Election Day in Illinois, November 8, is right around the corner. Whether voting by mail or showing up to the polls in person, the first item on the ballot will ask voters to decide “yes” or “no” on a change to the Illinois Constitution. Amendment 1, also called the Workers’ Right Amendment (WRA), would enshrine the right to unionize and collectively bargain in the state constitution and prevent the passage of right-to-work laws in the future.
At the federal level, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 protects most private sector workers’ rights to form unions, but excludes railroad, agricultural, and government workers, letting states decide labor law in those sectors.
While the NLRA neither prohibits nor protects government workers from organizing, Illinois passed two laws in 1984—the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act and the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act—that explicitly added those protections for public employees such as first responders, sanitation workers, and teachers. Between these acts and the NLRA, most people in Illinois already have the right to form unions, meaning the right to negotiate wages, hours, and working conditions with their employers as a collective, without the fear of retaliation.
If passed, the WRA would solidify those rights in the state constitution, adding additional legal protections. If the NLRA were ever repealed at the federal level, private sector workers in Illinois would retain their right to unionize—and for state legislators to ever attack labor rights, the Illinois constitution itself would need to be amended again.
“Workers need as many channels of support [as possible] during these times,” said Jose Requena, a Chicago Public Schools special education classroom assistant at Edwards Elementary School and SEIU Local 73 member. “Having unions that have the law on their side helps workers everywhere work in safer and healthier environments.”
Experts don’t agree on whether the WRA will extend the right to unionize to workers currently without that right, such as agricultural workers. Democratic State Senator Ram Villivalam, one of the amendment sponsors, said that the WRA would mainly add a layer of protection for public employees who already had collective bargaining rights. But Joe Bowen, a spokesperson for Vote Yes for Workers Rights, a political group in favor of the amendment, has said the WRA would grant “hundreds of thousands” of Illinois workers the right to unionize.
Marc Poulos, executive director of the Indiana, Illinois & Iowa Foundation for Fair Contracting, a labor management organization, said the amendment is intentionally vague about which private sector employees will be affected. Poulos said the ambiguity will ensure the amendment can be responsive to unpredictable future attacks on workers rights, like if Congress were to curtail the NLRA. If the amendment passes, the details will likely be decided in the courts.
The WRA also prevents the future passage of right-to-work laws in Illinois. Right-to-work laws can be traced back to the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947—enacted after a series of massive labor strikes—which weakened the NLRA by allowing states to pass laws that let employees benefit from unions without requiring them to join or pay dues.
Right-to-work laws, which exist in twenty-seven states, make it more difficult for workers to unionize and win organizing fights. The more members a union has, the more bargaining power it has to win things like better working conditions or compensation. And union budgets, drawn from members’ dues, fund things like arbitration, strike support, union staff to negotiate on behalf of workers, trainings, and other operations.
Right-to-work laws make union membership and dues optional, leading to fewer members and smaller budgets, curtailing the unions’ power to improve pay, hours, and working conditions for all workers.
Three other states—Hawaii, Missouri, and New York—protect the right to unionize in their constitutions, but by passing the WRA, Illinois would become the first state to ban right-to-work laws.
Philip Montoro, music editor for the Chicago Reader and chair of the paper’s editorial union, strongly supports the WRA and especially likes that it would prevent “boss-friendly” right-to-work laws in Illinois. “When capital is given the option, it will always seek the market where it can exploit labor most ruthlessly, which kicks off a race to the bottom that hurts everyone but the owners. I’d be happy to see that option taken away,” he said.
The Reader’s union, which is part of TNG-CWA Local 34071 (The News Guild-Communication Workers of America), played a major role in saving the paper from financial ruin this year. When former owner Len Goodman tried to prevent the paper from transitioning to a nonprofit, which threatened bankruptcy, the union and its supporters fought back publicly and pressured Goodman to step down from the board.
Since the Chicago Reader is a nonprofit, it can require that all editorial staff be in the union and pay dues. Besides helping the Reader transition to a nonprofit, Montoro says the union has secured higher compensation, clearer job descriptions, and better work-life balance.
Technically, every state is a right-to-work state for public sector employees. In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that public sector workers do not have to join their workplace union or pay dues—and the WRA cannot change that. The amendment can only prevent right-to-work laws that affect the private sector.
But even that could be an important win for workers. Alec Hudson, a special recreation instructor for the Chicago Park District and member of SEIU Local 73, thinks the WRA could safeguard new organizing efforts by removing the worry that right-to-work laws will pass in the future. “It will protect the ability of workers all over the state to form unions and collectively bargain with employers, and I think it will help secure and expand organizing successes we have seen at Starbucks and Amazon,” he said.
And while the WRA won’t require workers in the Park District to join his union or pay dues, he believes it is vital that all Park District workers get involved with the union, not only to win a better contract, but also “to help raise the expectations of city workers all over Chicago.”
Chicago, like other places across the country, has seen a wave of unionization and strikes. The city is home to six of the nearly 250 Starbucks coffee shops that voted to unionize over the past year, including one in Hyde Park. Amazon workers in Gage Park and Cicero walked off the job just days before Christmas of last year to demand better pay and safer working conditions.
For healthcare workers at Howard Brown Health (HBH), an LGBTQ-affirming health care organization, a union contract was the gateway to better working conditions and patient service. Nurses unionized in 2019 and were represented by the Illinois Nurses Union (INA), which has since expanded the Howard Brown Health Workers United to include all non-nurse employees across all its clinics, three Brown Elephant stores, and the Broadway Youth Center. Employees organized in response to chronic understaffing, high staff turnover, insufficient pay, and other poor working conditions. Shaddiyyah Daniels-Miller, a patient service representative at HBH’s 55th Street location in Hyde Park, says her coworkers are more willing to express concerns and grievances are being taken seriously since unionization.
In September, after four months of negotiations, HBH nurses were preparing to strike when the INA reached a tentative agreement with management. The nurses won their second contract, securing a 5.5% pay increase, $1,500 yearly retention bonuses, unprecedented staffing minimums, and improved health and safety conditions.
“Everyone at Howard Brown Health is fighting to improve patient care. The high turnover and low pay prevent patients from receiving consistent care…They’re fighting for Howard Brown to actually live up to its mission,” said Margo Gislain, lead organizer for INA’s Howard Brown Health units. She said the WRA would give workers the protections they need to keep fighting. “Having union protections in the Illinois constitution would prevent attacks on union member rights and would allow labor to go on the offensive for the first time in decades,” she added.
The WRA could be the first step of many to raise union density and strengthen worker protections across the state. While Hudson is excited by the amendment, he cautioned that the WRA alone cannot end attacks on organized labor, create more rank-and-file-run democratic locals, or push back against political leaders who scapegoat teachers and public sector workers. He believes “only a militant mass movement of working people can do those things, but this amendment is a step towards securing that movement.”
The text of the amendment is included below. To amend the constitution, the WRA will need “yes” votes from 60% of those voting on the amendment or a simple majority of all ballots cast.
Employees shall have the fundamental right to organize and to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing for the purpose of negotiating wages, hours, and working conditions, and to protect their economic welfare and safety at work. No law shall be passed that interferes with, negates, or diminishes the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively over their wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment and workplace safety, including any law or ordinance that prohibits the execution or application of agreements between employers and labor organizations that represent employees requiring membership in an organization as a condition of employment.
Sky Patterson is the Weekly’s Director of Fact-checking. This is their first story for the Weekly.