Evanston union workers celebrate success of Illinois ‘Workers Rights Amendment’


Illustration by Olivia Abeyta

Union members at Chicago State University went on strike Monday. Strikes at Governors State University and Eastern Illinois University are anticipated.

Jacob Wendler, Senior Staffer

Evanston union workers are celebrating as Illinois voters passed an amendment to the state constitution that would protect the right to collective bargaining, which allows workers to negotiate with their employers through chosen representatives.

Amendment 1 passed with 58.4% of the vote. Coined the “Workers’ Rights Amendment,” it did not receive three-fifths support from those voting on the measure, but still passed because a simple majority of all votes cast affirmed the question.

While collective bargaining rights for most private sector workers are already protected by federal law, the amendment will allow all Illinois workers to negotiate wages, hours and working conditions.

Illinois workers can now join their counterparts in Missouri, Hawaii and New York — which have passed similar constitutional amendments — to advocate for their safety and economic interests in the workplace.

Curtis Evans is an Evanston city employee represented by the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Evans said he is glad the amendment will extend the protections he and his colleagues already enjoy to other workers in the state.

“[Unionization] gives you a sense of security like you wouldn’t believe,” Evans said. “It brings that kind of general anxiety level that people have in life … down quite a bit just knowing that if I do my job and I do it well, my job is protected and it’s not based on the whims of supervisors and bosses.”

Unionized workers in Evanston said the amendment is a win at a time when labor rights are increasingly under attack.

The initiative sets Illinois apart from neighboring states like Wisconsin and Indiana, which approved “Right-to-Work” legislation in the past decade. These laws, enacted by 27 states and enshrined in nine state constitutions, prohibit employers from requiring employees to unionize.

Evans said most of his coworkers were receptive to the amendment after they learned about its potential impact.

Conservative interest groups, including libertarian think tank Illinois Policy Institute, campaigned against the amendment, claiming it was a tax hike in disguise.

While the amendment does not mention taxes anywhere in its text, critics claim stronger bargaining power for public sector unions may allow them to negotiate higher-paying contracts that taxpayers would end up funding.

Maria Barroso, who represents hundreds of Evanston and Skokie educators as president of the Evanston/Skokie District 65 Educator’s Council, said she was initially unsure whether voters would support the amendment due to opposing campaigns.

She said the amendment is particularly important for teachers at a time when educators are facing a host of challenges in the workplace, including the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and inflation.

“I think people are very surprised that it passed,” said Barroso, who taught in Evanston and other Chicago-area suburbs for 27 years. “That opportunity to be able to collectively bargain working conditions and compensation, which is what unions do, is vital and important in any type of work setting.”

Barroso anticipates the legislation will take time to make an impact, but that workers will lean on the protections it provides to advocate for themselves.

Local governments in Illinois are currently prohibited by state law from creating “Right-to-Work” zones, and the amended constitution will prevent similar legislation from being enacted statewide.

While supporters of “Right-to-Work” legislation argue that the laws grant more autonomy to workers, opponents see them as a win for big corporations since they make it more challenging for employees to unionize.

Studies from a number of policy research organizations have concluded that the laws are correlated with lower wages and unionization rates.

Dan Philipaitis, vice president of the Evanston Fire Fighters Association Local #742, said that the 2018 Janus v. AFSCME case was a major setback for labor rights in the state. The Supreme Court ruled against an Illinois state employee to prohibit employers from forcing workers to pay union dues.

He said he now feels reassured that Amendment 1 will protect Illinois workers from “Right-to-Work” laws and situations similar to 2018.

“This amendment… allows for the future prosperity going forward,” Philipaitis said. “Knowing that no law in Illinois can diminish our right to collectively bargain and discuss wages and benefits and working conditions with our employers is a huge, huge benefit for us.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jacob_wendler

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