Robert Bruno: Illinois’ labor market advantage persists, thanks to its worker protections

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Just as businesses compete for customers, they must also compete for workers.

But winning in the market for workers is about providing more than jobs. It’s about delivering job quality. When employees can earn enough to support their families — with access to things such as affordable health insurance and safe working conditions — employers are more likely to find a stable supply of qualified workers.

Over the last half-century, American workers have seen a steady erosion of job quality. This has occurred alongside a steady decline in the share of workers who are represented by labor unions. Now, facing spiking inflation that’s reducing the value of paychecks and a pandemic that’s brought new safety hazards to workplaces, employers in many key industries are facing severe labor shortages.

We didn’t get here by accident, but rather through deliberate efforts to weaken the very institutions that promote job quality in the first place.

Since the 1940s, more than half of all U.S. states have enacted laws that restrict collective bargaining rights — permitting politicians to put their thumb on the scales in private negotiations between employers and their workers. Importantly, Illinois never did.

New research from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute and the Project for Middle Class Renewal at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has quantified the impact of this choice.

In Illinois, annual incomes are more than $7,000 per year (15%) higher on average than the incomes in these other states. Our workers are less likely to live in poverty, more likely to own homes and more likely to have health insurance coverage. Our workforce productivity is 15% higher, and our on-the-job fatality rate is 32% lower.

Notably, when examined through the narrower lens of essential industries such as public safety, health care, education, construction and manufacturing, Illinois’ labor market advantage persists. That means we are more likely to attract and retain the police officers, firefighters, nurses, teachers, skilled construction professionals and manufacturing workers we need to protect our communities and grow our economy.

It’s not because all these workers will be in unions. Indeed, only about 14% of Illinois’ workforce was unionized last year. But that’s still more than double the rate of states that have weakened collective bargaining rights.

In today’s labor market environment, the choice that states such as Illinois have made is proving to be the difference between positioning employers to win a competition for workers or losing them to other industries or other states. This year, Illinois has had a higher job openings rate and a lower worker quit rate than the U.S. average and those of bordering states that have weakened collective bargaining rights.

The choice Illinois has made is better for taxpayers as well. Research by my organization and the Illinois Economic Policy Institute found that on average, states that have protected collective bargaining have seen their economies grow 3% faster over the last decade than those that did not. Unions also reduce racial pay gaps and raise women’s earnings, reducing inequality in Illinois. And unionization provides a net benefit to public budgets by delivering more tax revenues from workers earning higher wages and resulting in less reliance on Medicaid, food stamps and other forms of social assistance.

In November, voters will get to choose whether to lock these existing labor market advantages into the Illinois Constitution. Amendment 1, also known as the Workers’ Rights Amendment, would prevent the passage of any state law or local ordinance “that interferes with, negates, or diminishes the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively.

For nearly a century, the ability of workers to organize into unions and freely negotiate private agreements with employers has been the most effective institution at promoting job quality for workers and labor market competitiveness for businesses. Our research shows that, by establishing basic labor market standards for wages, safety and more, collective bargaining agreements are ultimately delivering benefits for nonunion workers, taxpayers and the economy.

Illinois voters would be well advised to allow this dynamic to continue, free of interference by politicians or special interests. The data shows that this is precisely the kind of outcome that passing the Workers’ Rights Amendment would guarantee.

Robert Bruno is a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s School of Labor and Employment Relations, the director of the Project for Middle Class Renewal and a member of the Illinois Future of Work Task Force.

Submit a letter, of no more than 400 words, to the editor here or email letters@chicagotribune.com.

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August 22, 2022 at 08:20PM

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