Illinois Voters Will Soon Decide If They Want a Constitutional Amendment on Unions

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Should Illinois codify in its state constitution a right to form labor unions and collectively bargain over terms of employment? A coalition of organizations says “yes” and has pushed the measure to a ballot imitative, yet many in the business community oppose it. Ultimately, voters will decide on November 8th.

The proposed measure would add a “Worker’s Rights” section to the state constitution’s Bill of Rights, creating a “fundamental right” to engage in labor organizing and to collectively bargain over wages, hours, and working conditions. Additionally, it would prohibit any unit of government within Illinois from enacting “any law that interferes with, negates, or diminishes” this right.

Why the Push for an Amendment?

There are a few reasons that advocates are pushing for this amendment. In the wake of the repeal of Roe v. Wade, many people feel that rights guaranteed by court decisions or federal statutes may be rolled back at the federal level in the future. According to this logic, if it happened with abortion—which came as a surprise to many—why could it not happen with workers’ rights?

Advocates say it is also reasonable to fear that workers’ rights could be diminished given what has already happened in other states. 27 states currently have “right to work” laws, meaning workers do not have to join the union that represents workers in their workplace, or contribute to union dues, even if they benefit from the union’s bargaining activity.

Most pertinent for the amendment’s supporters, however, is the fact that former Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner attempted to have the General Assembly curtail prevailing wage laws and enact right-to-work legislation in Illinois. The confluence of these various efforts has worried labor advocates, and they want to ensure protections for labor that can endure future assaults.

New York, Missouri, and Hawaii have enshrined worker protections in their state constitutions, but Illinois would be the first to do so via a ballot measure. Coincidentally, Tennessee also has a ballot measure in the upcoming election concerning a change to the state constitution, but for the opposite effect: that state’s citizens will decide if the current right-to-work law should be codified in the constitution.

The Pros and Cons

The ballot measure is supported by labor, including the Illinois AFL-CIO and advocacy group Vote Yes for Workers’ Rights. Such groups claim that the measure would protect workers’ rights from being stripped, and also cover some workers who currently are not protected. Joe Bowen of Vote Yes says that bolstering the ability to collectively bargain to raise wages benefits the entire economic ecosystem, as workers then spend more at local coffee shops, restaurants, and other small businesses.

On the other hand, the measure is strongly opposed by Illinois’ business community, including the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, and the Illinois Association of School Boards. Mailee Smith of the conservative think tank Illinois Policy Institute claims that the amendment could make it easier for workers to strike. She claims it could even lead to increased property taxes or demand for more affordable housing. Public employee unions, she said, could use the amendment’s protection of the “right…to promote economic welfare and safety at work” to somehow bargain for things outside of the workplace.

What Would the Amendment Mean for Businesses?

If the amendment were to pass, supporters say it would not mean much for businesses. The status quo would not change. After all, the very purpose of the amendment is to ensure that current labor protections and rights endure, and cannot be easily voted away by a future General Assembly or governor hostile to labor.

Passage of the amendment would matter, however, for certain businesses. One provision of the amendment stipulates that not even “home rule” jurisdictions in Illinois are exempt from its requirements. That means that any localized ordinances with a “right-to-work” leaning could be banned. Moreover, and as opponents have claimed, the bargaining power of public unions might increase, thereby putting pressure on public employers.

Now that the arguments have been made, the issue is up to voters’ sentiments on November 8th. Legislators overwhelmingly voted to place the measure on the ballot for this November election during the 2021 spring session of the Illinois General Assembly. To become law in Illinois, constitutional amendments must have the support of at least 60% of those who voted on the question, or at least 50% of all voters in the election.