Supporters declare victory in workers’ rights amendment battle — but other side not ready to concede

Six days after the final vote was cast, a state constitutional amendment guaranteeing collective bargaining rights inched close enough to passage Monday that its supporters declared victory.

"Yes for Workers’ Rights!" Gov. J.B. Pritzker tweeted.

But opponents insist it might take another three weeks to know which side has reason to pop the champagne corks.

Joining the governor in claiming victory on Monday were the Democratic Party of Illinois, labor unions and organizers behind the proposed amendment — which would add protections for workers seeking to unionize and stop Illinois from becoming a "right-to-work" state.

But the Illinois Policy Institute, a right-leaning think tank that helped lead the fight against the amendment, wasn’t ready to throw in the towel.

The Associated Press has not yet called the race, but the news organization reported that with an estimated 99% of the votes counted, support for the amendment was at 58.1% compared to 41.8% in opposition.

That’s short of the 60% that would ensure its passage.


But the amendment has another pathway to success: winning a simple majority of all persons voting in the election.

The problem is AP does not track the total number of votes cast, and the Illinois State Board of Elections said it would not determine the total number of ballots cast in the election until it certifies official totals on Dec. 5.

But the Vote Yes for Workers’ Rights campaign insists it’s won. So does the Illinois AFL-CIO. And the Democratic Party of Illinois called it a "historic victory" for workers and working families.

"This is a historic amendment that protects the freedom for Illinois workers to come together and bargain collectively for things like higher wages, more safety protections on the job, better training," Jake Lewis, a spokesman for the workers’ right campaign, said. "And it will also protect Illinois workers from any anti-worker politician now or in the future who seeks to undercut those rights."

The amendment would assure that workers can unionize and bargain on a range of issues affecting "economic welfare" and safety. It also would forbid right-to-work laws for the private sector. Right-to-work allows people to avoid union dues as a condition of employment.

Business groups opposed the amendment but left most of the fight to the Illinois Policy Institute. Conservative megadonor Richard Uihlein gave $2 million to oppose the amendment.

Matt Paprocki, president of the Illinois Policy Institute said in a statement that it’s clear the amendment failed to reach the 60% voter approval threshold.

"That means Illinois has to wait for the final vote count to come in to determine whether the amendment passes with a simple majority of those who voted in the election," Paprocki said.

Opponents argue the term "economic welfare" in the amendment could give union workers too much flexibility when it comes to going on strike, although current state laws set conditions on when teachers unions can strike, such as having tried mediation without success.

"We could see more families abruptly out of school as government workers negotiate contracts and go on strike over broad new terms like affordable housing. And parents would be powerless to stop it," Paprocki said. "The cost of those contracts would then be passed on to taxpayers, and the threat of tax hikes is real."

Proponents deny claims that the amendment will cost Illinois taxpayers more.

"That argument was rejected by voters because it is not true. The workers’ rights amendment is about protecting the freedom for workers to organize," Lewis said.

"And the research shows that when workers have more rights, their wages go up. They spend it in their communities. It’s a boost for the economy, and they are less reliant on government services. So they actually cost public budgets less."