On November 8, voters in Illinois took to the polls to approve the addition of Amendment 1, also known as the “Workers’ Rights Amendment,” to their state Constitution. The amendment guarantees the fundamental right to to organize and collectively bargain for Illinois workers. “No law shall be passed that interferes with, negates, or diminishes the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively.”
In order to be incorporated into the constitution, the amendment needed 60 percent approval from those voting on the amendment or to be accepted by a simple majority of all those voting in the election. According to a New York Times tracker, “Yes” led with over 2.1 million votes with the Associated Press officially calling it on Tuesday. Half of these votes came from Cook County, the most populous county in the state, which includes the city of Chicago.
At the University of Chicago, the largest employer on the low-income South Side, local organizers have spent weeks reflecting on the impact the amendment will have and the struggles that led to this moment. On November 2, the UChicago Graduate Students Union passed a joint endorsement of the Amendment with organizers at Northwestern during a meeting with over 200 members. “This amendment is a milestone in establishing the right to organize as a fundamental right of workers,” said Joe Rathke, a member of UChicago’s GSU studying labor history.
Rathke is not alone in his excitement over the bill. The passing of the amendment has been a beacon of hope for organizers in Hyde Park and beyond. “When workers vote, workers win,” wrote Vote Yes for Workers’ Rights. “Illinois will have the strongest worker protections in the nation.” The amendment is a historic moment for organized labor, particularly in the Midwest, which had been a hostile environment for labor organizing. Recently, the country—and Illinois specifically—has faced a dramatic union resurgence. In Chicago, there are multiple unionized Starbucks locations, which were the first in the Midwest. According to WBEZ Chicago, workers in Chicago have filed 45 percent more NLRB petitions compared to last year. “Chicagoans are organizing their workplaces at a rate the city hasn’t seen in more than a decade.”
This is in stark contrast to many states surrounding Illinois, such as Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan, where legislators have been passing anti-labor “right-to-work” laws. “These laws make it harder for working people to form unions and collectively bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions,” according to the AFL-CIO. Along with Illinois, only three other states in the US have a right to collectively bargain enshrined in their state constitutions—Hawaii, Missouri, and New York—but the Illinois amendment marks the first time a provision would preempt so-called “right-to-work” laws.
Advocates for the amendment spent over $13 million through September 2022, with Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker also voicing his support. But for organizers, preserving the right to collectively bargain within the state constitution has been a turbulent road. Of course, the Illinois GOP fought against it, painting it as a “trojan horse paving the way for tax-increases and unnecessary big government mandates that will harm Illinois businesses.” The editorial board of the Chicago Tribune also wrote that if the amendment passed, they would “anticipate serious negative consequences for the taxpayers of Illinois.” Only four years ago, in 2018, Republican governor Bruce Rauner took the state’s public unions to the Supreme Court to establish that they could not require government employees in Illinois and a dozen other states to pay dues.
But now, Illinois can set an example for how other organizers can secure labor victories in their states. “We have the history of a labor movement that fought tooth and nail for these rights and to protect them from being undermined,” said Rathke. “This is a very Midwestern story.” But the 2022 midterms were not a victory for labor elsewhere. While Illinois voters successfully approved these protections, voters in Tennessee—only a few hundred miles away—voted on their own Amendment 1, known as the “Right-to-Work Amendment,” which also passed easily.
These challenges won’t go away anytime soon. For student organizers, there also remains the ever-evolving definition of who is a worker and who is not. “Our rights are precarious,” Rathke says, as the increasing number of grad student unions have been subject to the whims of the National Labor Relations Board, the federal entity that supervises labor law. But for Rathke, it’s not simply about his union. With Illinois passing Amendment 1, the right to collectively bargain has been strengthened for upwards of 5 million workers in the state. “We’re at a moment where we’re trying to assert ourselves as workers. But we’re not just fighting for our own course, we’re in solidarity in this victory with workers everywhere.”