Chicago-area firefighters battle to kick out union

Mailee Smith

Staff Attorney and Director of Labor Policy

Mailee Smith
January 12, 2022

Chicago-area firefighters battle to kick out union

Carpentersville firefighters collected enough signatures to trigger the removal of SEIU as their union, but SEIU is fighting back against their freedom to choose.

Part-time firefighters in the village of Carpentersville are not happy with the representation provided by their union, the Service Employees International Union.

They aren’t alone. In fact, public-sector unions in Illinois have been losing members in recent years.

Take teachers unions. Over 22,000 Illinois teachers have stopped paying dues or fees to unions since 2017. That was the last full year before government workers’ right to choose not to pay money to a union they don’t support was restored by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Janus v. AFSCME case.

But opting out of union membership doesn’t mean a union stops representing a worker. Under Illinois law, nonmembers are forced to accept the representation of whatever union is in control, even if they don’t want to be represented by that union. It’s the union’s right of “exclusive representation,” and it’s a monopoly unions exercise over workers to maintain union leaders’ power.

To get completely free of union control, government workers have to file what is known as a “decertification petition.” The petition must be accompanied by a showing that at least 30% of the workers represented by the union support the decertification action. After that, the Illinois Labor Relations Board holds an election to determine whether the majority of workers want to decertify the union.

And that’s exactly what the part-time firefighters in Carpentersville did. But instead of letting the vote move forward, SEIU has thrown roadblocks in the way, delaying the vote.

That isn’t “representation” – that’s fighting to maintain control over workers who don’t want to be dominated by the union’s agenda anymore.

What’s more, a union-backed proposal to change the Illinois Constitution is set to appear on the Nov. 8 ballot. It would give government unions even more power over workers and other residents in the state.

Disingenuously billed a “Workers’ Rights Amendment,” Amendment 1 would actually place four distinct labor provisions in the Illinois Constitution: 1) a “fundamental right” to organize and bargain; 2) the right to bargain over wages, hours, working conditions, economic welfare and safety at work – i.e., virtually anything; 3) a prohibition forbidding lawmakers from ever interfering with, negating or diminishing those rights; and 4) a prohibition against right-to-work laws.

Taken together, these provisions would give union leaders more power than state lawmakers.

Lawmakers’ hands will be tied. They will be unable to pass any legislation that restricts organizing or bargaining because the provisions would arguably interfere with the “fundamental right” outlined in the amendment.

Just a few examples of the power of this provision:

  • Lawmakers will not be able to restrict the types of things over which unions can demand to negotiate.
  • Lawmakers will not be able to limit government worker strikes.
  • Lawmakers will not be able to clarify what “employees” are covered by the amendment.
  • Lawmakers will not be able to make it easier for workers – like the firefighters in Carpentersville – to remove unions that don’t represent them well.

And perhaps most jarring, lawmakers will never be able to change a little-known provision in state law that allows many government union contracts to override conflicting state and local laws and regulations.

That’s not the kind of power any third party should have over government workers, over elected representatives, or over the voting power and taxes of Illinoisans.

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