Illinois Lawmakers Advance Pro-Union Amendment – With Republican Support

Right To Work
This April 16, 2015 photo shows an anti-right to work sign in statue of Abraham Lincoln outside a building where hundreds of union protesters attended a Livingston County board meeting in Pontiac, Ill. A proposal to change the state's constitution would bar right-to-work laws in Illinois. Sara Burnett / Associated Press
Right To Work
This April 16, 2015 photo shows an anti-right to work sign in statue of Abraham Lincoln outside a building where hundreds of union protesters attended a Livingston County board meeting in Pontiac, Ill. A proposal to change the state's constitution would bar right-to-work laws in Illinois. Sara Burnett / Associated Press

Illinois Lawmakers Advance Pro-Union Amendment – With Republican Support

Voters will be asked next year whether they want the Illinois constitution to ban so-called “right to work” laws in state and local governments under a Democratic proposal approved Wednesday by state lawmakers.

The suggested constitutional amendment is surfacing just a few years after Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner aggressively clashed with Democrats in his push for anti-union legislation, culminating in a years-long budget impasse. Rauner lost his bid for re-election to Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker in a 2018 landslide.

Rauner was partially able to prolong the impasse by keeping his fellow statehouse Republicans in line with his agenda, despite their super-minority status in both the House and Senate.

But in an indication that at least some Republicans are leaving behind the Rauner years, many GOP lawmakers have sided with Democrats to advance the constitutional amendment. That reflects possible GOP efforts to make inroads with traditionally Democratic, working-class voters who have migrated to former President Donald Trump.

The move also could be particularly useful for Democrats who want to drive Democratic-aligned union members to the polls next November when Gov. JB Pritzker could be facing re-election.

Pritzker still has not announced whether he intends to seek a second term, though he deposited $35 million into his campaign fund earlier this year. That show of force was interpreted in political circles as meaning Prtizker wants to hold onto the Executive Mansion.

Right-to-work laws let states determine whether workers must join labor unions as a condition of employment. They’ve traditionally been associated with right-leaning states, as the laws can undermine the power of traditionally left-leaning labor unions.

But last week, 11 of the 18 Illinois Republican state senators voted in favor of the amendment banning right-to-work laws here, with virtually no discussion. Those in opposition included State Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, who is running for governor in 2022. So was State Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, who is also considering a statewide run in 2022.

Republicans were slightly more united in opposition to the amendment in the Illinois House, where 30 GOP lawmakers voted against it. They accused supporters of making Illinois less competitive for luring businesses to the state and comparing the pro-union language to the clause of the state constitution that many GOP lawmakers blame for the state’s massive pension crisis.

“This on its face seems like a really nice idea: Collective bargaining rights shall not be diminished or otherwise interfered with,” said Rep. Deanne Mazzochi, R-Elmhurst, noting that very few states include such language in their constitutions. “But just as 50 years later we’re dealing with the negative fallout of an ill-thought out constitutional provision, we should not try to do that again with this one.”

State Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, another possible candidate for statewide office in 2022, was among those who voted against the amendment. Nine House Republicans voted in favor of it, though none spoke out during floor debate.

Amendments to the Illinois Constitution can pass in one of two ways: by getting approval from at least 60% of votes cast on the particular ballot question in the November 2022 elections, or by getting a simple majority of “yes” votes on all ballots cast.

Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @tonyjarnold.