Voters will decide on the “right to unionize”

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SPRINGFIELD — Illinois voters will be asked Nov. 8 to decide whether the right of workers to form unions and engage in collective bargaining should be enshrined in the state constitution.

The first clause of the amendment contains two sentences. The first would establish a “fundamental right to organize and bargain collectively and to negotiate wages, hours and working conditions, and to promote their economic well-being and workplace safety”.

The second would prohibit the state or any local unit of government from enacting “any law that interferes with, denies or diminishes the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively over their wages, hours of work and other conditions of employment and safety at work”. .”

The provision is intended to prevent the passage of any national or local “right to work” law, which prohibits employers from requiring workers to be unionized to keep their jobs.

The second clause states that the amendment would control another part of the constitution which sets out the powers of local government units of self-government, meaning that those units of government would still be subject to the amendment.

Lawmakers approved putting the measure on the ballot in the 2021 spring session. The resolution passed both houses with bipartisan support: 49 to 7 in the Senate and 80 to 30 in the House.

As with any constitutional question, however, there is considerable disagreement over the meaning of these words and the effects they would have if the amendment passed.

The proposal is backed by several major unions, but has drawn opposition from groups such as the Illinois School Boards Association, the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and the Illinois Manufacturers Association.

To get a feel for the arguments for and against the measure, media editors at The Associated Press of Illinois convened an online forum with Joe Bowen, director of communications for a vote yes for workers’ rights, the only organized political committee campaigning on the issue. They also spoke with Mailee Smith, director of labor policy and an attorney at the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank that opposes the measure.

The questions came from representatives of the Daily Herald and Shaw Media.

Bowen and Smith were asked initially what they thought the amendment would mean and the implications of passing it.

“The Workers’ Rights Amendment will secure your fundamental rights in the workplace to organize and bargain collectively with your co-workers to negotiate things like better pay, safer working conditions and most importantly it will also protect Illinois voters from politicians trying to take away their rights in the future,” Bowen said.

He said it gives workers in Illinois the opportunity “to vote for themselves on November 8.”

“It will enshrine the protections most of us already enjoy while extending protection to workers who currently don’t have it,” Bowen said. “This will be a tremendous victory for our workers as well as our entire economy and local communities.”

Smith, on the other hand, claimed that the amendment would only apply to public sector workers, as private sector workers are already covered by the National Labor Relations Act, which would supersede any law or provision constitutional state.

As a result, she argued that it would increase local property taxes by giving public employee unions the power to bargain on a wider range of issues, including “economic welfare”, which is not defined in amendment or in another state law.

“And it’s not defined in other similar laws like the National Labor Relations Act,” she said. “That could mean things like affordable housing expansion or positions on rent reductions could be demanded by government unions.”

She also said the provision anticipating right-to-work laws could have unintended consequences.

“It prohibits legislators, as representatives of the people, from enacting reforms or fixes,” she said. “So if lawmakers ultimately decide, ‘Oh, wow, we didn’t mean economic well-being meant all these big topics,’ they could never go back and define what the economic well-being because they would be prohibited in the amendment itself from doing so.

Bowen countered that the amendment had nothing to do with taxes but rather protected the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively in the workplace.

If passed, he said, it would apply uniformly across the state to all public and private sector workers. He also said it would protect workers from politicians trying to enact right-to-work laws, a reference to former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who unsuccessfully tried to push such legislation through the General Assembly. .

Finally, he suggested that the rights set out in federal law could change or be repealed at any time, referring to the recent decision of the Supreme Court of the United States which struck down the right to abortion which had been established under Roe v. Wade.

“And I think it’s extremely important at a time when we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow — and we’ve seen a lot of unpredictability and rights under attack, both federally and here in Illinois — to ensure that these rights remain in a safe deposit box and are safe for workers for generations to come,” he said.

As a follow-up, the two were asked to identify what rights workers would have under the amendment that they do not already have under existing law.

Bowen said the amendment would protect existing rights and extend them to “hundreds of thousands” of workers not covered by existing law. He said it is important to secure bargaining rights now and in the future, given that “we spend almost half of our lives in the workplace”.

“Whether or not you have the ability to earn a good living, to stay safe at work, it really impacts every aspect of your life,” he said. “So it’s extremely important to make sure that we guarantee those protections in the Illinois Constitution.”

Smith argued that elevating collective bargaining rights to the level of the constitution would put labor agreements beyond the reach of existing laws that apply to public employee contracts.

“If a teachers‘ union didn’t want a background check as part of the job application process, the hiring process, they could write that into their contract,” she said. “It could keep government union contracts secret. They could actually override the law (Freedom of Information Act) that requires government union contracts to be open to the public, simply by putting that provision in the contract.

Bowen initially declined to respond to this claim, but later in the discussion said, “I don’t think it’s legally permissible to enter into a contract that violates state law or federal law. .”

Constitutional amendments have two avenues of passage in Illinois. If the measure receives 60% of the votes of those voting on the issue, it passes. But if he fails to meet the 60% threshold on the issue but still musters ‘yes’ votes from more than half of those voting in the election, he would still pass.

Election day is November 8, but early voting has already begun. More information is available from local electoral authorities.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

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