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As Workers' Rights Amendment nears passage, supporters say it will be 'impactful'

Workers Rights Amendment sign
Ryan Denham
The Workers Rights Amendment was prominently featured in the Bloomington Labor Day parade on Monday, Sept. 5, 2022.

Those who campaigned for Workers’ Rights Amendment are cheering its apparent passage, including support from McLean County voters.

The Associated Press had yet to officially call the race as of Monday afternoon, although others in the media have done so. The Vote Yes for Workers Rights campaign says it “remains firmly on track for passage” and has scheduled a media call for Tuesday morning.

The proposed amendment would guarantee Illinois workers the “fundamental right” to collectively bargain for agreements on wages, hours and working conditions. To be ratified, the proposed constitutional amendment needed 60% of the vote, or a simple majority of support from those voting in the election. It appears to have done the latter.

In McLean County (including Bloomington), 52% of votes were in favor of the amendment.

Adam Heenan, president of the Bloomington-Normal Trades and Labor Assembly, said the victory was “extremely pleasing” for those like him who worked toward passage. He said they successfully used a “me plus three” strategy, encouraging union members to convince three others (such as family and friends) to vote yes on the Workers’ Rights Amendment.

“It’s going to be pretty impactful in terms of really helping out a number of people who’ve been misclassified in their working status historically,” Heenan said. “The ones that I think of immediately are all the Walmart workers who’ve been told, ‘You can’t unionize because you’re an associate, not an employee.’ This is just an example of so many who are working people who’ve been prevented legal recourse in the past from forming a union, but now who may be able to should they still want one to be able to form that union in their workplace.”

Jim Rogal of Bloomington does research and education with the Midwest Region Laborers Health and Safety Fund. He’s also a Democratic McLean County Board member.

Rogal said union protections are not under threat in Illinois now, but they were during the Bruce Rauner administration, when the state went four years without a contract with AFSCME, the state's largest public sector union.

“He didn’t follow the law under prevailing wage. He basically followed whatever he wanted to be the law and ignored what was actually in statute,” Rogal said.

Critics claimed the amendment would lead to higher property taxes by enabling public sector unions to extract more government money for wages and benefits.

Rogal called that a scare tactic.

“The majority of municipal and state employees are unionized employees, so this wouldn’t be a radical new shift for most of them,” Rogal said.

The amendment could face legal challenges. Opposition to the Workers’ Rights Amendment was led in part by the Illinois Policy Institute, a libertarian advocacy group that supports many conservative causes. Mailee Smith, the group's director of labor policy, tried to keep the amendment off the ballot but lost that challenge in the courts.

Smith contests that the amendment will only affect public-sector employees, not private-sector employees. She said federal law supersedes state law on labor issues.

One area of potential litigation, Smith said, is the amendment’s language protecting the right to “promote their economic welfare and safety at work.” In an interview this fall with WGLT, Smith said those terms are not defined clearly in the amendment or in state or federal law.

“One line of litigation that we’re going to see potentially is unions trying to negotiate things that are not typically part of their contracts, and when a private-sector employer says, 'No, we don’t have to negotiate over that,' that private-sector union can say, ‘Well, it’s in the amendment. You have to negotiate with us now.’ And the private-sector employer can push back and say, ‘No, we don’t have to.’ It’s those types of disagreements that are going to give rise to litigation in the private-sector context. It could take awhile before we see those types of cases percolate up to a higher court and we get a standardized decision allowing the private sector to know exactly what they’re supposed to do,” Smith said.

Heenan, the Bloomington-Normal union leader, said he doesn’t “think they’re going to have much success at this point” with legal challenges.

“Opponents will always find a way to challenge something in the courts. That has to do with them feeling they don’t have enough people behind them to actually win the popular vote on things, so they’ll take whatever actions they can in the courts to try and reverse course,” he said. “But I don’t think they’re going to have much success at this point.”

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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