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One Bridge Across Our Political Divide: Workers’ Rights

Illinois is the latest state where voters have supported employees’ efforts to organize and bargain collectively. Across the country, unions enjoy record high approval, and research shows they’re good for economic growth.

Workers picket outside a Starbucks in downtown Los Angeles.
Workers picket outside a Starbucks in downtown Los Angeles on Dec. 22, 2022. The union organizing Starbucks workers declared a strike at dozens of stores, the latest escalation in its campaign to secure a labor contract. (Brian van Der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
It turns out that we are not nearly as incapable of political consensus as we are often led to believe. Though the Nov. 8 elections left many lawmaking bodies as divided as ever, there were kernels of unity to be found in states that put specific policy questions on the ballot. Much has been written, for example, about how abortion rights brought Republicans and Democrats together in states like Kentucky and Kansas. But there were other places and issues where voters reached policy consensus.

Illinois was a case in point. There, beyond the partisan offices of governor, for Congress and for the state legislature, voters were asked to weigh in on the fundamental question of whether to enshrine their rights at work into the state constitution.

The Illinois Workers’ Rights Amendment guarantees the right of employees to collectively bargain for a fair wage and safe working conditions, free of interference by employers or politicians. It was the most popular item on Illinois’ statewide ballot this year: After being supported by bipartisan majorities in both houses of the Legislature, it gained a larger share of the vote than either Gov. J.B. Pritzker or U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, both of whom easily cruised to re-election. It is worth examining why.

Across the country, workers’ rights have been under assault for decades. Well-funded interests have used courts, legislatures and even ballot referenda to impose cleverly titled laws designed to make it harder for workers to organize and bargain for a better future.

Illinois was not immune to such efforts. Its prior governor, Bruce Rauner, made these efforts a centerpiece of his agenda and championed the U.S. Supreme Court’s imposition of so-called “right-to-work” conditions on public-sector workers nationwide.

Collectively, these efforts have not only helped shrink our middle class, they’ve also helped reduce the number of American workers represented by unions from roughly one in three to just one in 10.

For workers today, there are effectively “two America’s.” In 27 states, legislatures have taken action to weaken collective bargaining by enacting laws that, for example, make it harder for unions to recoup the costs of representing workers who do not pay membership dues. In the other 23 states where no such laws exist, job quality is better and more workers are represented by unions.

In early 2021, researchers at the nonpartisan Illinois Economic Policy Institute, together with the Project for Middle Class Renewal at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, explored the differences between these two types of states. Their findings were eye-opening:

On average, the states that supported workers' rights had substantially higher levels of economic growth and workforce productivity. They had significantly better workplace safety outcomes. After accounting for regional price differences and other observable factors, researchers found that workers in states that supported collective bargaining earned higher wages, were more likely to have health insurance, were less likely to be saddled with consumer debt, and were substantially less likely to live in poverty or rely on food stamps. They achieved higher levels of educational attainment and had more access to apprenticeships and other middle-class career pathways. They even had longer life expectancy.

Workers' rights do not necessarily divide Americans by political party. Polling shows unions at record high approval, with majority support among Republicans as well as Democrats. Recent surveys also show most skilled and hourly workers would join a union if given the chance.

Such sentiments are not isolated to public polling. Over the past four years, bipartisan coalitions of voters and legislators in reliably conservative states including Missouri and Montana have defeated right-to-work proposals. West Virginia’s Republican governor, Jim Justice, recently decried his state’s right-to-work law — passed five years earlier — as a failure.

In many ways, the global pandemic has revealed just how vulnerable and under-supported large swaths of our workforce have become. The Great Resignation of 2022 was a reflection of the declining job quality wrought by decades of rigging the system against workers. It also highlighted the important role unions can play in helping employers thrive in any labor market contingency.

Ultimately, the passage of the Workers’ Rights Amendment in Illinois reminds us that the kitchen table aspirations of fair wages, secure benefits and a safe place to work are still among the most unifying forces within our body politic.

It is my hope that more states will follow Illinois and put this issue before their voters, not just because it can bridge divisions within our electorate but because a policy agenda aligned with this sentiment is proven to deliver superior economic outcomes for all Americans.

Marc Poulos is the executive director and counsel for the Indiana, Illinois and Iowa Foundation for Fair Contracting. He also served as counsel for Illinois’ Yes on Workers’ Rights campaign.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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