Peoria union leader touts benefits of a Workers’ Rights Amendment, but opponent says it would be costly for Illinois taxpayers and businesses
A proposed Workers’ Rights Amendment to the state constitution on the November ballot would guarantee Illinois workers the “fundamental right” to collectively bargain for agreements on wages, hours and working conditions.
If it passes, Illinois would be among just a handful of states that guarantee the right to collective bargaining. It comes as a new Gallup poll shows support for labor unions in the U.S. is at a 57-year high.
Union leaders see the amendment as a significant opportunity to improve working conditions, while opponents believe it would lead to higher taxes and have a detrimental effect on businesses.
Lisa Uphoff is president of the Peoria-based West Central Illinois Labor Council and a field service director for the Illinois Federation of Teachers. She says the primary intent of the amendment is to give employees a stronger voice in the workplace.
“Who can talk about the work that they do better than the people who are actually performing the work, right? I think that it can lead to more safety in the workplace; I think it can lead to better means of production or more efficiency, if the people who actually do the work are consulted. I really think that's what it's all about is having a voice at work,” said Uphoff.
Opposition to the Workers’ Rights Amendment is being led in part by the Illinois Policy Institute, a libertarian advocacy group that supports many conservative causes. Mailee Smith is the group's director of labor policy, and she lives in Greater Peoria. She tried to keep the amendment off the ballot but lost that challenge in the courts.
Calling the proposal “a beast of an amendment,” Smith says its supporters are misleading voters about what it does and who it would impact. She describes it as a potentially radical change to the Illinois Constitution.
“One of the things that it does is provide a fundamental right to organize, to unionize, but it's only for public sector workers. People are being misled into thinking that this is going to apply to all private sector and it doesn't,” said Smith.
“It expands bargaining to include subjects that aren't traditionally bargained for. Wages, hours, terms and conditions of employment – those are very typical things to negotiate. But this amendment goes beyond that and expands it to new subjects that have never been bargained before in this type of environment, and it also prohibits lawmakers from ever changing that.”
Smith says the amendment would lead to an “endless loop” of expanded demands from public sector unions, governments caving to more expensive contract agreements, and higher property taxes for residents – with the Illinois Policy Institute estimating an average annual increase of $2,100 over the next four years.
“Taxes will definitely go up and that is the bottom threshold,” said Smith. “We would likely see taxes go up even more, because government unions will be able to demand more and those demands will cost money.”
Uphoff calls that argument “a strong stretch” because they don’t take into account that two sides are involved in collective bargaining and assumes unions will “run amok.”
“I guess their argument is suggesting that unions are going to be so successful, that the only way to have enough money to pay the workers is to raise taxes. But that leaves out an important step, and that is the professionals or the supervisors or the state employees, superintendents or (whoever) it is you're bargaining with,” said Uphoff.
Some proponents believe the amendment’s vague language opens a pathway to its application in the private sector. But Smith says that would likely result in legal challenges because the bargaining process for private sector workers is already governed on the federal level through the National Labor Relations Act.
“Once the federal government has occupied a space and stepped in and is regulating … the state can't then go in and also occupy that space,” said Smith. “So what the state of Illinois is trying to do through Amendment 1 is something that they cannot do.
“What is going to result is patchwork litigation across the state that will create havoc for the business community (and) for private employers until there is that ultimate court decision that says, ‘Oh, Illinois overstepped its bounds. This doesn't apply to the private sector.’”
Uphoff also disputed suggestions the amendment will result in trickle-down negative impacts on the business community.
“I think they're making a presumption that all workers would want some kind of law or policy that would be against their business. But why would they want that? Because if the business suffers, thereby that will be passed down to the workers in the form of fewer raises or no raises or a reduced workforce. It's to the benefit of all of us – for the businesses or the schools or the institutions – that we work for to all prosper.”