The Worker's Rights Amendment would prevent Illinois from passing so-called right-to-work laws. Credit: Rita Liu

Aaron Gyrion lives a comfortable life on the southwest side. The 32-year-old Garfield Ridge homeowner makes enough as a heavy equipment operator at the Department of Water Management to support a family of four on his income alone. He changes out sewer pipes and fixes issues with the municipal plumbing.

“Local 150. Every day, show up, get an assignment, go to the job, do the job, go back to the yard at the end of the day,” he said. “I do what every four-year-old kid dreams of doing: I play with trucks and heavy equipment.”

Gyrion is a steward with the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 150.

“I’ve been on both sides of the fence—I’ve had union jobs and I’ve had nonunion jobs—and head-and-shoulders above it is the union job.” 

He pointed to pensions and health insurance. When he got laid off after finishing a job for private contractors, he could call the union hall to get put on a list and get a call back when another job opened. That gave him peace of mind. 

And he said the wages speak for themselves. Gyrion makes $53.60 an hour. He’s a college graduate who went into trades after earning his degree. He bought his house when he was 25 years old.

Gyrion has been following the only statewide referendum on the November 8 ballot religiously. Illinoisans are being asked whether they want to amend the state constitution to establish a right to labor unionization and collective bargaining. That would prevent Illinois from enacting a so-called right-to-work law, which allows private sector workers to avoid paying dues if they refuse to join a union at their workplace, even if they enjoy benefits secured by the union. 

Gyrion supports the amendment. “I think workers should be free to unionize and the path to unionization should be clear and unobstructed,” he said. 

The state’s powerful Democrats also support it. There is a political committee, Vote Yes for Workers’ Rights, advocating for the amendment but not one organized in opposition to it. The state’s unions support it. 

At the 1970 state constitutional convention, lawmakers considered enshrining labor provisions in the constitution, said Ann M. Lousin, a professor at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Law who authored “The Illinois State Constitution: A Reference Guide.” She was a research assistant at the convention, and recalled a ten-minute debate about putting either a right-to-work or workers’ rights amendment in the constitution; delegates ultimately left both out.

Union membership over the past decade is higher in Illinois (14.6 percent) and in Chicagoland (13.6 percent) than it is nationally (10.8 percent), according to a recent study by the pro-union Illinois Economic Policy Institute and the Project for Middle Class Renewal at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. 

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that nonunion public sector workers cannot be compelled to pay union dues because of the benefits they receive through collective bargaining. 

While the ruling has impacted dues-paying in public sector unions nationwide, membership has not been hugely impacted; in Illinois, that rate has only declined 2.2 percent since 2018.

Meanwhile, Gallup has found that 71 percent of Americans approve of unions—the highest since 1965. There were 58 successful union organizing drives last year, a 60 percent success rate—higher than any other in a decade. Illinois workers under 35 have seen the highest increase in unionization since 2018. 

Credit: Rita Liu

Todd Maisch, the president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, opposes the amendment. Maisch disapproves of the foreclosure of Illinois ever becoming a right-to-work state, and he worries that the amendment would expand workers’ right to strike.

Maisch also worries about “working conditions” being ill-defined. Over decades, “enterprising unions and their attorneys are going to try to expand the heck out of [working conditions],” he said. 

Lousin said that working conditions “have been interpreted pretty broadly in labor laws over the years,” and include things like pensions, health-care benefits, hours, and job duties. 

At the right-leaning Illinois Policy Institute, a libertarian think tank that has received funding from former governor Bruce Rauner and the Koch brothers, Director of Labor Policy Mailee Smith said the amendment “will drive up taxes and cement Illinois’s reputation as one of the worst places in the nation to do business.” 

Smith said “economic welfare” is a legally undefined term. She is also opposed to the state government being unable to consider right-to-work laws, but acknowledged Illinois becoming a right-to-work state is incredibly unlikely.

Lousin said she is unaware of the term “economic welfare” being included in any existing legislation. She said that people should be thinking about whether they want “something this broad” in the constitution, but is herself voting in favor of it, calling right-to-work laws “an anathema, a relic of the 1890s Gilded Age.” She dismissed concerns about taxes rising because of the amendment.

Illinois AFL-CIO President Tim Drea said “economic welfare” refers to minimum wage protections and unemployment insurance. He acknowledged that the courts could define it, pointing to the centuries-long judicial and legislative debates over what the U.S. Constitution means. He recalled the yearslong state budget impasse, largely because of Rauner’s demands for labor law reform, and said the disastrous standoff was “a very, very legitimate threat against labor rights.” 

“These rights that have been obtained through the years through the hard work and sweat of many, many people—we don’t want to just leave them to the whims of shifting political winds,” Drea said. 

The amendment takes codified labor rights “enacted over lax safety standards in factories, schools, and hospitals,” and puts them “in a lockbox and secures them for future generations,” Drea said. “You just never know what a politician will do to the rights that we’ve gained.”

Gyrion said the solidarity that comes with being in a union is unparalleled.

“You’re part of a team,” Gyrion said. “It’s people in your local, in your same union, looking out for you the way that people looked out for them. The expectation is we have to take care of ourselves. We have to make sure that everybody is taken care of and nobody’s being taken advantage of. And that’s not something you get everywhere, and it’s refreshing.”

Legal slavery

People in prison perform essential work, but the 13th Amendment prevents them from being treated with dignity.

Brewing solidarity

Baristas in Chicago are joining a union drive that’s sweeping Starbucks nationwide.