Executive Director Reports

Vote YES for workers’ rights

Roberta Lynch

Roberta Lynch

Protecting union rights is fundamental to our well-being 

When we think of fundamental rights in our country, we may think of freedom of speech, or the right to vote, or freedom of the press. But we seldom think of collective bargaining.

That’s a somewhat formal term for the right of workers to come together to advance their interests, and the obligation of employers to bargain with them rather than simply dictate their terms of employment.

The guarantee of a voice on the job should be fundamental and universal in a democratic nation like ours. But it is not. Although federal law does pro­vide that right for workers in the private sector under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), far too few are able to exercise it. As the recent experience of workers in Amazon warehouses and Star­bucks coffee shops powerfully demonstrates, workers seeking to have that voice through forming a union are all too often pressured, threatened, bullied, maligned, and sometimes flat-out fired.

A right that cannot be enforced is not really a right at all. And in the case of collective bargaining, the penalties for the kind of toxic anti-union tactics that employers use to block unions are next to nil.

In the public sector, the sit­uation is better in some respects but far from ideal. In fact, mil­lions of public employees in our country don’t even have the nominal right to collective bar­gaining. Because public employ­ees are excluded from coverage under the NLRA, state and local government workers have had to fight for that right on a state-by-state basis. Despite steady progress on that front over the course of six decades, public employees in more than two dozen states where anti-union forces control governorships or one or both houses of the state legislature still don’t have that right today.

It wasn’t until 1983 that we secured union rights for public employees here in Illinois with the passage of the Illinois Public Employee Labor Relations Act. And what a difference that has made! In just 40 years, the lives of millions of teachers, state workers, municipal employees, and countless others have been transformed by having the legal right to collective bargaining— the power to ensure that our employers meet us as equals at the bargaining table.

Compared to states where public employees lack the fun­damental right to collective bar­gaining, wage rates are higher in Illinois for nearly every type of public sector work.

The Illinois-Missouri pay gap underscores the union dif­ference. The St. Louis Post-Dis­patch reported that “at least 200 Missouri residents cross the Mis­sissippi River each day to work in Illinois government facilities where they can make a signifi­cantly larger paycheck for doing almost exactly the same job.”

Hursel King was earning $26,000 a year as a correctional officer in Missouri until 2011, when he was hired for a sim­ilar post in Illinois that paid $45,000. Now the treasurer of AFSCME Local 1175 at Menard Correctional Center, King told the Post-Dispatch that pay is the key reason he commutes 45 miles from his Missouri home.

“Obviously the union makes a big difference,” King said.

But collective bargaining rights are not just about wage gains—they are also about safe­ty on the job, fair treatment, and the quality of services we provide. Sometimes these are gains we make in contract negotiations; sometimes they are the fruit of coming together through our PEOPLE program to push for change in the state legislature, city councils, or county boards. And sometimes they are the result of collective action, an essential complement to collective bargaining, like picket lines, community out­reach, or even a strike.

There is no doubt that Bruce Rauner would have succeeded in his goal of driving down the wages and benefits of public employees in Illinois if AFSCME and our partners in other unions hadn’t brought the full force of our organized power to bear against him. Rauner’s dream was to bring the low wages, poor benefits, and silenced voices that are the norm in states like Ken­tucky, Alabama, Tennessee and Missouri to Illinois by repealing our state’s public employee collective bargaining law. But because we have built a power­ful, unified force that can rise up to fight back when under attack, we effectively repealed Bruce Rauner.

Now there are other threats. The US Supreme Court’s rul­ing in the Janus case that bars fair share fees has given rise to groups like the Freedom Foun­dation that try to lure employees away from union membership (see page 4). Republicans are seeking to gain a majority on the Illinois Supreme Court so they can overturn court rulings that affirmed the constitution’s pen­sion protection clause. And the forces of privatization continue to stalk city and county govern­ments (page 10).

To combat these and many more challenges we know will come, the fundamental right to collective bargaining in our state must be protected. That’s why our union is supporting the Workers’ Rights Amend­ment to the Illinois constitu­tion that will be on the ballot this November. Passage of this amendment would affirm this right and bar legislative action to abolish it.

Union rights are human rights. We’re working every day to strengthen and expand them. Voting ‘yes’ for the Workers’ Rights Amendment is one crit­ical way to affirm just how fun­damental collective bargaining is to our democracy.