Voters will have a chance to decide to codify a ban on “right-to-work” laws
In addition to the elections of public officials on November 8, a vote for a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution is on the ballot as well. The referendum on the ballot will decide the fate of the Illinois Right to Collective Bargaining Measure (IRCBM), which is unofficially referred to by supporters of the measure as the Workers’ Rights Amendment (WRA) or by Amendment 1 by its opposition.
Put simply; the IRCBM focuses on two things:
- It aims to amend the Illinois Constitution to guarantee the fundamental rights of workers (public and private) to bargain for safe working conditions, fair pay and benefits.
- It prohibits any law (such as right-to-work laws) from interfering with these fundamental rights.
The amendment passed the Illinois General Assembly in May 2021 and will be officially signed into the Illinois Bill of Rights if 60% of the votes go in favor, or if a simple majority (50% plus one) of all voters, including those who skip the question on their ballots, approve it.
While Illinois law currently has legislation barring local governments from establishing right-to-work zones, this can be subject to change under a new governor or state legislature and revoked.
“The Workers’ Rights Amendment will guarantee that there is no regression in the labor law as we know it,” says Tim Drea, the president of the Illinois AFL-CIO. The AFL-CIO is a federation of unions that represents workers in the U.S.
“We don’t want to go backward. We want to keep going forward. There will always be corporations that in the name of making money that will try to relax workers’ rights benefits that we have fought for,” says Drea.
If ratified, the IRCBM will closely align with growing union support in the U.S. A Gallup poll done over the summer indicates union approval is at its highest point since 1965.
It would also become the first amendment by a state that codifies a right-to-work ban into the state’s constitution. New York, Hawaii and Missouri have established the right to collective bargaining in their constitutions, but none have banned right-to-work laws.
“Right-to-work” laws are policies that allow states to determine whether workers can be required to join a labor union to get or keep a job. Under right-to-work laws, employers cannot refuse to hire non-union workers or require that workers join a union as a condition of employment. Under the federal right-to-work law (the Taft-Hartley Act), employers cannot require you to be a union member to be considered for a job. They can, however, require you to join a union after being hired because people have the “right to work” without being part of a union under state and federal laws.
“[The IRCBM] bans politicians from passing laws that would hurt workers’ rights,” says Joe Bowen, the communications director for the Vote Yes For Workers’ Rights campaign. “It would foreclose the possibility that the state could opt into a loophole that would allow employers and counties not to require union membership as a condition of employment.”
Another critical component of the bill is that it specifically refers to “employees” and not workers. State Sen. Ram Villivalam (D – Chicago) said in an interview with Vox, that this language ensures that all people in an employer-employee relationship, even those not covered by National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), are covered under the Illinois State Constitution.
“This amendment would serve to protect workers’ rights,” says Ph.D. Jessica Cook-Qurayshi, director of DePaul University’s Labor Education Center. “We have pretty good rights here in Illinois compared to other states and it would work to preserve them against anti-worker politicians or interest groups trying to cut back on the rights that we have on the state and federal levels.”
Critics of the bill, such as the libertarian think tank the Illinois Policy Institute and many Republicans, have expressed concerns about increasing property taxes due to more union negotiations.
“We already know it costs money to pay for the government union contracts,” says Mailee Smith, staff attorney, and director of Labor Policy. “Amendment 1 allows for increased government union demands and a permanent right to go on strike to force these government officials to meet those demands. Those contracts will now cost even more and that increase will be passed on to taxpayers.”
On the other hand, a study published by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign suggests the amendment would be economically favorable for the state. The study found that union workers in Illinois contribute eight percent more in state income taxes, after credits and deductions. They’re also less likely to be below poverty, rely on Medicaid, and rely on food stamp government assistance than their nonunion counterparts.
“Workers are not responsible for property taxes, politicians are, this amendment has absolutely nothing to do with taxes,” says Bowen. “They’re looking at things that have been happening when the WRA has not been state law, and they’re telling you that somehow this amendment is to be blamed for the failures of politicians. “
After workers faced the realities of their working conditions during the pandemic, many have turned to unions or union-organizing efforts to take matters into their own hands.
“This is a critically important time to protect workers’ rights here in Illinois – now and in the future,” says Bowen. “There’s always another attack coming against unions and workers in this country, and everything we can do to guarantee your right to negotiate for higher wages, better benefits, and safer workplaces is incredibly important.”
Header illustration by Magda Wilhelm