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Speaker Welch rebuffs lawsuit from would-be staff union as ‘forum shopping’

House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch is pictured with members of the Illinois Legislative Staff Association organizing committee testifying in front of an October 2023 committee hearing.
Jerry Nowicki
Capitol News Illinois
House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch is pictured with members of the Illinois Legislative Staff Association organizing committee testifying in front of an October 2023 committee hearing.

Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch is urging a Cook County judge to dismiss a lawsuit members of his staff filed against him last month seeking to force recognition of their union.

In a new filing Monday, attorneys for Welch argued the Illinois Legislative Staff Association has no standing to sue over the speaker’s refusal to engage in collective bargaining with the would-be union’s members. Welch’s attorneys reiterated an argument the speaker has been making for nearly a year: Illinois law doesn’t currently allow legislative staffers to unionize.

Although Welch last fall introduced and passed legislation through the House that would explicitly allow his employees to unionize, the bill has not advanced in the Senate. The ILSA last month accused Welch of feigning solidarity in public while privately colluding with Democratic Senate President Don Harmon to ensure the bill died in his chamber. And a few days after the General Assembly’s spring session concluded, the staffers sued Welch.

Read more: Members of House speaker’s staff sue over ongoing unionization conflict | Would-be union of legislative staffers accuse Welch of undermining organizing effort

The speaker’s attorneys pointed to the ILSA’s “failure to appeal” the Illinois Labor Relations Board’s decision to not certify the union in March 2023, which found legislative staffers are specifically excluded from being able to form a union.

Monday’s filing accused the staffers of “forum shopping” because they “merely did not like” the ILRB’s decision.

“Through this suit, Plaintiffs are attempting to bypass the carefully crafted labor representation process set forth in (state labor law) and 40 years of case law,” the filing said.

The ILSA quietly formed in the fall of 2022, held a union election and went to the ILRB for certification of their 33-person bargaining unit in January of 2023. After the ILRB dismissed its petition, the staffers went public with their unionization efforts in May of last year.

The association then spent the summer accusing Welch of stonewalling its efforts for recognition.

But in September, the speaker announced House Bill 4148, which would explicitly allow legislative staff to unionize – something labor experts warn may not be possible under existing Illinois law. The following month, Welch sat side by side with would-be union members to testify in favor of the bill during the General Assembly’s fall veto session, celebrating the bill’s passage in the full House.

Read more: House approves framework allowing legislative staff to unionize | Welch introduces bill to allow legislative staff to unionize

Since then, however, relations have once again soured. In a scathing statement the ILSA publicized before suing Welch last month, the staffers accused the speaker of undermining their efforts to organize, all the while “scor(ing) political points” in passing the bill to allow them to unionize.

The ILSA’s lawsuit claims Welch’s refusal to engage in collective bargaining since then is a violation of the Workers’ Rights Amendment, which Illinois voters approved in the November 2022 election. That addition to the state’s constitution provides, in part, that all employees have a “fundamental right” to organize and engage in collective bargaining over wages, hours and working conditions.

“As a result,” the ILSA claimed in its lawsuit, Welch “has created a climate of fear or anxiety within the staff” who allegedly feel vulnerable “to discharge or removal” from their jobs because the speaker has not recognized the ILSA.

Read more: Voters will decide on ‘right to unionize’ constitutional amendment | Illinois House Speaker’s staff could test limits of Workers’ Rights Amendment

In addition to arguing the staffers are “forum shopping” to avoid living with consequence of not having appealed the ILRB’s decision not to certify their union, Welch’s attorneys put forth a pair of alternative arguments in Monday’s filing.

First, they argued, the doctrine of “legislative immunity” should shield Welch from the ILSA’s lawsuit, as the speaker is free to choose how he runs his office, as outlined by both state law and the House’s adopted rules. That argument relies on a 7th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in a case brought by former state Sen. Sam McCann after he was denied access to Republican legislative staff when he renounced his membership in the GOP and ran as a third-party candidate for governor in 2018.

McCann is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to stealing campaign funds and committing money laundering and tax evasion in order to conceal his theft.

Read more: In last-minute reversal, former Sen. Sam McCann pleads guilty to corruption charges

Monday’s filing also argues the Workers’ Rights Amendment does not provide a private right of action for individuals to sue for alleged violations of the constitutional protection, so the ILSA’s suit was improperly filed.

In response, ILSA organizer and lead plaintiff Brady Burden, a legislative analyst for House Democrats, said Welch’s “legal gymnastics are embarrassing.”

“Speaker Welch is saying that he is both above the law and shackled by it,” Burden said in a statement provided to Capitol News Illinois. “The Illinois Constitution unequivocally guarantees us the right to bargain collectively, and we remain confident the courts will ultimately side with us. At the end of the day, Speaker Welch is only continuing to demonstrate his utter lack of shame."

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

Hannah covers state government and politics for NPR Illinois and Illinois Public Radio. She previously covered the statehouse for The Daily Line and Law360, and also worked a temporary stint at the political blog Capitol Fax in 2018.
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