectively bargain. Lacking sufficient influence in federal and state government to strengthen labor and employment law, unions and worker centers have increasingly sought to build power in cities. The shift to local labor lawmaking has delivered local minimum wage, paid sick leave, and fair scheduling ordinances covering millions of low-wage workers, as well as groundbreaking unionization and collective bargaining agreements, including in regions of the United States historically hostile to unions. This has positioned cities as a primary staging ground for labor law reform.

This Article examines this trend as a rejuvenated labor localism and this trend’s effects on state and local government law and labor and employment law. Labor localism advances the democratic values of labor and local law by channeling worker and community protests and bargaining through the direct democracy mechanisms of cities, instead of or in addition to the NLRA. While provoking fierce employer campaigns seeking state preemption of local lawmaking, labor localism can often manage these state-local conflicts by engaging in state law reform and pivoting to adjacent areas. Modest home rule reform can improve its stability and reach and, contrary to conventional wisdom, improve local accountability. Labor localism, finally, reveals the central roles of localism in enabling a bottom-up reform effort to counteract the weaknesses of federal labor law and in safeguarding democratic norms in the United States.

* Associate Professor, University of Miami School of Law. The author would like to thank Kate Andrias, Jennifer Breen, Richard Briffault, Scott Cummings, Nestor Davidson, Catherine Fisk, Kati L. Griffith, Patrick Gudridge, Laura Huizar, César F. Rosado Marzán, Joseph McCartin, Michael Oswalt, Richard Schragger, and Jocelyn Simonson for their insightful comments on an earlier draft, and Andrew Denny, Shanzay Pervaiz, and the Southern California Law Review editors for excellent research assistance. This project also benefitted from feedback at the 9th Annual State & Local Government Works-in-Progress Conference, the 2020 Southeastern Association of Law Schools Conference, and the University of Miami School of Law Legal Theory Workshop. All errors are the author’s.

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