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Illinois legislative staffers can unionize under a bill introduced by the state House speaker

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.

The move comes after nearly a year of requests for voluntary recognition by employees in offices run by Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch.

Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch has introduced a measure that would allow employees of the General Assembly — including his — to unionize.

The move comes after nearly a year of requests for voluntary recognition by the speaker’s office from employees in Welch’s legislative and research and appropriations units. This proposal would not offer voluntary recognition but provides, for the first time, a framework in state law for legislative employees to unionize.

The unionization push by the Illinois Legislative Staff Association started in November 2022 shortly after the Workers Rights’ Amendment was approved by Illinois voters. It’s a constitutional amendment that gives almost all employees the right to collectively bargain over wages and other working conditions.

At the time, 24 out of 35 employees in the affected units signed petition cards indicating they wanted representation. That number is now 20 out of 38 employees.

Members cited low starting pay and a confusing and nontransparent policy for awarding compensatory time off as primary motivations for unionizing. Workers generally get one hour of comp time for every three hours worked during the spring legislative session — but it’s unclear exactly how the time is calculated. The comp time rules don’t apply during veto or lame duck sessions, which often 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.

The bill creates the Office of State Legislative Labor Relations, which would be led by a director appointed to a four-year term. That person would be responsible for negotiating with a representative of the union’s choosing regarding “wages, hours and other conditions of employment.” It also gives the state panel of the Illinois Labor Relations Board oversight — this was a major sticking point, as the ILRB denied ILSA’s certification filing in March due to lack of jurisdiction.

“Speaker Welch is proud to champion union and workers’ rights,” said Jaclyn Driscoll, Welch’s spokesperson. “Illinois is on the cutting edge of this issue, so that work has taken time to properly research and execute; California, Oregon and Washington have advanced similar legislation very recently, and the work we are doing builds on that.”

Driscoll claimed it became clear to them that voluntary recognition was “not legally possible,” so the Speaker “directed his senior staff to research a change to state law that will protect workers equally.”

Members of ILSA met with management in the Speaker’s office Wednesday afternoon, but not Welch himself.

“We are happy to see the Speaker file this bill,” said Brady Burden, an analyst in Welch’s research and appropriations unit and a member of ILSA’s organizing committee.“We look forward to working together in good faith and coming to an agreement.”

Driscoll expressed similar optimism as she looked forward to “robust discussion” between now and the legislature’s fall veto session, which starts October 24.

If passed, the legislation would go into effect in 2026.

Alex Degman is an Illinois statehouse reporter for WBEZ. Follow him @Alex_Degman

Alex Degman is a Statehouse reporter with WBEZ.
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