Workers’ Rights amendment being added to Illinois Constitution
SPRINGFIELD — In a historic win for organized labor, Illinoisans are adding a new amendment to the state constitution that will dedicate a “fundamental right” for workers to unionize and the ability to collectively bargain, according to unofficial results from The Associated Press.
AP called the race on Tuesday, one week after vote counting began in a heated battle on a referendum question that topped ballots across Illinois and had union leaders and business groups at loggerheads and spending millions of dollars campaigning.
The passage of a constitutional amendment is a rare act and the referendum question was being closely watched by union and business leaders across the nation. The Illinois measure required 60% of those voting on the question to vote “yes” for it to pass or 50% of all ballots cast to vote in favor of the question.
It appears to have failed to reach the 60% mark, but with nearly 2.15 million “yes” votes out of a little more than 4 million total votes cast with nearly all votes tabulated, the AP called the race, stating it cleared the 50% of all votes cast threshold.
“We want workers to look at Illinois as the number one place where they want to be a part of the workforce because they have the best protections that they can have in the country,” said Marc Poulos, counsel for the “Vote Yes for Workers’ Rights” campaign committee that worked to pass the amendment.
The passage of the amendment, called the “Workers’ Rights Amendment” by its supporters and also known as “Amendment 1,” is a massive victory for union members, as well as for newly reelected Gov. J.B. Pritzker and his Democratic allies who championed the measure to enshrine collective bargaining rights into the Illinois Constitution.
The Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank that ran the “Vote No on Amendment 1” campaign committee that sought to defeat the proposed amendment, declined to concede that the amendment had passed Tuesday.
“The State Board of Elections is the ultimate authority on this issue. Right now, the amendment is getting just over 50% of total voters in a low turnout year, despite opponents spending $16 million,” IPI president and CEO Matt Paprocki wrote in a statement.
The election results won’t be certified by the Illinois State Board of Elections until Dec. 5, a spokesman for the agency has said.
Still, Pritzker and labor leaders proclaimed victory following AP’s call, noting the labor win also makes Illinois one of only four states to guarantee collective bargaining rights through a constitutional amendment. The state’s guarantee goes further than the three guarantees that exist in New York, Missouri and Hawaii, Poulos and other experts have said.
The amendment not only guarantees the right to organize for the most common elements of collective bargaining, such as wages, hours and working conditions, but also for “economic welfare and safety at work.”
The amendment’s passage is also the first time a state has banned “right-to-work” laws with a constitutional amendment. “Right-to-work” laws disempower unions by allowing workers to avoid paying “fair share” fees to unions — money used for nonpolitical union costs for actions such as collective bargaining.
Right-to-work laws have swept through the Midwest in the last decade, with Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee all passing right-to-work legislation. Missouri voters have since repealed the state’s right-to-work law in a 2018 referendum, and Iowa has had such a law for decades.
As right-to-work laws spread throughout nearby states and former single-term Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner fought to curb union power, union leaders began to craft the “Workers’ Rights” amendment in an effort to fight back, said Poulos, who is also executive director of the Indiana, Illinois, Iowa Foundation for Fair Contracting.
“We looked at all of those things and said, in Illinois, we are not going to be in a reactive posture,” he said. “We are going to eliminate right-to-work once and for all for the first time in this country.”
The union victory could have national implications, added Poulos, who alongside other union representatives had claimed victory for the amendment since last Wednesday. It shows that “there is a path to recognize that workers are important,” and other states may copy Illinois’ amendment proposition, he said.
The labor leader credited voters from all parts of Illinois — not just the left-leaning Chicago area — with passing the amendment. The amendment outperformed Democrats in many counties throughout the state, particularly in more conservative downstate areas.
In the small, far southern county of Massac, for instance, the “yes” vote on the amendment won by two percentage points even though Republican candidate for governor Darren Bailey easily defeated Pritzker in the county, according to the AP.
“Working class people should have protections, and I think everybody in the state of Illinois — that’s all 102 counties — has spoken,” Poulos said.
In leading the opposition to the amendment, Illinois Policy Institute representatives and business leaders argued the amendment will give unions too much power, cost taxpayers money by preventing common sense reform and worsen Illinois’ reputation among businesses.
In Springfield on Tuesday, GOP state Rep. Steven Reick said he was disappointed the amendment passed, adding that “special interest” doesn’t belong in the state constitution. Reick also noted that the only reason the measure appeared to pass was by clearing the 50% voter-turnout threshold and not the higher bar of having 60% of the voters who weighed in on the measure approving it.
“We had under 50% turnout in McHenry County, said Reick, who is from Woodstock. “So, that set the bar a lot lower for the passage of that because of our failure to boost turnout overall.”
“This is just another one that is going to ultimately result in us losing business and it’s not going to work the way they want, and … I’m very sorry that it passed,” he also said. “But the fact is we’re going to have to live with it and suffer the consequences, which I think are going to happen.”
Those consequences aren’t all entirely clear, and some of the amendment’s effects will likely be determined by judicial outcomes, experts have said. Prior to the amendment’s passage, experts said that courts would likely determine how it applies to public and private sector workers. The measure opens a slew of legal questions, including what kinds of workers are newly eligible to unionize, in what cases will federal labor laws supersede the state constitution and what will “economic welfare and safety at work” mean at the bargaining table.
For instance, Scott Gore, who practices labor law with the firm of Laner Muchin, has suggested that if the amendment had been in place during the fight between Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union over a safe return to work during the COVID-19 pandemic, the “safety at work” provision might have bolstered the union’s claims that working amid a rise in COVID cases compromised teachers’ health.
One leader for the Illinois Policy Institute predicted judges would rule that the amendment’s guarantees on collective bargaining rights don’t apply to private workers because of preemptive federal labor law.
But not all private workers are governed by federal labor law, Poulos argued. He expects the amendment to apply to independent contractors, agricultural workers and managers, potentially opening major avenues for unionization in fields of labor that have so far remained unorganized.
The amendment’s supporters outraised its detractors, with the “Vote Yes” committee pulling in well over $13 million through September from unions, particularly in construction, and the “Vote No” side raising $2 million, almost all from billionaire conservative megadonor Richard Uihlein.
Outside the makeshift Senate chamber in the Howlett Building in Springfield, one of the lawmakers who sponsored the legislation that got the referendum question on the ballot celebrated its passage.
“I think it’s clear that the people in the state of Illinois have stood with workers,” said state Sen. Ram Villivalam, a Chicago Democrat who sponsored the referendum legislation that called for employees to have, among other things, “the fundamental right to organize and to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.”
“We sent a message that we believe all workers deserve a living wage, deserve great working conditions and the benefits to provide for their families,” Villivalam said.
Jake Sheridan reported from Chicago.