Pritzker, unions herald adoption of Workers’ Rights Amendment

Signing a proclamation that the measure is now law, the governor said, “I am so proud to be the most pro-labor, pro-worker governor in the nation.”

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs a proclamation for the Workers’ Rights Amendment at IBEW Local 134 building at 2722 S. Martin Luther King Dr. on the south Side, Thursday, December 15, 2022.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Thursday signed a proclamation for the Workers’ Rights Amendment at IBEW Local 134 building, 2722 S. Martin Luther King Dr.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Illinois labor leaders and Gov. J.B. Pritzker took a victory lap Thursday, celebrating passage of the Workers’ Rights Amendment with a proclamation certifying that it’s taken effect.

“Every worker from Chicago to Peoria to East St. Louis now has the constitutional right to organize their workplace no matter what,” Pritzker said before signing the proclamation at the Local 134 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union, 2722 S. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

Thanking union members for their get-out-the-vote efforts, Pritzker said, “I am so proud to be the most pro-labor, pro-worker governor in the nation.”

He said the amendment puts Illinois at the forefront of pro-labor states and guarantees rights that can’t be rolled back if administrations or legislatures change. “It isn’t permanent until it’s written into the Constitution,” he said.

The celebration with union leaders included several references, veiled or explicit, to former Gov. Bruce Rauner, who tried to roll back union power by encouraging right-to-work laws. Right-to-work refers to allowing people to skip paying union dues as a condition of employment.

Pritzker defeated Rauner in 2018.

The amendment bans right-to-work for the private sector. For the public sector, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in an Illinois case allows right-to-work nationwide.

The measure gives workers the right to unionize and bargain for wages, hours and working conditions, and to “protect their economic welfare and safety at work.”

Results certified by the Illinois State Board of Elections show 53.42% of voters casting ballots Nov. 8 approved the amendment. The “yes” votes came from 2.2 million out of 4.1 million votes cast.

Under rules for a constitutional amendment, it can be approved either by a majority of all votes cast, or by 60% of people voting on the question itself. By that latter standard, the amendment fell just short, garnering 58.72% “yes” votes.

Labor groups raised more than $13 million to promote the amendment, enough to run ads on TV. While business groups were generally opposed, they left the fighting to the right-wing Illinois Policy Institute. The group had about $3 million at its disposal, most of it from Richard Uihlein, CEO of Uline, a distributor of packaging products.

In a statement Thursday, institute spokesperson Rebecca Susmarski said, “This amendment is ripe for litigation to clarify its scope, something Illinois will likely see unfold over the coming years. At this point, we have not filed any lawsuit.” The group argued against the amendment, calling it a union “power play” that would raise the cost of government and encourage labor to bring public policy goals to the bargaining table.

Much of the labor push, in money and lobbying, came from James Sweeney, president-business manager of Local 150 of the International Union of Operating Engineers.

Robert Reiter Jr., president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, said it was immediately clear to him “how important the amendment would be to first responders, to our tradespeople, public-sector employees, the manufacturing and service workers and to every single person who earns a paycheck in Illinois.

Thanking union officials and members at the ceremony, Reiter said, “We came together like we never have before.”

Tim Drea, president of the Illinois AFL-CIO, said labor must remain on guard for its rights. He said that even as Illinois voters passed the amendment, voters in Tennessee added right-to-work to their constitution.

Signing the proclamation is a formality Pritzker had to perform to announce the Illinois amendment’s adoption.

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