Labor seeks to tighten control over Illinois

An amendment to the Illinois Constitution sponsored by organized labor is quietly, as if on cat's paws, marching toward enactment at the November election. The amendment would prohibit "right-to-work" legislation, and also give unprecedented power to unions where the authority of the National Labor Relations Act is uncertain, such as with charter schools.

Enactment by three-fifths of those voting on the amendment would send a chilling message to American CEOs, who in CEO Magazine regularly rank Illinois as having among the worst business climates in the nation.

With the recent fall from grace of Democratic powerhouses Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan and Chicago alderman Ed Burke (both of whom await trials on multiple charges of public corruption), organized labor has filled the void, becoming the dominant power within the Democratic Party of Illinois.

Sparked by Operating Engineers 150 and its savvy, longtime powerbroker, Jim Sweeney, labor gets what it wants from the Illinois legislature, which at present has the supermajorities in both chambers necessary to put constitutional amendments on the ballot.

Illinois already has strong collective bargaining powers. For example, the state employees' unions sit, in effect, on both sides of the bargaining table in negotiations with Democratic governors like JB Pritzker.

As a result, say my former state agency director acquaintances, the unions largely run state government day to day, through grievance procedures and hiring restrictions. For example, it is almost impossible for a state agency to hire anyone from the outside, say, a hotshot techie, because the opportunity must first go to a state employee. If no state employee is qualified for the job, no problem, the state will train you. Good luck.

An economist friend of mine who has studied Illinois for decades says the amendment is "a real mess."  He worries that almost any labor dispute could become embroiled in litigation, which would often end up before a partisan state high court dominated by Democrats continuously since 1962.  

"Right to work" means that workers cannot be forced to join the union that bargains for them. You would think that a strong, benevolent union would have the support of most workers, though maybe not so for corrupt or ineffective unions. Willingness to pay union dues voluntarily should discipline elected union leadership to be good stewards for their workers.

Like all institutions, labor unions can change over time. Labor unions in America have gone through both their idealistic as well as corrupt phases. What if, 20 years from now, organized labor in Illinois became thoroughly corrupt, and used state constitutional protections to run amok? Public policies should be hammered out among the legislators and governor on the basis of current conditions, not enshrined among fundamental constitutional principles.

In their own propaganda, the unions admit that Illinois job growth has been slower than the national average. Indeed, since 1990, according to a University of Illinois tracking report, the rate of job growth has also been slower than for the rest of the Midwestern states, most of which are right-to-work states.

Illinois should be an economic powerhouse. Jim Schultz, an entrepreneur and former state economic development director, observes that in each of what he calls the six Rs critical to economic development – roads, rails, runways, rivers, routers and research – Illinois is arguably among the top three states. And located smack dab in the middle of the world's largest market. Yet, the state limps along.

Labor has thus far raised $11 million and counting to promote their amendment, while barely a peep has been heard from the business community; funds raised by business to oppose the measure haven't been enough to register on state election reporting forms.

Governors in other Midwestern states are surely fine-tuning their pitches to CEOs around the world, waiting for the likely enactment of this benign-sounding labor effort: "Avoid Illinois, and come to my state." Alas.

Jim Nowlan is a retired professor who has worked for three unindicted Illinois governors. He lives in Princeton, Illinois. This op-ed originally appeared in Crain's Chicago Business.

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