An EPI report finds that states like Colorado, where public employee bargaining rights have been weak or nonexistent, have lower union membership and larger public-sector pay gaps than states with strong bargaining rights. Specifically, local government workers in Colorado earned 19.2% less than their private-sector peers in 2015–2019.
In Colorado, state government employees gained the right to collective bargaining in 2020, but local government employees still lack bargaining rights. Legislators have since proposed extending that right to teachers and school staff, firefighters, and other local government employees.
The proposed legislation comes as state and local governments face staffing shortages and serious challenges to recruiting and retaining qualified employees. In Colorado, public education employment fell 4.2% between 2019 and 2021, and raising pay is critical to solving staffing shortages.
Closing the public-sector pay gap especially helps Black workers and women, who are disproportionately represented in local government jobs in the United States. Finally, unions help reduce inequality, promote social mobility, and advocate for better public services.
“Colorado made important progress with legislation extending collective bargaining rights to state employees in 2020, and now has the opportunity to extend bargaining rights to roughly twice as many Coloradans who work in local government,” said Jennifer Sherer, senior state policy coordinator for EPI’s Economic Analysis and Research Network (EARN) and co-author of the report. “These measures can help the state reduce public-sector pay gaps, increase equity especially for women and Black workers, and help public employers address critical staffing shortages to improve the stability and quality of public services for all Coloradans.”
This analysis is a revised and expanded version of a report published in June 2021.