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Illinois House Speaker introduces bill to allow legislative staff to unionize

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker gives his annual state of the state speech and budget address on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, at the Illinois capitol in Springfield.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker gives his annual state of the state speech and budget address on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, at the Illinois capitol in Springfield.

Illinois House Speaker Chris Welch, D-Hillsdale, says he hopes to pass the bill in the upcoming veto session.

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, has filed legislation that would, for the first time in Illinois, authorize legislative staff to form a union and engage in collective bargaining.

House Bill 4148, creating the Legislative Employee Labor Relations Act, comes in response to a monthslong effort by Democratic staff in the speaker’s office to unionize and negotiate wages, hours and other working conditions.

“For a while now, I had some staff approach my office seeking voluntary recognition as a union,” Welch said in an interview Wednesday. “And my legal advisors advised me that Illinois law currently specifically prohibits that. So as someone who believes in workers’ rights, this legislation is my attempt to create a legal path for them to have that right.”

Last year, a group of workers in the speaker’s office formed the Illinois Legislative Staff Association, which has been seeking recognition as a union. Brady Burden, a member of that group’s organizing committee, said in an email Wednesday that the committee was scheduled to meet with management in the speaker’s office later that day.

"We are happy to see the Speaker file this bill," Burden said in a statement after that meeting. "We look forward to working together in good faith and coming to an agreement."

In Illinois, private-sector unions are governed by the National Labor Relations Board while public-sector unions are governed by the Illinois Labor Relations Board. But the law creating that board and outlining its powers specifically excludes employees of the General Assembly from the definition of “public employee.”

Last year, however, the General Assembly passed, and Illinois voters approved, a Workers’ Rights Amendment to the state constitution that that declares employees “shall have the fundamental right to organize and to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing for the purpose of negotiating wages, hours, and working conditions, and to protect their economic welfare and safety at work.”

But Michael LeRoy, a labor law expert at the University of Illinois, said last month that the wording of that amendment could be construed as vague, and it wasn’t clear whether it would apply retroactively to public employees that were already legally barred from unionizing.

As a result, the Illinois Legislative Staff Association had been asking Welch’s office to voluntarily recognize their union. Welch’s comments Wednesday indicated his legal advisors did not believe that was authorized under law.

HB 4148, however, would specifically authorize legislative staff to unionize and it would give the ILRB jurisdiction over collective bargaining matters for staff unions, including authority to conduct elections within employee groups seeking to unionize.

It would establish an Office of State Legislative Labor Relations to represent the General Assembly in collective bargaining with legislative staff. That office would have a director appointed by a Joint Committee on Legislative Support Services.

The bill provides that the General Assembly is not required to bargain over matters of “inherent managerial policy,” including the General Assembly’s budget, organizational structure, and hiring of new employees.

It also provides that any employee in a group represented by a union may be required to pay a “fair- share” fee to cover their proportionate share of the costs of collective bargaining, regardless of whether they choose to join the union.

Until 2018, Illinois government employees who benefitted from the bargaining of the AFSCME Council 31 public employee union were subject to such fair-share fees if they did not join the union. The state stopped collecting those fees in that year, however, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that the fees violated the First Amendment rights of individuals who did not want to join the union.

Welch said he intends to push for the bill’s passage in the upcoming fall veto session, which begins Oct. 24.

A spokesperson for Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of print and broadcast outlets statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

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Peter Hancock