A new report highlights the potential impact of a proposed amendment to the Illinois Constitution that would, if passed, guarantee all workers in the state the right to collectively bargain.
Researchers from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign say the Illinois Right to Collective Bargaining Amendment, better known as the Workers’ Rights Amendment — which will be put to voters in the November 2022 election — would boost incomes and improve working conditions for workers, as well as better the state’s economy.
However, some oppose the measure claiming that it gives too much power to organized labor and that it will lead to higher taxes in Illinois.
The proposed amendment would guarantee Illinois workers the “fundamental right” to collectively bargain for agreements on wages, hours and working conditions. If passed, Illinois would be among just a handful of states, including Hawaii, New York and Missouri, that guarantee the right to collective bargaining.
According to the report, which analyzes two decades’ worth of data from the U.S. Census Bureau and other federal agencies, union workers in Illinois have better economic outcomes than non-union workers.
“The data shows that the Workers’ Rights Amendment would protect Illinois’ competitive advantage for essential workers,” said Frank Manzo IV, executive director for the Illinois Economic Policy Institute and one of the report’s authors. “Construction workers, police officers, first responders, teachers, registered nurses all earn between 5% and 35% more in Illinois, and they’re also more likely to have health insurance and to own their homes in Illinois.”
The report also says union workers are less likely to live in poverty and rely on public aid than their non-union counterparts. Union workers also contribute 8% more to state income taxes, according to the report.
An amendment that gives workers the right to unionize, researchers said, would also secure the state’s labor force in a time where the U.S. is experiencing worker shortages in many sectors.
“When you protect worker rights, you actually attract people into that workplace,” said Robert Bruno, a labor professor and director of the Project for Middle Class Renewal at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “That’s a way to address the workforce need coming out of COVID … to bring inflation down to really grow an economy from the middle out.”
The report’s authors added that public approval of unions is at its highest level in six decades, with nearly 70% of Americans supporting labor unions.
In addition to enshrining the right to organize in the Illinois Constitution, the amendment would also prevent the state from passing “right-to-work” laws, which say that employees can’t be forced to join a union or pay dues to a union. Twenty-eight states currently have right-to-work laws, which weaken unions’ collective bargaining power.
According to the report, states with right-to-work laws “see higher levels of economic inequality, worker earnings that are between 2% and 4% lower, and health insurance coverage that is 3% to 5% lower.” Researchers said job growth is no higher in these states compared to those that support collective bargaining.
Right-to-work laws, Manzo said, “lower incomes and produce worse health outcomes without benefiting the economy.”
The proposed amendment is set to appear on ballots in November, after getting the required 60% vote in both chambers of the Illinois legislature. But debate over the ballot measure is emblematic of the ideological fault lines in Illinois surrounding organized labor.
The Workers’ Rights Amendment survived a legal challenge from groups calling the amendment “unconstitutional” because it conflicts with the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).
Mailee Smith, director of labor research and staff attorney at the Illinois Policy Institute, a libertarian think tank, filed the petition to remove the amendment from the November general election ballot. A judge denied the petition, and groups have since appealed that decision.
In a statement to WBEZ, Smith said “this amendment has nothing to do with quality of life for Illinois’ working families, and in fact, can’t even help most families because it only applies to 7% of the adult population in the state,” referring to the percentage of public sector employees. She also said the amendment would lead to increased pensions, which would result in “never-ending property tax hikes.”
Bruno, with U of I, said there is nothing in the NLRA that conflicts with the amendment, and that given the higher percentage of non-union workplaces in the private sector in Illinois, “the implications [of the amendment] are actually far greater in the private sector.”
Manzo added that “unions are substantially better for public budgets than the alternative” and fears of property tax hikes predicted by opponents of the proposed amendment are unfounded. “I’m not entirely sure how they get at those numbers because what we see in the real-world economic data … shows the opposite,” said Manzo with the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, a west suburban-based nonprofit whose board members include current and former leaders in state government, business and labor.
Paul Pater, a registered nurse and treasurer of the Illinois Nurses Association, said the amendment would help both private and public sector workers to “feel more secure, more safe” in their jobs. He said being part of a union helped him and his colleagues win higher wages and lead to “direct safety initiatives, things like ensuring we have enough respirators at work, enough safety equipment during COVID … to keep our people safe and keep our patients safe.”
Pater added that the Workers’ Rights Amendment would give power to workers, not corporations. “[It] just provides a boon to those workers who are concerned that they’re going to be fired for trying to organize a workplace, for standing up for themselves, for demanding better wages and safer working conditions,” he said.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.