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Illinois residents sue to block vote on labor rights amendment

Represented by a conservative nonprofit law firm, four Illinoisans are looking to keep a proposed expansion to collective bargaining rights off the November ballot.

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (CN) — A group of Cook County residents filed suit against the Illinois State Board of Elections on Thursday, seeking to keep a proposed labor rights amendment to the state constitution off the November general election ballot.

The four plaintiffs claim the proposed change, known as the Illinois Right to Collective Bargaining Amendment, is preempted by federal labor law.

"Petitioners’ complaint seeks to prevent Respondents—the Illinois State Board of Elections and its members, the Illinois Secretary of State, and the Illinois Comptroller—from using public funds to place the 'Illinois Right to Collective Bargaining Amendment' on the November 2022 general election ballot because the proposed Amendment is preempted by the National Labor Relations Act and therefore violates the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution," the lawsuit states.

A resolution to put the amendment to voters passed both chambers of the Illinois Legislature in May 2021. It was sponsored mostly by Democrats, with the support of a handful of Republicans. The proposal also earned the support of 90 labor unions and worker organizations throughout the state, including the Illinois chapter of the AFL-CIO. It was opposed by the majority of state Republicans, along with dozens of private businesses, contractors and the Illinois Chamber of Commerce.

The plaintiffs in the suit argue the amendment would unduly provide more robust collective bargaining rights for workers than is outlined in the NLRA. They especially oppose language stating that employees have the right to bargain "to protect their economic welfare," a more general allowance than is granted by NLRA phraseology.

They also criticize the amendment for, among other things, not including any language regarding "exclusive representation." This stipulation in the NLRA states that the union representing the majority of workers in a workplace shall be the exclusive representative for that workplace.

State Representative Marcus Evans, a Chicago Democrat who was the chief House co-sponsor of the amendment, defended its language on Thursday. In an interview, he also said that litigation of this kind is to be expected from opposing interests, but that he trusts the state court system to resolve the issue fairly.

"I think we used good phraseology" in the amendment, Evans said. "We just have to wait it out."

Evans said in 2021 that he hoped the amendment would prevent right-to-work policies – which he called "pitiful, ridiculous laws" – from taking root in Illinois as they had in neighboring states. Right-to-work laws, which ban employers from requiring union membership as a condition of employment, are generally seen by unions and labor organizations as harmful to workers. A 2021 study by the nonprofit Illinois Economic Policy Institute found that workers in right-to-work states generally had lower hourly wages, less health insurance coverage and less retirement security.

"It sets a bar that we will in the state of Illinois oppose right-to-work legislation,” Evans said last year.

Illinois Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Todd Maisch disagrees with Evans, saying Thursday that the amendment is "a way to shield unions from bringing their case before the state legislature and the people."

"It's an unbalanced solution to an economic issue," Maisch said. "The trend is toward right-to-work [in neighboring states], and that issue should be taken before the state legislature, not enshrined in the state constitution."

State Senator Ram Villivalam, a Chicago Democrat who first introduced the amendment to the state legislature, said enshrining workers’ collective bargaining rights in the constitution is exactly what Illinois should do.

“All the constitutional amendment does is ensure that Illinois doesn’t go backwards… We’re going to have substantive debate over worker rights and things like the gig economy,” Villivalam said in a phone call. “But we have to make sure we don’t go backwards after workers have given so much to the state during the pandemic.”

The plaintiffs in the suit, all of whom have been featured on the website of libertarian nonprofit Illinois Policy, another opponent of the measure, are represented by the conservative nonprofit law firm the Liberty Justice Center. In a press release accompanying the suit's filing in Sangamon County, attorneys with the LJC claimed to be fighting the "union power monopoly" in Illinois.

"Illinoisans who have been working hard to fight against the union power monopoly are now facing a new challenge. A ballot measure, Amendment 1, seeks to strengthen the power of both public and private unions by amending the Illinois constitution to make make collective bargaining a 'fundamental right,'" the statement said.

The firm also specifically singles out the Chicago Teachers Union and its strikes over public welfare in Chicago, rather than solely over wages or working conditions.

"Of particular concern to the plaintiffs is that the NLRA limits the subjects of mandatory collective bargaining to wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment," it said. "In the past 10 years, the Chicago Teachers Union has walked out five times over affordable housing, mental health and other bargaining terms that were not wages and hours."

The union did not respond to a request for comment.

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