‘Workers’ Rights Amendment’ would codify unions’ gains in Illinois


SPRINGFIELD — Along with throngs of union members, it is common practice for politicians chasing votes in the November election to march in Labor Day parades. 

But they won’t be the only ones on the ballot this fall. In fact, it would not be too much a stretch to say that workers themselves are chasing votes this year.

This is because of a proposed amendment to the Illinois Constitution that would enshrine collective bargaining rights as “fundamental” and ban the state and local governments from enacting “right-to-work” laws. 

“One of the things that I’ve been saying to folks around the state is this is an opportunity to vote for yourself,” said Joe Bowen, spokesman for Vote Yes for Workers’ Rights. “There is no politician on the ballot for this race.” 

This proposed “Workers’ Rights Amendment” would codify the protections the state’s powerful labor unions have accumulated in recent years and serve as a final blow to efforts to curb their influence, which was a key objective of former Gov. Bruce Rauner. 

State lawmakers voted last year to place the measure on the ballot. It received support from all Democrats and — in a reflection of the continued influence of organized labor even in some of the state’s most conservative pockets — some Republicans. 

The measure, in order to pass, will need either 60% of those who vote on the question or a simple majority of those who cast a ballot in the election. 

If approved, workers in the state would have a fundamental right to organize and bargain over wages, hours and working conditions as well as to protect their economic welfare and safety at work. It would also ban any law that diminishes the right for employees to collectively bargain. 

About 150 members of AFSCME Local 1110 rallied outside Hovey Hall on the Illinois State University campus in April. The rally was designed to unify member support as negotiations continue with ISU administration. The union represents buildings and grounds and food service workers across the campus.


And perhaps most significantly, it would ban right-to-work laws, which state that no person can be compelled to join a union as a condition of employment.

Such laws, on the books in 28 U.S. states, are generally viewed as detrimental to the collective bargaining power of labor unions. Illinois, on the other hand, has long been friendly to organized labor — though not without a few interruptions. 

“I think it’s fair to say that it’s gonna solidify some of the already very strong protections that we have here in Illinois,” Bowen said. “But I think it’s important to keep in mind that in the fairly recent history of our state, we’ve had statewide elected officials with a very different idea of workers’ rights who advanced a lot of anti-worker legislation.”

Indeed, Rauner made curbing the power of unions central to his agenda, encouraging local governments to enact “right-to-work” zones.

He also initiated the landmark Janus v. AFSCME case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that public sector unions could not force non-unionized employees to pay “fair share” fees meant to offset the cost of non-political activities like negotiating contracts.

Rauner was defeated in the 2018 election by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who had heavy support from organized labor. In the years since, labor unions have had an influential seat at the table in Springfield.

“So what we’re really hoping to do is create a new standard for Illinois workers and cement these rights in the constitution so they know that their rights aren’t subject to change depending on who’s in political office,” Bowen said.

There are only three states that constitutionally guarantee the right to collectively bargain: Hawaii, New York and Missouri. Illinois would be the first to do so via a ballot initiative. 

The initiative comes at a good time for proponents as the national mood on labor unions has warmed significantly in recent years. 

According to a recent Gallup poll, 71% of Americans expressed support for labor unions, the highest number since 1965. This is in contrast to middling numbers — including a low of 48% in 2009 —in the late 2000s and early 2010s, when there was a wave of new right-to-work laws enacted.

“Right now, labor does seem to be having a moment in terms of their popularity with the general public,” said Robert Bruno, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “We haven’t seen approval numbers like this probably since the immediate post-World War II years when a lot of Americans really felt that the American workforce and the labor movement helped to protect democracy.”

Proponents of the measure argue that it will protect Illinois’ status as a union-friendly state and thus secure the benefits gained, such as higher salaries and better benefits, attained through collective bargaining.

Opponents, however, say it would codify the significant power unions have attained here in recent years and allow for unrealistic demands to be made in collective bargaining. They say that it would also essentially take future decisions over collective bargaining out of the hands of state lawmakers.

“What it really does is preserve organized labor’s preference for not even having to discuss the issue,” said Todd Maisch, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, which is opposed to the measure.

“What we think, though, is that because it is so difficult to amend the constitution, that organized labor is trying to lock in the status quo for generations to come,” he said. 

A study released last month from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that Illinois union members made about 14% more than their non-union counterparts and were 9% more likely to have health insurance.

The report also states that it would ensure 281,000 state residents do not lose their health insurance, keep 70,000 workers from falling below the poverty line and save more than 900 lives over a decade due to better workplace safety standards.

“At its core, the Workers’ Rights Amendment protects $43 billion in worker earnings, prevents hundreds of additional on-the-job fatalities, promotes increased levels of skills training, and supports worker voice and agency in Illinois,” the report concludes.

“Indeed, unions are effective, they matter, they make a difference, they’re good for workers and they generate a lot of economic value,” Bruno, one of the report’s authors, said. “So we did conclude that it achieves really very, very strong, positive outcomes for workers and, frankly, for the overall state of the economy.”

But not everyone is enthused by the amendment.

The Illinois Policy Institute, a libertarian think tank, conducted an analysis that found that the amendment could lead to a more than $2,100 property tax hike over the next four years for those paying the average Illinois property tax rate.

The analysis was based on the idea that the amendment would “prevent commonsense reforms” while giving unions greater leverage at the bargaining table. 

Bruno, however, said the impact on property taxes was unfounded in their research, which found that union members had a positive impact on public budgets since they paid on average of about 8% more in state income taxes and 3% more in federal income taxes than non-union members. 

“Anywhere there’s a healthy economy, you tend to have higher, relatively, property taxes, but it’s not because unions negotiated good wages,” Bruno said.

To this point, the campaign has largely been one-sided.

According to campaign finance records, the  “Vote Yes for Workers’ Rights” political action committee has received nearly $12.9 million in donations.

The PAC’s chair is Illinois AFL-CIO President Tim Drea and its treasurer is Chicago Federation of Labor President Robert Reiter. Most of the funds have come from an assortment of labor unions. 

On the other hand, there has been little in the way of organized opposition thus far to the ballot initiative.

This is in stark contrast to 2020, when billionaire Ken Griffin poured nearly $54 million into a successful campaign to defeat the proposed progressive income tax amendment. 

Maisch acknowledged that there wasn’t the same all-out effort to defeat the Workers’ Rights Amendment. He said that with limited resources, other campaigns have taken priority, such as the two open Illinois Supreme Court races and key state legislative races.

“It really became a matter of how many things you can do in one election cycle without somebody really stepping up and putting a lot of resources behind it,” Maisch said. “So, admittedly, even the Chamber, as opposed as we are, put other things ahead of it.”

“In terms of resources, it has been orphaned a bit,” he said. “However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not terrible public policy and people aren’t speaking out against it.”

The Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, like the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, also opposes the union amendment.

But so far, the unions’ pro-amendment message, airing in television ads across the state, is going unchallenged by those against the amendment.

Early voting begins later this month. Election Day is Nov. 8. 

Contact Brenden Moore at 217-421-7984. Follow him on Twitter: @brendenmoore13

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September 2, 2022 at 09:15AM

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