Illinois Ballot Measure to Allow Unions To “Keep Our Foot on the Gas”

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Here’s a riddle: Why would unions in Illinois promote a ballot measure to establish a right to collective bargaining when that state is already heavily unionized? Doesn’t the unions’ own existence disprove the need for the measure in the first place? The answer lies in what a “right” to collective bargaining means in this context. The Illinois measure, if enacted, would be more far reaching than just allowing unions to exist. It could theoretically place unions above state laws, giving the state legislature no legal means to rein them in.

The ballot measure in question the Workers’ Rights Amendment, a proposed state constitutional amendment. Its ostensible purpose is to ensure that “employees shall have the fundamental right to organize and to bargain collectively.” The amendment would also ensure that “no law shall be passed that interferes with, negates, or diminishes” those rights.

The right to collective bargaining in Illinois is already well-established. Private sector workers are guaranteed this right under the federal National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), and federal law trumps state law. Public sector workers, from garbage collectors to state bureaucrats, aren’t covered by the NLRA. They are, however, guaranteed collective bargaining rights under existing state law and there is no indication that Illinois will ever change that.

That advantage to unions to writing this into the state constitution comes from the language about preempting any state laws that interfere with, negate, or diminish collective bargaining rights. This means that public sector unions, even ones vital to public safety like police and emergency responders, cannot be prohibited from going on strike. Currently, most public sector unions are prohibited from going on strike precisely because of how disruptive that could be.

Adopting the amendment would prevent state lawmakers from doing anything to moderate unions. Legislators wouldn’t be able cap salaries to control costs. Unions could make firing an employee for poor performance or even bad conduct all but impossible if they insist on job protections during contract bargaining.

The Illinois Policy Institute notes that wages in the state have risen 60 percent faster in the public sector than in the private sector over the last decade. If all the measure does is ensure that unions can continue to insist on similar increases during their contract negotiations, it will force property taxes up by $2,100 per family over the next four years.

For good measure, the ballot measure would also fix the state constitution so that Illinois could never join the 27 states that have adopted right to work laws. These laws prevent workers from being required to join or otherwise financially support a union in order to keep their jobs. Not that there was any serious effort underway to make Illinois a right to work state, but apparently the unions want to nip this in the bud while they can.

Illinois unions have been promoting the measure simply by promoting it a safeguard for rights, talking as if the protections don’t already exist. “A person spends nearly a majority of their life at work,” Illinois AFL-CIO head Tim Drea told PBS. “Those rights, those workers’ rights, need to be included in the constitution so they’re preserved.”

Only rarely have union leaders hinted at how far-reaching the measure would be. Chicago Federation of Labor President of the Robert Reiter, in a Chicago Sun-Times op-ed, said that voting for the measure would give Illinois “the most robust protections for workers in this country. … As we build a stronger and more focused labor movement, it’s important we keep our foot on the gas.” That’s true. If the Workers’ Rights Amendment passes, state workers will be able to put the pedal to metal—and leave taxpayers to pay for any tickets.