Illinois voters to decide on worker rights constitutional amendment
Demonstrators rally in support of Wisconsin workers at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, Feb. 26, 2011. | Seth Perlman / AP

SPRINGFIELD, Ill.—In yet another example of how state elections make—and will make—a practical difference in workers’ lives and livelihoods, Illinois voters will decide in November 2022 whether to enshrine the right to collective bargaining and a ban on so-called “right to work” laws, in the state constitution.

Votes for that referendum in the General Assembly in late May—49-7 in the Senate and 80-30 in the House, all on party lines—reflect overwhelming pro-worker Democratic majorities.

And the ratios, in turn, reflect workers and unions’ strong electoral effort in Illinois in both 2018 and 2020. By contrast, the heavily GOP state legislatures around Illinois, in Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Ohio, and Indiana, passed so-called “right to work” laws and other anti-worker legislation ever since anti-worker pro-corporate-class GOP takeovers in 2010.

Voters don’t necessarily agree. A flood of signatures gathered by unions and allies in Missouri led to a referendum to overturn its RTW law there, with workers saying such laws are really “right to work for less.” RTW lost two-to-one in the Show-Me State. Before that, Ohio unionists and their allies took that RTW law to a vote, too, and beat it 62%-38%.

Nevertheless, the GOP takeovers in the surrounding states produced GOP gerrymandering. That effectively disenfranchised workers and their allies and led to those RTW statutes. And Indiana previously enacted the first so-called “voter ID” law—far less draconian than other anti-worker, anti-minority GOP right-wing, and corporate-backed measures now pending nationwide.

That’s not the case in the Land of Lincoln.

“Employees shall have the fundamental right to organize and 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 amendment, which would be inserted in the state constitution’s Bill of Rights, begins.

Democratic Gov. J. B. Pritzker of Illinois has already signed a ban on the right to work for less in the state. Still, this proposed constitutional amendment would enshrine that into the constitution, preventing future lawmakers from undoing it. Photo credit: CTU Local 1.

“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, including any law or ordinance that prohibits the execution or application of agreements between employers and labor organizations that represent employees requiring membership in an organization as a condition of employment,” it then says.

That includes not just state laws but local ordinances. When former worker-hating Gov. Bruce Rauner, R-Ill., couldn’t get RTW through the legislature, he advocated local ordinances instead. One GOP-run Chicago suburb tried, but a court ruling trashed it.

If voters should pass it next November, the practical effect of the amendment would be to protect the state’s public workers, most of whom are represented by AFSCME District Council 31, from RTW while enshrining their right to bargain.

The National Labor Relations Act covers private-sector workers in the Land of Lincoln, as it does elsewhere. But, starting in 1947, the GOP and its right-wing and business puppeteers emasculated the NLRA and its protections. That’s why organized labor makes passing the Protect The Right To Organize (Pro) Act its top national priority. That measure would rewrite labor law to re-level the playing field between workers and bosses.

Some 160 of the 258 witnesses before Illinois legislative committees were from corporate anti-worker interests, including chambers of commerce (six), the anti-worker Associated Builders and Contractors (eight), and the state school boards association (one).

Magda Derisma of the state AFL-CIO led the 90 pro-worker witnesses who spoke for the amendment and the referendum. The biggest share, 41, came from Road Sprinkler Fitters Local 281 of Chicago.

Other witnesses included Joanna Webb-Gauvin of Council 31, Clay Diette of the Chicago Laborers District Council, Dave Comerford of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Kurt Hilgendorf of the Chicago Teachers Union, Michael Ciaccio of Teamsters Joint Council 25 of Chicago and Northwest Indiana, Trevor Clatfelter of Teamsters Local 916 in Springfield, and Mike Macellaio of the Chicago and Cook County Building and Construction Trades. E-mails to several of them, seeking copies of their testimony, were unsuccessful.

The constitutional amendment’s lead House sponsor, State Rep. Marcus Evans, D-Chicago, used a “Which side are you on?’ question to frame the issue, according to the non-profit news service Capitol News Illinois.

“Where do you stand when you look that working mother in your community in the eye and do you want her to have collective bargaining?” Evans asked. “Do you want her to have representation, or do you want to follow many other states as they continue a concerted effort to take away the rights of working men and women? You’ve got to make a decision.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.