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How you can stand up for real workers’ rights

If adopted by Illinois voters, the Workers’ Rights Amendment would prohibit so-called “right-to-work” laws that try to gut union protections.

An industrial worker cutting metal.
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In November of 2022, voters in Illinois will consider a constitutional amendment banning any law or local ordinance “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.”

If adopted by voters, the Workers’ Rights Amendment would prohibit so-called “right-to-work” laws, which 19 to 22 states proposed each year between 2013 and 2017.

To be clear, “right-to-work” laws have nothing to do with anyone’s right to secure employment. Instead, they have to do with whether union-represented workers can be asked to pay for the services they receive from labor organizations that negotiate on their behalf. By starving unions of fees they would otherwise collect from workers, “right-to-work” laws weaken unions’ ability to win wage increases, health and retirement benefits, and workplace safety standards.

Along with fellow Midwestern Republican governors such as Scott Walker and Mike Pence, former Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner championed statewide “right-to-work” laws. Rauner even went so far as to urge local governments to pass ordinances establishing themselves as local “right-to-work” zones.

Today, 27 states have “right-to-work” laws on the books, including Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana. Despite Rauner’s efforts, Illinois does not. And data shows that Illinois workers and our economy have fared better as a result.

A recent study by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute and Project for Middle Class Renewal at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign compared workforce outcomes in Illinois against those states that had enacted these laws.

Even after accounting for factors such as cost of living, occupation, race and gender, wages and income growth are at least 6% higher in Illinois. More Illinois workers have employer-sponsored health insurance. Per worker productivity in Illinois is 15% higher. Poverty and consumer debt levels are lower. More workers in Illinois own their homes, despite relatively high property taxes. Workforce participation is higher. Workplace fatalities are 32% lower in Illinois. And twice as many Illinois workers are represented by unions than in the average “right-to-work” state.

While some lobbyists have long claimed that “right-to-work” laws help spur economic growth, the data tells a different story.

First, corporate surveys consistently show that “right-to-work” is not a consideration in business location decisions. And second, the ILEPI and PMCR study details how the economies of states with “right-to-work” laws grew 3% slower over the last decade than states that supported workers’ rights to collectively bargain.

Not surprisingly, as the negative economic impact of “right-to-work” has become better known, public approval of unions has surged to its highest level in 20 years, while opposition to “right-to-work” is becoming a rare area of bipartisan agreement.

In 2018, 67% of Missouri voters rejected a “right-to-work” proposal. Earlier this year, 29 Montana Republicans joined 33 Democrats in defeating a proposed “right-to-work” law. West Virginia Republican Gov. Jim Justice recently lamented the failure of that state’s “right-to-work” law to attract new businesses, people and jobs to his state.

And just this week, an overwhelming bipartisan majority in the Illinois Legislature voted to put the Workers’ Rights Amendment on Illinois’ 2022 ballot.

Over the past year, we’ve come to rely on many of our hourly workers as essential frontline heroes who have more than earned the right to bargain for fair wages and safe working conditions. So-called “right-to-work” laws are designed to chip away at this principle. And the data shows that they not only have shortchanged workers, but they have proven to be fundamentally bad economic policy.

By passing the Workers Rights Amendment in November of 2022, our state’s voters can prevent any future governor or Legislature from exacting a similar harm on the hard working people of Illinois.

Marc Poulos is the executive director and counsel of the Indiana, Illinois and Iowa Foundation for Fair Contracting, a labor-management organization.

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