Illinois voters consider ‘Workers’ Rights’ amendment that could chart new direction for organized labor

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Illinois voters Tuesday were asked to consider an amendment to the Illinois Constitution that could chart a new direction for organized labor not only in the state but across the country if approved.

A group of Illinois labor unions pushed a measure onto the ballot asking whether Illinois should enshrine into the state constitution the right of workers to unionize and collectively bargain, a proposal backed by organized labor to preempt future right-to-work laws but opposed by anti-union groups that contend it will raise taxes and grant unions unprecedented power.

To pass, a constitutional amendment requires more than a simple up or down vote.

It needs either 60% support among those voting directly on the question or more than 50% support of those voting in the election.

Known as the “Workers’ Rights Amendment” by supporters and “Amendment 1″ by opponents, the proposal up for voter ratification that would give workers a “fundamental right” to organize is an outgrowth of former single-term Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s unsuccessful attempts years ago to curb union power that led to an unprecedented two-year state budget stalemate.

The “Vote Yes” campaign committee raised over $16 million, much of it from building trade unions, while the “Vote No on Amendment 1″ committee founded by Illinois Policy Institute leaders raised a fraction of that, almost all of it from conservative megadonor and businessman Richard Uihlein. The CEO of packing and shipping firm Uline has spent tens of millions this year on political campaigns in Illinois, most notably in support of Republican Darren Bailey for governor.

While the dollars raised are notable, it pales in comparison to the more than $124 million raised two years ago by groups for and against a proposed change to the Illinois Constitution that would have switched the state from a flat-rate income tax to a graduated-rate system. That amendment proposal, backed by Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, failed.

The proposed Illinois amendment would guarantee not only the right to organize for the most common elements of collective bargaining, like wages, hours and working conditions, but also for “economic welfare and safety at work.”

It also would essentially ban so-called right-to-work laws or ordinances, which prohibit companies and unions from agreeing to require union membership as a condition of employment. Right-to-work laws disempower unions by allowing workers to avoid paying “fair share” fees to unions — money used for nonpolitical union costs for actions such as collective bargaining.

Right-to-work laws have spread to 27 states, including every Illinois border state except Missouri, where voters rejected that state’s proposed law in a 2018 referendum. Those laws only affect private workers. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2018 in the Illinois-based Janus v. AFSCME case that public workers shouldn’t have to pay “fair share” fees to a union they don’t want to join.

The current proposed amendment goes further than laws in New York, Missouri and Hawaii, three states that have constitutional amendments granting workers the right to organize and collectively bargain.

“If we’re successful it’ll be the first time voters have added a constitutional protection for collective bargaining through a vote,” said Joe Bowen, the “Vote Yes for Workers’ Rights” communications director. “Voting yes for workers rights will guarantee that no politician in the future can take these rights away.”

Critics have said the amendment would make the state uniquely anti-business and said the vote is a waste of money, regardless of whether it passes, because right-to-work laws are unlikely to pass in politically Democratic Illinois anytime soon.

“It will demonstrate that yet again Illinois is an outlier compared to the rest of the Midwest in terms of whether we are a business-friendly environment,” said Illinois Chamber of Commerce leader Todd Maisch. “It will demonstrate very clearly that Illinois should be avoided at almost any cost.”

Maisch said the language for Amendment 1 is a concern.

“The first three or four lines where it talks about economic well-being and the constitutional right to negotiate over economic well-being and safety can be expanded greatly,” Maisch said. “All it takes is one union and one enterprising lawyer to stretch those definitions beyond recognition.”

Bowen said he is confident about the results based on the enthusiasm he has seen from voters.

“I was actually walking to lunch today and saw someone with an ‘I voted’ sticker and asked if they happened to vote for the Workers’ Rights Amendment,” Bowen said. “They told me, ‘Yes, I did, it was the first thing on the ballot,’ and that’s how I knew they were telling me the truth.”

Bowen said engaging with voters, even before Election Day, has been an encouraging experience.

“There is a lot of excitement out here and it isn’t something you just hear walking down the street here in Chicago,” Bowen said. “The excitement is in Peoria, the excitement is in Springfield and it feels great to be a part of.”

Marc Poulos, the “Vote Yes for Workers’ Rights” campaign committee’s counsel and executive director of the Indiana, Illinois, Iowa Foundation for Fair Contracting, told the Tribune he was happy with the effort to push the message, though he said advocates for the measure could’ve spent more money than they have.

“We’ve been up on broadcast TV for literally weeks on end,” Poulos said. “We’ve got a digital program, a texting program, a ground game we’ve been on for weeks, so I think we’ve done all the right things.”

Labor expert Martin Malin said passage of the Workers’ Right Amendment would come with a slew of questions around how the amendment will be implemented.

“Ultimately, the Illinois courts will have to interpret that language,” Malin said. “If it happens, there will be a lot of questions about implementation that will probably play out over the next five, maybe even 10 years.”

Chicago Tribune’s Jacob Sheridan contributed.

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November 8, 2022 at 07:47PM

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