Illinois Workers’ Rights Amendment sets new bar for state worker power policy: Other state legislatures should seize the moment to advance worker, racial, and gender justice in 2023

On election day, Illinois voters approved a constitutional amendment guaranteeing all workers organizing and collective bargaining rights, setting a new high bar for state labor policy at a moment when policymakers should prioritize empowering workers to address historic levels of income inequality and unequal power in our economy.

The Illinois Workers’ Rights Amendment adds language to the state constitution affirming that “employees shall have the fundamental right to organize and to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing for the purpose of negotiating wages, hours, and working conditions, and to protect their economic welfare and safety at work.” The new clause also specifies that “no law shall be passed that interferes with, negates, or diminishes the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively.”

The amendment’s expansive language creates a legal backstop against two persistent lines of state legislative attack on U.S. workers’ basic rights to unionize: 1) threats to repeal or erode public-sector workers’ collective bargaining rights, and 2) threats to constrain private-sector workers’ collective bargaining rights with so-called “right-to-work” (RTW) restrictions that prohibit unions and employers from negotiating union security agreements into union contracts. Just as importantly, the Illinois Workers’ Rights Amendment opens up promising new pathways for additional groups of long-excluded workers to unionize and pursue collective bargaining with their employers.

Heading into 2023, state legislators in the Midwest and across the country should follow Illinois’ example by restoring workers’ rights after a decade under threat from extreme anti-union state legislation that has already suppressed wages and eroded job quality in many states. Long-overdue action to remove existing restrictions and affirmatively extend union rights to all workers is a first, essential policy step states can take to reverse growing inequality and end long-standing racist and sexist occupational exclusions in existing labor law.

Ensuring full bargaining rights to all workers requires state action because of gaps, weaknesses, and racist exclusions in federal law

Federal law protects bargaining rights of most private-sector workers through the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Yet, states continue to play centrally important roles in shaping worker power both because occupational carveouts in federal labor law leave millions without union rights unless states act, and because even for workers who are covered under the NLRA, Congress has long allowed states to constrain (but not expand) bargaining rights through so-called “right-to-work” (RTW) laws.

The NLRA excludes public-sector, agricultural, and domestic workers from coverage, as well as supervisors and independent contractors, leaving states to set policy on union and collective bargaining rights for these occupations. As a result, collective bargaining rights for various types of public employees vary widely both across and within states, while farmworkers and domestic workers (including millions of direct home care and child care workers) continue to lack collective bargaining rights in all but a few contexts.

These gaps, weaknesses, and exclusions in U.S. labor law are rooted in racism and perpetuate economic, racial, and gender inequality. Following the passage of the NLRA, anti-union, explicitly white supremacist campaigns to limit worker power and maintain Jim Crow labor relations focused on state legislation as a means to constrain union rights via RTW policies, initially in Southern and Western states. These restrictions on collective bargaining rights have since spread to 27 states, and are themselves enshrined in nine states’ constitutions (now including Tennessee, where voters approved a new constitutional amendment on election day 2022).

Illinois’ broadly worded new Workers’ Rights Amendment both affirms the collective bargaining rights of all employees, regardless of occupation or sector, and explicitly prohibits RTW-style legislation that limits bargaining rights. Every progressive state policymaker’s agenda in 2023 should start with taking similar steps to put an end to labor law’s existing gaps and exclusions by guaranteeing full union rights for all workers, regardless of occupation, race, gender, or geography.

State worker power policies that guarantee workers’ collective bargaining rights should be considered top priorities for legislators because they are fundamentally linked to economic and labor market outcomes. Workers in states with stronger collective bargaining rights and higher union density tend to have higher wages than their counterparts in states with weak public-sector bargaining rights or RTW restrictions on private-sector bargaining. Proponents of the Workers’ Rights Amendment pointed out that Illinois workers earn higher wages on average and are also 5% more likely to have health insurance coverage and 32% less likely to die on the job than counterparts in states that constrain collective bargaining rights. Moreover, unions reduce income inequality across the economy, counteract racial and gender labor market inequities, and reduce public-sector pay gaps.

Illinois is at the epicenter of Midwest battles over the future of worker power

The Workers’ Rights Amendment victory marks a decisive response and a potential turning point after over a decade of attacks on workers in Midwestern states where, following the 2010 midterm elections, newly elected Republican governors and legislative majorities prioritized extreme anti-union legislation and litigation. EPI analysis at the time documented a clear pattern of cookie-cutter, anti-union bills introduced in multiple state legislatures and driven largely by politics rather than economics. Backed by a network of wealthy individuals and corporate-backed lobby groups including the Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, Americans for Prosperity, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), these state legislative attacks focused on undermining worker power in both the public and the private sector.

In 2011, newly elected Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker championed passage of Act 10, legislation designed to severely limit public employee collective bargaining rights in a state that had for decades had a strong statutory framework in place obligating public employers to bargain in good faith with employee unions. Act 10’s sweeping changes nullified existing public-sector collective bargaining agreements across the state and stripped away decades of bargaining history. Among other changes, Act 10 prohibited negotiations on any subject other than base wages (while capping negotiated increases at the rate of inflation), outlawed fair share fees or payroll deduction of union dues, and required unions to hold a new election each year in order to maintain legal certification.

Within the next two years, Republican statehouse majorities in states including Ohio, Indiana, Michigan also passed legislation to substantially restrict or prohibit collective bargaining rights of public-sector workers.

States that passed laws mandating permanent, statutory restrictions on public employees’ collective bargaining rights, 2011–2012

State Legislation
Alabama N/A
Alaska N/A
Arizona N/A
Arkansas N/A
California N/A
Colorado N/A
Connecticut N/A
Delaware N/A
Florida N/A
Georgia N/A
Hawaii N/A
Idaho 2
Illinois 1
Indiana 1
Iowa N/A
Kansas N/A
Kentucky N/A
Louisiana 1
Maine 1
Maryland N/A
Massachusetts N/A
Michigan 1
Minnesota 2
Mississippi N/A
Missouri N/A
Montana N/A
Nebraska 1
Nevada N/A
New Hampshire 1
New Jersey 1
New Mexico N/A
New York N/A
North Carolina N/A
North Dakota N/A
Ohio 2
Oklahoma 1
Oregon N/A
Pennsylvania 1
Rhode Island N/A
South Carolina N/A
South Dakota N/A
Tennessee 1
Texas N/A
Utah N/A
Vermont N/A
Virginia N/A
Washington N/A
West Virginia N/A
Wisconsin 1
Wyoming N/A
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