Look before you leap. That’s great advice, especially when it comes to deciding how to vote on the proposed “Workers Rights Amendment” to the Illinois Constitution.
Proponents say it’s solely about writing into the state’s governmental framework “employees’” rights to organize and/or join unions. The amendment’s first 27 words explain that “employees shall have” the right to “organize and bargain collectively” over “wages, hours and working conditions.”
That’s nothing new. But in the amendment’s additional 75 words, it states “employees” can bargain over “their economic welfare and safety at work.” Since “wages, hours and working conditions” already are specifically mentioned, what else does “economic welfare” include? The amendment doesn’t say.
Given that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration establishes safety guidelines that pre-empt state law, what does “safety at work” mean?
If “employees” — everyone with a job is someone’s employee — can organize, does that mean management could be erased from the traditional management/labor picture?
The amendment further states “no law” shall be tolerated that interferes with workers’ rights under the amendment. That means hundreds of Illinois laws establishing management/labor rules would be subordinate to the two-sentence amendment.
It appears rights of private-sector workers would not be covered by the amendment because of superior federal law. So will this proposal exclusively benefit public employees whose rights already are well protected under existing law?
Voters can speculate about the amendment’s meaning. Ultimately, the courts would have to decide one case at a time.
Organized labor’s campaign focuses on the right to organize.
Pat Devaney, the Champaign firefighter who is now the AFL-CIO’s secretary-treasurer, recently wrote in The Chicago Tribune that the amendment provides an opportunity to “enshrine your right to organize and bargain collectively” into the Constitution.
He wrote about labor’s long and glorious history, the importance of winning higher wages at the bargaining table and the need to “fight back” to “level the playing field for Illinois workers.”
It’s clear why labor’s focus is so narrow. Illinoisans understand unionization. Organized labor is a fact of life here and has been for decades. Its political power is vast. That’s not going to change.
But what else is subject to change if Amendment 1 wins the necessary 60 percent super-majority voter approval?
Organizations like the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business oppose the measure because they fear the unknown — how the amendment would be interpreted by judges in coming decades.
Policy analysts at the Illinois Policy Institute and Wirepoints fear that giving public employee unions new, undefined powers will drive up the costs of government, especially property taxes.
But the critics are on the defensive for two reasons.
For starters, there’s the amendment’s feel-good quality of protecting a right that already is protected by statute.
There’s also the matter of cold, hard cash. Organization labor is spending millions of dollars to persuade voters to support Amendment 1. Somnolent business groups got a late start in their opposition campaign and stand to be badly outspent.
One aspect of the issue that hasn’t received much discussion is the wisdom of converting statutory public policy into a constitutional mandate.
Adopting an amendment is the equivalent of putting a strait jacket on public officials. Look how hard Gov J.B. Pritzker worked, how much money he spent and how miserably he failed in 2020 to persuade voters to approve his progressive income tax constitutional amendment.
If Amendment 1 passes, voters will have institutionalized a vague set of rules that will effectively paralyze state and local policymakers who must confront day-to-day problems of government in the real world.
How smart is that? Voters should think long and hard about it.