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Organized Labor Notches Win As Unionization 'Fundamental Right' Amendment Goes To Voters In '22

Brian Mackey
NPR Illinois
Credit Brian Mackey / NPR Illinois
NPR Illinois

Illinois voters next fall will weigh in on whether the state’s constitution should be amended to include a provision that will establish a fundamental right for workers to unionize, and prevent a future legislature from making Illinois a “right-to-work” state.

Twenty seven other states have right to work status, meaning joining the labor union that represents a particular group of workers isn’t a requirement to get or keep a job. Such measures significantly weaken unions’ collective bargaining power, which also translates to reduced political power.

Many states in the south and west have had right-to-work laws on the books for decades. But in the last 10 years, Republicans and influential business organizations have successfully sold the idea to a handful of states in the south and Midwest, including Illinois neighbors like Indiana, Wisconsin and Kentucky.

Missouri voters, however, overwhelmingly rejected a right-to-work proposition on the 2018 ballot.

State Rep. Lance Yednock (D-Ottawa) pitched theamendmentas a shared benefit for all Illinoisans.

“When workers are free to bargain collectively, it leads to safer workplaces, enhanced skill levels and better economic conditions for all workers, whether or not they're in a union,” Yednock said during debate over the amendment on the House floor Wednesday. 

Yednock characterized right-to-work laws as “diabolical,” pointing to data that found “declines in wages, benefits, training and safety standards.”

“Workers already have a choice whether or not to join a union, and this amendment protects that choice and it [prevents] government from interfering with the agreements between workers and employers,” he said.

The International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, an influential giant of organized labor in Illinois, has been pushing the constitutional amendment for more than a year. But Gov. JB Pritzker’s fears about the proposed amendment’s effect on his signature graduated income tax campaign promise and the COVID-19 pandemic’s halt on the General Assembly’s spring session last year prevented it from getting on the November ballot.

A majority of House Republicans voted against the proposed amendment Wednesday, warning it’s an unnecessary addition to the state’s constitution and could drive job creators away from the state.

State Rep. Andrew Chesney (R-Freeport) alleged Democrats pushed the amendment for no other reason than to appease organized labor, a major financial donor behind most of the party’s legislative races.

“This isn’t about men and women in hats slamming hammers and building stuff,” Chesney said. “These are the people right outside this door ready to send contribution checks to your campaign to get you re-elected.”

Nine Republicans from historically union-friendly districts voted for the amendment in the House on Wednesday. The measure fared much better among Republicans in the Senate when it passed last week with more than half of the tiny caucus’ 18 members voting in favor.

Republicans voted in large numbers for a similar but more constrainedeffortin 2019 that banned local “right-to-work” zones in Illinois.

Former Gov. Bruce Rauner, whose Republican views have a libertarian bent, vetoed thatsame legislationtwo years prior. A handful of GOP lawmakers voted with Democrats to override the governor’s veto, but failed.

Rauner, whose campaign often centered on his promise to take on “government union bosses,” advocated for right-to-work zones in his first months in office. Just a handful of local governments took him up on the idea, and the village of Lincolnshire in Chicago’s northern suburbs was the only municipality in Illinois to enact a right-to-work law.

After years of legal challenges, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately dismissed the case as moot in 2019 after Pritzker signed the local right-to-work zone ban.

On Wednesday, amendment sponsor State Rep. Marcus Evans (D-Chicago) dared Republicans to vote with him.

“Stand for workers’ rights. Vote yes,” Evans said. “Let’s send it to the electors and let’s make sure that we submit in our constitution for generations to come that workers will be respected and appreciated in the state of Illinois.”

But enshrining the amendment in the constitution is what worried State Rep. Deanne Mazzochi (R-Elmhurst) on Wednesday. She took issue with how the amendment would define “employees” and whether it would go beyond definitions in federal labor law.

“Normally at the federal level, managers who are employees don't have the right to collectively bargain,” Mazzochi said. “People who are CEOs don't have the right to collectively bargain. People who are in very sensitive positions don't have the right to collectively bargain. And yet here, we're not doing the same sort of refined, nuanced type of meaning of employees that you have in a federal statute.”

Mazzochi also raised concerns about language in the proposal which reads, “No law shall be passed that interferes with, negates, or diminishes the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively.” 

She said by including the term “diminished”, it could result in a similar situation to public pension protections, where the state is not allowed to reduce payment obligations in order to address growing debts. 

“The diminishment clause in the pension clause is one of the huge reasons why the Illinois state finances are in a hopeless mess. This is a loaded word,” Mazzochi said. “Unlike educational funding, where our Supreme Court has said it's an aspirational goal, if the Illinois Supreme Court were to say this has the same rock read solidity behind it as the pension clause, this legislature is going to be in for a world of financial hurt.”

Two other states currently outline collective bargaining protections in their respective constitutions, New York and Hawaii.

Mazzochi claims Hawaii’sconstitution— which protects collective bargaining rights for both public and private employees — has had its hands tied when attempting to make changes in labor policy.

“When the state of Hawaii tried to actually make adjustments to a pay period, they actually got hauled into court by employees who said that that represented a diminishment in interference with their collective bargaining rights,” Mazzochi said. 

Evans clarified the amendment only applies to public sector workers.

Other members argued instead of entertaining various scenarios, the legislature should first see how Illinoisans vote on the amendment next November.

“We are not saying that this is necessarily going to be the law of the land,” State Rep. Kathleen Willis (D-Addison) said. “What we're doing is what many of my colleagues, and I hear often times from both sides of the aisle, ‘local control, local control, let people make those decisions.’”

Copyright 2021 NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

Hannah Meisel is a reporter at Capitol News Illinois, based in Springfield. Email: hmeisel@capitolnewsillinois.com

She’s had a number of assignments covering the Statehouse and Illinois government since the 2014 legislative session, most recently serving as Statehouse editor for NPR Illinois from 2020 until after the November 2022 election. Prior to that, Meisel worked at The Daily Line, Law 360 and Illinois Public Media in addition to various assignments for other outlets.
Derek Cantù is NPR Illinois' graduate student Public Affairs Reporting intern for the spring 2021 legislative session.
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