Amendment would guarantee right to collective bargaining
It's pretty hard to get 71% of Americans to agree on anything. Yet that's the historically high share of Americans who support labor unions, according to the most recent public opinion polls.
When you look at what unions deliver for their members, it's really not hard to understand why. In Illinois, union workers earn 14% higher incomes on average, are over 9% more likely to have health insurance, are more likely to own their own homes and are half as likely to live in poverty and rely on government assistance than comparable nonunion workers.
Not surprisingly, a recent survey found that 70% of nonunion skilled and hourly workers would join a union if given the opportunity to do so -- up more than 40 points from what the same survey found just three years ago.
However, joining a union is not always easy to do. Employer interference in union organizing campaigns is still commonplace and consequence-free in most states. Additionally, since the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1946, there has been a determined national effort to tip the balance of economic power away from workers through court decisions and policymaking.
One of the hallmarks of this effort has been the emergence of laws that allow workers represented by unions to opt-out of paying for the services they receive. The effect of these "free rider" laws, which 27 U.S. states have adopted and the U.S. Supreme Court has imposed on public sector workers nationwide, has been to shrink union budgets and the resources they would otherwise have available to enforce standards, negotiate for better wages and benefits or improve working conditions.
Research shows that states that have passed these laws have lower wages relative to other states. This has left workers with less money to spend at businesses in their communities. It's meant that workers are paying less in income taxes and relying more on taxpayer-funded programs like food stamps and Medicaid. And it has left these states experiencing higher rates of poverty, lower workforce productivity and slower economic growth than states that protect workers' rights.
These issues matter not just for workers, but also for employers who need to offer job quality in order compete in today's labor market. Indeed, recent construction employer surveys have shown that firms that collectively bargain with workers are having far more success attracting and retaining the skilled workforce they need to complete projects on time and on budget than the alternative.
To date, Illinois has not yet imposed the same legal or policy barriers to worker organizing that have brought negative economic outcomes to other states. On average, Illinois workers earn higher wages, are more likely to have health insurance, more likely to own their own homes and far less likely to experience safety problems at work.
New research from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute and the Project for Middle Class Renewal at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign shows that Illinois actually added union members last year -- for the first time since 2017. The state saw its highest success rate for new union organizing petitions in more than a decade, with a growing share of women and workers under 35 becoming union members.
These are hopeful signs for Illinois workers, but they are by no means a guarantee of future prospects.
Nearly all U.S. states, including Illinois, currently allow politicians to pass laws that interfere in the private negotiations between workers and their employers. Research on the 27 states that have chosen to weaken collective bargaining provides a cautionary tale.
This November, Illinois voters will have an opportunity to take a different route. The proposed Workers' Rights Amendment would guarantee collective bargaining rights in our state's constitution.
It would put these rights above politics -- and beyond the reach of politicians. And the data tells us that when this happens, our economy works best.
• Grace Dunn is a research associate at the nonpartisan Illinois Economic Policy Institute.