Working Papers

State and Local Policies and Sectoral Labor Standards

From Individual Rights to Collective Power


The United States enterprise-based collective bargaining regime creates substantial limitations for organizing workers where supply chains are increasingly disaggregated in ways that reduce worker power. Federal labor law generally preempts state and local policies that directly address private sector bargaining. State and local governments, however, are not preempted from setting general labor standards. We look at four cases of recent experiments at the local level with sectoral standards. Our cases show that sectoral standards have the potential to expand new forms of social bargaining at the state and local level through public policy in areas of the country where worker organizations are already strong. They can do so in ways that promote worker organization and build institutional power, especially when combined with robust worker organizing. In doing so they show both the potential power, and limitations, of federalism in US workplace regulation.

We gratefully acknowledge Janice Fine and Michael Piore for their support, encouragement, and suggestions on early drafts; Rocio Avila, James Elmendorf, Silvia Gonzalez, John Marshall, Leonard Smith, Amy Sugimori, and Roxana Tynan for their valuable insights, and Jenifer MacGillvary for copy editing. We thank participants in the Symposium on Federalism in US Work Regulation in 2018, and the 2019 and 2020 Labor and Employment Relations Association (LERA) conferences where we presented early versions of this article.