Seventy-one percent of Americans now say they feel favorably about unions, the highest level of support for organized labor since the 1960s. Unfortunately, in much of America, workers who would love to be in a union face barriers to organizing, getting first contracts, and collectively bargaining. Even in historically pro-union states such as Wisconsin and Michigan, legislators have passed anti-labor “right-to-work” laws. Backed by corporate interests, these laws prevent employees from obtaining necessary representation in the workplace and deny workers opportunities to amplify their voices in political debates.
After Democrats Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Mark Warner of Virginia refused to sign on as supporters of the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act earlier this year, the bill stalled in the Senate. But union activists have turned to the states, where they hope to elect more PRO Act supporters to the Senate, including Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin, John Fetterman in Pennsylvania, and Tim Ryan in Ohio. But they also hope to pass state-level legislation that would fortify workers at the bargaining table and in communities across the country.
The action on Tuesday is in Illinois, where Amendment 1, the Illinois Right to Collective Bargaining Measure, is on the ballot. One of dozens of important ballot measures this midterm cycle—on issues ranging from abortion rights to marijuana legalization to Medicaid expansion—Amendment 1 is a bold proposal to lock in union rights that could serve as a model for other states going forward.
“A big important state like Illinois enshrining this right to their constitution sends a signal across the country that the right to bargain collectively is a fundamental right,” explains Daniel Galvin, a political scientist and faculty fellow at Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research.
The notion that labor rights should be understood as fundamental is hardly radical. A number of countries around the world express support for workers’ rights in their constitutions. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.” In the United States, the New York State Constitution says, “Employees shall have the right to organize and to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.” And former President Franklin Roosevelt said, “It is one of the characteristics of a free and democratic modern nation that it have free and independent labor unions.” One of FDR’s successors, Dwight Eisenhower, declared, “Only a handful of unreconstructed reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions. Only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of their right to join the union of their choice.”
Unfortunately, Eisenhower’s Republican Party has become a hotbed of anti-union sentiment, which is why union activists in Illinois have moved to amend the Illinois Constitution’s Bill of Rights section to state:
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. No law shall be passed 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 work place safety, including any law or ordinance that prohibits the execution or application of agreements between employers and labor organizations that represent employees requiring membership in an organization as a condition of employment.
Many Americans may think they already have these rights. But, for the most part, they do not. That was made obvious is Wisconsin in 2011, when right-wing Republican Governor Scott Walker stormed into office after the “Republican wave” election of 2010 and immediately began attacking labor rights. Walker and his Republican allies in the legislature initially gutted protections for public employees that had been in place for more than 50 years. Then Walker, who was preparing for a 2016 presidential bid, sought to position himself as the most fiercely anti-union governor in the country, by passing a number of bills that were designed to gut labor protections in the private sector. Walker’s drive culminated with the passage in 2015 of a sweeping statewide right-to-work law.
His presidential bid may have crashed and burned, but Walker’s efforts to undermine Wisconsin unions yielded considerable success.
“In 2000, 17.8 percent of all employed Wisconsinites were members of a union—the 10th highest concentration in the country,” noted a February 2022 report published by the Wisconsin Policy Forum. “By 2021, that number fell to just 7.9%, putting Wisconsin at 28th among states and below the national average of 10.3%. The 9.9 percentage point drop since 2000 for Wisconsin was the largest nationwide by nearly three percentage points, and substantially more than the national drop of 3.1 percentage points.”
Few question that Walker’s assault on organized labor has influenced the politics of Wisconsin, which have swung to the right. This was a big part of the Republican plan. The other part, of course, is that it is now dramatically harder to organize unions and collectively bargain in a state that was a cradle of the American labor movement in the 1930s.
Illinois union activists don’t want to end up in the same boat. So they’ve mounted an aggressive drive to deliver the message that, as Joe Bowen of the Vote Yes for Workers’ Rights campaign says, “The Workers’ Rights Amendment will also protect Illinois workers from politicians who try to pass anti-worker laws in the future.”
Corporate interests in the state have pushed back, with the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and other groups claiming that workers have nothing to fear, even though the Supreme Court’s conservative majority has sent plenty of signals about its interest in undermining unions.
Despite Republican efforts to undermine the referendum, polling suggests that it has a very good chance of passing on Tuesday. An October survey conducted by WCIA, The Hill, and Emerson College gave the “yes” position a nearly 25-point lead in a contest where, to pass, the amendment must win support from “either three-fifths of those who vote on the proposal or from a majority of those who cast votes in the November election, even if they skip this particular question.”
If the amendment is approved, a powerful pro-union signal will come from a state where the great Mother Jones is buried in the Union Miners Cemetery at Mount Olive.
The radical labor organizer who came from Cork, Ireland, to rally the workers of America asked to be laid to rest in Illinois, beside her fellow workers. As for a legacy, she suggested, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”