Overview: How Different States Respond to Public Sector Labor Unrest

Recently, public sector transit workers have been in the spotlight, receiving a significant amount of media attention as a result of strikes that effectively halted transportation in the city of San Francisco. This labor strife reignited a dialogue nationwide about whether public sector workers should be allowed to strike. Many states’ laws are silent on the issue of public sector strikes; the states that have addressed the issue deploy divergent and inconsistent resolution mechanisms.

Below is a chart detailing the rights that the 12 permissive strike states have extended to their public sector employees:


Employees Covered






All public employees



Some municipal employees


All public employees






All public employees

  • Strikes are permitted 60 days after the issuance of a fact-finding report and exhaustion of impasse resolution procedures
  • The union is required to give 10 days notice
  • Strikes by firefighters and other essential employees are illegal
  • Strikes that endanger public health and safety are illegal
  • Click here to be redirected to the Hawaii Public Employment Relations Act




All public employees


All public employees







All public employees

  • Strikes are prohibited unless the employer has refused a request for binding arbitration or refuses to submit to an arbitration award
  • Teachers have the right to strike following expiration of contract, 60 days of mediation, and 10 days’ notice
  • Non-teaching local and state employees may strike after expiration of contract, 45 days mediation, and 10 days’ notice
  • No strikes by essential employees are allowed
  • Click here to be redirected to the Public Employment Labor Relations Act




Public health nurses



All public employees



All public employees




All public employee except prison guards, police, firefighters, and court employees






Municipal employees

Adapted from Labor Relations in the Public Sector, Fifth Edition by Richard C. Kearney & Patrice M. Mareschal

One commonality among permissive strike states is that the vast majority bar strikes that would endanger public health, safety or welfare. For that reason, police and firefighters are prohibited from striking in almost every state. This prohibition dates back to 1919, when a massive police strike in Boston left citizens in an incredibly vulnerable state.

The 38 states not on the permissive strike list either do not recognize a legal right to strike or have an outright prohibition against public sector strikes. Similar to the permissive strike states, the penalties associated with prohibited strikes vary widely. How effective the lack of a legal right is as a deterrent to striking has been called into question numerous times, with the 2005 NYC MTA strike being a good example. New York provides for the most draconian anti-strike penalties, enacted in the Taylor Law. The penalties for a public sector union strike can include: large monetary fines levied against the union for every day its members are on strike, the loss of dues check off privileges for 18 months after striking, and potential jail time for the union leader. Knowing this, the union leaders still called a strike. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the more recent San Francisco BART strikes. Because the strikes were permitted under California law, the city had little recourse, despite the inconvenience to city residents. In both of these strikes, an agreement was eventually reached.

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