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Illinois voters will decide whether to enshrine right to unionize in state constitution

People gather in 2018 at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., awaiting a decision in an Illinois union dues case, Janus v. AFSCME.

Illinois voters will be asked on the Nov. 8 ballot whether they want to amend the state constitution to enshrine the rights of workers to organize and collectively bargain as a constitutional right.

The proposed amendment would codify the rights of private and public sector workers to negotiate wages, working conditions and more.

Proponents say the idea, which they call the Workers Rights Amendment, is simple: They think everyone working in Illinois should have the right to “organize and to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.”

“When you look at what’s happening on a national level, there are certainly open questions now on things that we thought were settled case law for a very long time,” said Joe Bowen, a spokesman for the Vote Yes For Workers’ Rights campaign. “Anything from voting rights to bodily autonomy is now either an open question or completely under attack, and we need to make sure that your rights in the workplace don’t face those same challenges.”

The Democratic-led state legislature in 2021 signed off on the measure to be placed on the November 2022 ballot. To be ratified, the proposed constitutional amendment needs 60% of the vote, or a simple majority of support from those voting in the election.

State and federal laws already allow for most workers in Illinois to unionize. But, some groups not covered by the National Labor Relations Act — which the state’s laws mirror — are not covered. That includes agriculture workers, independent contractors and public sector workers. Under the amendment, all workers in the state would gain the constitutional right to “…bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing for the purpose of negotiating wages, hours and working conditions, and to protect their economic welfare and safety at work.”

The initiative also seeks to prevent these rights from changing or going away in the future. It provides that “…no law shall be passed that interferes with, negates or diminishes the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively over their wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment and workplace safety…”

Put simply, passing this amendment would protect pro-union rights from the whims of future legislatures and governors. For example, that would prevent legislators from making Illinois a Right to Work state, in which a worker cannot be compelled to join a union as a condition of employment.

Critics of the amendment argue it would give unions too much power over their employers, and over the rights of lawmakers to be a check on that power.

“They could never limit the subjects of bargaining at the table,” said Mailee Smith, who is the Director of Labor Policy at the Illinois Policy Institute, an advocacy group that lobbies for less government and taxes. “They could never limit the duration of contracts. We’ve seen 10-year contracts in Chicago, in some school districts. So lawmakers could never say, ‘Oh, that’s a bad idea.’ ”Smith is also concerned that “economic welfare,” as written in the statute, isn’t defined and it’s unclear what will result.

“There’s no limit on what government leaders can be forced to give away because of the powerful strikes that we will see,” she said. “It’s going to drive up the cost of government, and who’s going to be forced to pay for that? That’s the taxpayers.”

Bowen, with the Vote Yes for Workers’ Rights campaign, disputes Smith’s characterizations.

“The Workers’ Rights Amendment has nothing to do with taxes,” he said. “This is a deceptive attack being pushed by our opponents to try to confuse folks and scare them out of supporting workers’ rights.”

The Liberty Justice Center, which works with the Illinois Policy Institute on a wide range of topics, put up a legal fight to block the amendment from even appearing on the November ballot. The organization argued federal law preempts what the amendment would do, and sought to keep it from appearing before voters.

The case was appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, which affirmed both the circuit and appellate court decisions to allow the amendment to appear on the ballot.

It’s the only statewide referendum this election, and it will appear on the ballot as a Proposed Amendment to the 1970 Illinois Constitution.

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Illinois Newsroom gets stories from public radio stations from across the state, including WBEZ-Chicago, WCBU-Peoria, WGLT-Normal, WVIK-Rock Island, WIUM-Macomb, WNIJ-DeKalb, WSIU-Carbondale, WUIS-Springfield, and St. Louis Public Radio.

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