Speaker Welch got union power into Illinois Constitution, now his workers use it against him

Mailee Smith

Senior Director of Labor Policy and Staff Attorney

Mailee Smith
June 3, 2024

Speaker Welch got union power into Illinois Constitution, now his workers use it against him

Illinois House Speaker Chris Welch supported the so-called workers’ rights amendment but won’t recognize his own staff’s union. That union has now filed suit.

Illinois’ constitution includes the most pro-union constitutional right in the nation. It grants all employees the right to unionize:

“Employees shall have the fundamental right to organize and to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing…”

Touted by proponents as a “workers’ rights” amendment, Amendment 1 was supported by Illinois Speaker of the House Emanuel “Chris” Welch and placed on the November 2022 ballot with the aid of his vote. It was later passed by Illinois voters despite warnings it was less about private workers and almost exclusively about public employees’ ability to make demands of taxpayers.

Now, members of Welch’s own staff are suing him for refusing to recognize their chosen union.

According to the Illinois Legislative Staff Association, Welch has failed to deal with his staff in good faith and is “stonewalling” the process. After 18 months of being “rebuffed” by Welch in their quest for unionization, the association and a member of Welch’s staff filed suit May 31 in Cook County.

The complaint accuses Welch of creating “a climate of fear among the Speaker’s staff and among the members of the ILSA” and that he “sought to chill the open exercise” of the plaintiffs’ rights in their effort to engage in bargaining.

It’s the first real test of Amendment 1’s power, and there’s quite a bit on the line. It comes down to this: Does the amendment really mean what it says?

What does Illinois law say?

Prior to the amendment’s passage, Illinois law allowed nearly all state and local government workers to unionize, with some exceptions. For example, lawmakers and legislative staff could not organize. After all, it would be hard for a lawmaker to remain impartial when considering a bill supported or opposed by a union in which he was a member.

But the amendment potentially did away with those exceptions. Its plain language states “employees shall have the fundamental right to organize.” No exceptions are stated. In fact, the amendment goes on to state lawmakers can never interfere with, negate or diminish the right.

Confusion occurs in the interplay between what was already law in Illinois, and how it is affected by Amendment 1. Does the former law excluding legislative staff from unionizing still apply, even after the amendment’s passage? Does a law have to pass allowing them to unionize?

Speaker Welch seems to think so. He filed a bill to provide a legislative path to unionization for his employees. But the bill didn’t pass, and the association claims Welch filed it simply to “deflect rising criticism.”

What is at stake?

Either the amendment means what it says, and everyone has a fundamental right to unionize – or it doesn’t mean what it says. That would weaken the amendment, potentially opening the door for many more exceptions.

From the beginning, opponents warned Amendment 1 was too broad and carried too many concerning implications. Welch is now seeing at least one of those warnings play out.

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