© 2024 WGLT
A public service of Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Illinois’ House speaker, an ally to organized labor, faces a push from his own employees to unionize

Chris Welch speaks
Merlin Mather Photo
Illinois House Speaker Chris Welch speaks at the McLean County Democrats' Obama Legacy Dinner on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022, at Illinois State University.

Employees have formed the Illinois Legislative Staff Association, but Speaker Welch won’t voluntarily recognize them.

Employees in Democratic Illinois House Speaker Emanuel "Chris" Welch's office have declared their intent to unionize citing, among other grievances, low pay and confusing compensatory time off policies. The union push is months in the making and has been slowed down in part by caveats in the state's labor laws.

Two-dozen staffers in Legislative and Research and Appropriations roles asked the Speaker's Chief of Staff and Chief Counsel for voluntary recognition in November 2022, January 2023 and again in April, but the office said it won't voluntarily recognize the Illinois Legislative Staff Association.

“After being elected Speaker of the House, Speaker Welch promised that it was a new day in Springfield,” said Brady Burden, an analyst in the research and appropriations unit and a member of ILSA’s organizing committee. “Unfortunately, it has been more of the same for his employees since the beginning of his tenure.”

The group organized independently following the November 2022 passage of the Workers’ Rights Amendment, which guarantees the rights of all employees in Illinois to bargain collectively. Nearly 70% of employees in the Speaker’s research and appropriations and legislative units — 24 employees out of 35 — signed a petition card indicating they want representation. Other employees in the office, like lawyers, human resources and IT, aren’t included.

“Current conditions within our units have led to historic staff turnover, loss of institutional knowledge and legislative expertise, and a failure to attract and retain a staff that reflects the diversity of our state,” said Burden.

Speaker Welch’s office did not offer comment by publication time.

Members cite low starting pay and a confusing and non-transparent policy for awarding compensatory time off as primary motivations for unionizing. Burden said workers generally get one hour of comp time for every three hours worked during the spring session – but it’s unclear exactly how the time is calculated. Burden said there’s a formula that employees haven’t seen. The comp time rules don’t apply during veto or lame duck sessions, which frequently go beyond regular working hours.

Union literature estimates an analyst making 2022's starting annual salary of $40,000 would earn nearly $10,000 more annually if they were paid their hourly rate for the extra hours they work per session week. Members estimate they work an average of 55 hours per week during the 15 weeks of session. That number would be even higher when adjusted for the latest starting salary of $43,000.

“Many of us are forced to take on second jobs or debt just to make ends meet,” Burden said.

An internal survey distributed among potential bargaining unit members showed 79% of respondents don’t have enough savings to cover an emergency and 84% of respondents were struggling to pay bills. Of those surveyed, 75% said they likely wouldn’t stay on staff longer than two years without improvements.

Burden and other members also talked about rigid working environments where employees are required to stay in the office – if there’s work to be done or not – until they’re dismissed. When lawmakers aren’t in session during the summer, staff is still required to come to the capitol five days a week. Union organizers would like to implement a rotating system of hybrid work that allows employees a more flexible schedule, yet still maintains in-office staffing.

ILSA organized independently outside of well known national groups like AFSCME, AFL-CIO and other public sector unions because of conflict of interest fears. Those unions are in Springfield advocating for legislation that their potential members would be working on.

The road to have their union officially recognized remains unclear.

The Speaker’s Chief Counsel, James Hartmann, in an email to unit members on May 1, told them the Speaker would not voluntarily recognize the union because that would deny an opportunity for a democratic election. ILSA in response contended a separate election isn’t required as a majority of would-be members are in support.

Organizers filed for certification with the Illinois Labor Relations Board in January, but were denied March 29. The board said it cannot approve of the union's filings because of a caveat in state law that says the board doesn’t cover General Assembly employees.

Such denials may force organizers to challenge the lack of union recognition in court.

Dr. Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, said this is uncharted territory.

“There would seem to necessitate perhaps another body to administer this, otherwise you're going into court to enforce bargaining rights, " he said.

Bruno also suggested amending current labor laws to include General Assembly employees.

“We have the right to do this [in Illinois], the ‘how’ remains to be seen,” said Burden. “We love our jobs and are committed to working with Speaker Welch to better serve the people of Illinois.”

Alex Degman is a Statehouse reporter with WBEZ.