Illinois Government-Worker Unions Harm Members

A Chicago Police officer takes part in the graduation ceremony for the Department’s newest class of recruits in Chicago, Ill., in 2014. (Jim Young/Reuters)

They exercise political power in ways that often harm the interests of their members.

Unions were created to protect, advocate on behalf of, and obtain a higher quality of life for their members. They were founded on the premise of demanding fair pay, increasing benefits for workers and their families, and providing opportunities for career advancement. Who could disagree with such noble aims?

Well, apparently, at least some union leaders.

The Illinois Policy Institute discovered during the 2021 Illinois legislative session that government unions had intentionally thwarted three pieces of bipartisan legislation that would have helped their members. Why? Because those bills could have threatened union leaders’ power and influence.

The benefits of these pieces of legislation were clear. The reason they were defeated is clear, too: The union leaders did not want them, and they used their power to get their way.

There is a stark difference between fighting for union members and fighting to preserve the power wielded by union bosses. Illinois residents and the representatives they elect need to remember this and stand up to special interests that work only to gather more power and special treatment.

The three pieces of legislation defeated by pressure from union leaders include:

The Classrooms First Act
Sponsored by state representative Rita Mayfield (D., Waukegan), House Bill 7 would commission a study to review excessive school-district administration costs and recommend certain districts for consolidation. Not one school would be closed, but Illinois could save $716 million in bureaucratic costs. That money could be sent straight to classrooms instead of supporting high salaries for administrators who do not teach any children. With administrative costs per pupil more than twice the national average, there are more high-level administrative staffers in Illinois than in most other states.

And they don’t come cheap. Salaries for top administrators averaged $111,293 last year. That money could be going directly to classrooms. The cost of the average administrator is nearly equivalent to that of two teachers, a problem that the proposed bill sought to overcome.

Despite indications of popular support for the measure, the Illinois Federation of Teachers and Illinois Education Association published materials opposing the bill, and HB 7 failed in a 55–42 vote.

The Nurse Licensure Compact
To date, 34 states have joined a national compact that recognizes licenses for all nurses working in states that belong to the compact. Illinois had the opportunity to be the latest state to join through Senate Bill 2068, sponsored by state senator Sarah Feigenholtz (D., Chicago).

Illinois already faced a shortage of nurses before the COVID-19 pandemic began, and SB 2068 would have allowed more nurses to come to Illinois and quickly help alleviate the state’s long-term shortage. It would have allowed nurses living in Illinois, but licensed in other states, to expand their career opportunities and potentially increase their income and skill set, or to volunteer at an out-of-state camp for children with illnesses or disabilities. Yet after the bill was unanimously passed by the Senate Licensed Activities Committee, it did not receive another vote.

Who opposed the bill? The Illinois AFL-CIO, the Illinois Nurses Association, and the Chicago Federation of Labor, all of which publicly filed notices of opposition. Supporters greatly outnumbered these union interests, with nonprofit faith-based charities that care for the sick and elderly leading the call to make it easier for nurses to come to Illinois, but union bosses had the power where it counted.

Police Disciplinary Reform
Illinois passed significant criminal-justice reforms in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and last year’s accompanying protests, but it avoided what is perhaps the most important step toward achieving real justice: removing the protections that shield police misconduct from disciplinary action.

In Illinois, government collective-bargaining agreements supersede state law, so if police unions negotiate disciplinary policies that benefit them, those policies are enforced regardless of what reforms state lawmakers pass.

This simply needs to change. State lawmakers have introduced legislation to close this loophole, but efforts have been defeated. The usual suspects were among the public opposition, including the Fraternal Order of Police, Illinois AFL-CIO, AFSCME Council 31, Illinois Federation of Public Employees Local 4408, and Teamsters Joint Council 25.

So here are the three recent cases in which union bosses fought against measures that could have helped their members — through more classroom spending for teachers, more nurses to ease the crushing workload in Illinois’s health-care system, and better protection from the bad cops who tarnish the reputations of the vast majority of law-enforcement officers who serve honorably.

Still, the union bosses want more.

Through the proposed Senate Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 11, unions would have unfettered power at the negotiating table, permanently. The amendment would make unionization a fundamental right in the constitution and give them ability to collectively bargain over essentially anything. If their every demand were not met, they could strike.

If voters approve the amendment on November 8, it will be over for taxpayers: no negotiation; union demands win.

The proposed amendment provides that “no law shall be passed that interferes with, negates, or diminishes the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively over their wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment and workplace safety.”

SJRCA 11 offers unions permanent special treatment that would be nearly impossible to change — by preventing the General Assembly from ever limiting the subjects of collective bargaining or striking in the future — and unions are some of the largest political donors in the state of Illinois.

The defeat of the three bills and the bid to enshrine union-boss power in the Illinois constitution are signs that Illinois politicians and voters need to stand up to the power of union bosses.

Power should not reside with any special interest. It should be wielded by Illinois taxpayers, including rank-and-file union members.

Mailee Smith is the staff attorney and director of labor policy for the Illinois Policy Institute.

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