Illinois lawmakers seek to be nation’s first to put job-killing amendment in state constitution

Mailee Smith

Senior Director of Labor Policy and Staff Attorney

Mailee Smith
May 24, 2021

Illinois lawmakers seek to be nation’s first to put job-killing amendment in state constitution

A proposal in the Illinois General Assembly would prohibit right-to-work laws in Illinois, making Illinois the only state to ban worker freedoms in its constitution.

Illinois’ jobs recovery from COVID-19 is among the slowest in the nation, so common sense should tell state lawmakers to avoid policies that could make the state’s economic outlook worse.

Yet a proposed constitutional amendment would take Illinois a step backward. If enacted and passed by ballot measure, Senate Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 11 would incorporate a ban on right-to-work laws directly in the state’s constitution. The proposed amendment passed the Illinois Senate on May 21. If approved by the Illinois House of Representatives, it will appear on the November 2022 ballot.

Instead of focusing on fixing Illinois’ economic woes, politicians are kowtowing to labor interest groups, abusing the purpose of the state constitution, cluttering it with policy preferences and placing Illinois at odds with the more pro-growth policies of the majority of states.

In areas with a right-to-work law, workers in the private sector have the right to form unions, but nonmembers cannot be required to pay fees to a union in order to keep their jobs. Right to work already exists for workers in the public sector following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME.

From a legal perspective, the state constitution is the wrong place to wage a battle over economic policy.

Constitutions exist to establish the structure of government and, importantly, to protect people from the government – not to force one particular interest group’s policy preferences on the public at large. If lawmakers move forward with this legislation, Illinois could become the only state in the nation banning right-to-work laws in its state constitution. The amendment would tie the hands of future lawmakers should subsequent events make them want to reconsider the policy.

A similar proposed amendment in 2020 was thought to be a ploy to drive union turnout in the November 2020 election, which could have affected the outcome of the progressive tax amendment that was on the same ballot. Similarly, the current amendment could be a power play to drive union voters to the polls in 2022 when Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who isn’t polling well, is up for reelection.

State lawmakers have had opportunities to push pension reform and redistricting reform through constitutional amendments, but they instead have focused on amendments to give themselves much greater taxing authority and now on endearing themselves to labor unions.

Currently 27 states – and all but one of Illinois’ neighbors – are right-to-work states. If Illinois is going to compete with its Midwestern neighbors, banning right to work in the state constitution is not the way to go.

That Illinois’ legal landscape repels business isn’t merely theoretical. Rockford-area residents learned this the hard way in 2017, when Toyota and Mazda bypassed the state as the site for a new $1.6 billion facility. One of the main reasons Rockford lost out: the state’s failure to adopt a right-to-work law, as reported by Crain’s Chicago Business at the time.

How many businesses must Illinois lose before its politicians get the message?

A constitutional amendment would mean the General Assembly could never allow right to work for private sector employees without first amending the state constitution again.

There’s a reason no other states have banned right to work directly in their state constitutions. It’s a drastic, politically motivated move, and it has even more severe implications for jobs in Illinois.

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