It’s taken 50 years, but Illinois politicians are on the cusp of delivering the ultimate gift to their most important voting bloc: They’re scheming to enshrine public union power directly into the Illinois Constitution.
A November ballot measure, which its proponents style the Workers’ Rights Amendment, would make Illinois the nation’s extreme outlier when it comes to giving government unions power over taxpayers. If Illinoisans are fooled into voting for Amendment 1, they can kiss parents’ rights, lower taxes and any chance of a state turnaround goodbye.
The amendment would cement in place two distinct classes of workers. The first class, Illinois’s public sector, is protected by laws that guarantee workers’ long-term employment contracts, multiyear salary increases, constitutionally backed lifetime pensions, the power to strike and much more. The state’s unions are already some of the nation’s most powerful. Exhibit A is the Chicago Teachers Union, which has struck or walked out on parents and students five times in the past 10 years.
The second class, made up of private-sector workers who get no such protections or benefits, is increasingly forced by lawmakers to pay for the first class, no matter the cost. The nation’s highest property taxes, the country’s biggest pension debts, stripped-down parents’ rights and nonstop corruption are some of the costs ordinary Illinoisans endure.
It wasn’t always this way. In the 1960s, Illinois government workers lived up to the moniker of “public servants.” They worked for relatively low pay but served the greater good. And they got a pension for life.
That changed in 1967, when state lawmakers legalized collective bargaining for the public sector. Springfield went further in 1973, making it compulsory for governments to bargain with state workers. A 1984 law forced school districts to negotiate with teacher unions, even giving teachers explicit legal protection to strike in case of disputes. Finally, in 1999, Illinois lawmakers made bargaining with police and firefighter unions compulsory and gave those unions the power to force arbitration.
Illinois’s public-union powers are already extreme, according to a 2019 Commonwealth Foundation comparison of states’ public labor laws. Whereas collective bargaining is mandatory in Illinois, states such as North Carolina and South Carolina ban public-sector bargaining altogether. Other states restrict bargaining for certain workers. Texas, Arizona and Georgia forbid their local school districts to bargain with teachers unions. Lawmakers in those states put the needs of ordinary residents before those of their public-sector unions.
In Illinois, by contrast, politicians are going for broke in favor of government unions. Amendment 1 would create a new constitutional right for public-sector workers to organize and bargain collectively. These so-called workers’ rights would be on par with freedom of speech and freedom of religion in Illinois’ Bill of Rights.
Only three states in the country—New York, Hawaii and Missouri—have collective-bargaining provisions in their constitutions. But Illinois would leap past the rights enshrined in those states’ constitutions by expanding bargaining powers beyond wages and hours to include protections for workers’ “economic welfare” and “safety.” Those terms are so broad and vague that they open the door for public unions to bargain over policies such as rent control or defunding the police. Teachers unions could insert radical racial and sex-education curriculums directly into labor contracts.
The amendment also ensures no law can be passed that “interferes with, negates or diminishes” those union rights, effectively neutering future lawmakers who might want to reduce property taxes or restore parents’ rights. Even if a Legislature were to try such a thing, the unions could tie it up in the courts.
Amendment 1 would also ban private-sector right-to-work laws in perpetuity. This would be grievous for Illinois’s economy. Every neighboring state save Missouri is a right-to-work state.
Advocates are lying about what the amendment would do in a blatant attempt to win votes. Private-sector workers, they say, will also benefit from more workers’ rights. But that’s false. Private-sector workers are covered under federal labor laws. The advantages of Amendment 1 would accrue only to government workers.
Americans may laugh at Illinois’s self-destructive behavior, but watch out. Illinois’s political class would like nothing more than to export its ideas to the rest of the country, and they’ve given government unions everywhere a blueprint to follow.
Mr. Dabrowski is president of Wirepoints, an Illinois-based nonprofit. Mr. Klingner is Wirepoints’s senior policy analyst.
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