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A measure to let Illinois’ legislative employees unionize has cleared the House

A man wearing a suit speaks with other men in suits holding microphones.
Alex Degman
Brady Burden, an organizer with the Illinois Legislative Staff Association, speaks with reporters outside the House Executive Committee on Tuesday October 24, 2023.

The bill sets up a framework to let these employees join a union, but those affected are still seeking changes.

A measure that would let Illinois' state legislative employees unionize for the first time is advancing through the statehouse.

Nearly a year after employees in Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch’s office asked for voluntary union recognition, a bill allowing union representation for legislative workers passed the House on Wednesday — the second day of the fall veto session.

“I recognize that this process may not have moved as quickly as [my staff] may have preferred,” said Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside. “But I can still sit here today and tell you that Illinois is at the forefront of this issue. I wanted to be sure, in this process, that we were considering voices outside of just the speaker's staff. We have to listen to all the voices.”

There are a number of problems employees are hoping to address including low starting pay and comp time policies that don’t make sense and aren’t transparent. The starting pay for an analyst in Welch’s office in 2023 was $43,000 annually — lower than the starting pay in other caucuses.

After longtime Speaker Michael Madigan announced he wouldn’t seek another term as speaker and Welch was elevated, he promised better working conditions. But frustrated by the slow pace of change, Welch’s employees first began asking for voluntary union recognition in November 2022, shortly after voters approved the Workers’ Rights Amendment. That launched months of back and forth, ultimately culminating in this legislation. Welch says it has taken a bit of time because it’s a new process with not many examples to turn to for best practices, and because he wanted to talk to legislative workers from across the building — not just his own employees.

“We’re excited to see movement,” said Brady Burden shortly after the bill was introduced. He’s a member of the Illinois Legislative Staff Association (ILSA)’s organizing committee. “We’re looking forward to working with management to make sure the bill that [actually passes] is something that everybody’s happy with.”

The bill creates the Office of State Legislative Labor Relations, which would be led by a director appointed to a four-year term. The office would be responsible for negotiating with a representative of the union’s choosing regarding “wages, hours and other conditions of employment” — a process that doesn’t currently exist for legislative employees. 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.

While Burden says ILSA is happy to see the bill advance, there are a number of issues he would like to address: For example, the bill doesn’t allow employees to be represented by a union until 2026.

“That’s a non-starter for us,” said Burden.

Burden says the bill’s provisions allowing legislative employees to strike also need to be addressed. Instead of requiring unionized employees to provide 30 days notice before going out on strike as initially proposed, Welch agreed to reduce it to five days notice, in line with other state labor laws. But the legislation would not allow workers to walk out during months when a legislative day is scheduled, which covers more than half the year.

“Basically, management is scheduling when we’re allowed to have a labor action,” Burden said. “That kind of defeats the purpose.”

A House Executive Committee hearing this week allowed Welch’s staff a chance to sit side by side with him at a witness table and talk about their concerns on the record.

“We all knew that accepting these jobs meant long hours working with highly emotional topics and juggling a stack of assignments taller than me,” said Kelly Kupris, an analyst in Welch’s office while making a self-deprecating joke about her physical height.

“We know there will be challenges that are inherent to the experience of legislative staff, but we are experiencing conditions that are not typical or healthy, nor sustainable for making a livelihood.”

Speaker Welch filed an amendment later that night addressing some — but not all — of employees’ concerns.

In the revised measure, the Office of State Legislative Labor Relations would be created in 2025 — but the effective date for the rest of the measure, 2026, remains intact.

The amendment also takes out language about fair share fees, which were deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Janus case, and cleans up various drafting errors, typos and inconsistent use of gendered language.

“We still have some stuff to iron out, but we are confident that any differences are within reach,” said Brady Burden, a member of ILSA’s organizing committee. “We are appreciative of the lines of communication speaker and his aides have opened, and hope to cultivate a similar relationship with [Senate] President Don Harmon going forward.”

The bill passed the House and will now make its way to the Senate, where its fate is uncertain.

“We look forward to reviewing the proposal,” said John Patterson, Harmon’s spokesperson.

Alex Degman is a Statehouse reporter with WBEZ.