After complaints from his staff that he rebuffed their efforts to organize, House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch on Tuesday filed a bill that would allow his employees and other legislative staffers within the state government to unionize.
About 20 of Welch’s staffers late last year declared their intentions to form a union in an effort to secure higher wages and better benefits. The employees, whose roles included research and legislative functions, formed the Illinois Legislative Staff Association, but said Welch refused to discuss the matter with them.
“We are happy to see the speaker file this bill,” Brady Burden, a Welch staffer who is part of the association, said Wednesday in a statement. “We look forward to working together in good faith and coming to an agreement.”
Under the proposal, legislative employees would be allowed to collectively bargain “through representatives of their choosing on questions of wages, hours and other conditions of employment.” The measure specifies that the Illinois General Assembly is not required “to bargain on specified matters of inherent managerial policy.”
In addition, the General Assembly would establish an office of state legislative labor relations to manage the interests of the legislature in union-related matters with the employees. It would also give the state panel of the Illinois Labor Relations Board jurisdiction over collective bargaining matters between employee organizations and the legislature.
The proposal’s definition of “legislative employee” does not include upper echelon staffers such as the chief of staff, deputy chief of staff, legal counsel or other staffers who work in high-profile supervisory roles.
The proposal has seven House Democratic co-sponsors, including Chicago state Rep. Marcus Evans, who heads the chamber’s Labor and Commerce Committee. The bill was first reported Tuesday by Politico.
Welch was criticized by the association for not supporting its efforts despite supporting last year’s passage of the Workers’ Rights Amendment, codifying in the state constitution a “fundamental right” for workers in Illinois to unionize and collectively bargain.
Welch’s office said that even with the amendment, state law specifically prohibits legislative staff from forming a union, necessitating new legislation.
Members of Welch’s staff went public with their intentions to unionize in May, but ahead of the Labor Day holiday they said that Welch, a Democrat from Hillside who became House speaker in 2021, had not been willing to discuss the issue with the group despite requests made over the last nine months.
Until Wednesday, the speaker’s office has refused to comment on this issue when approached with media inquiries from the Tribune, but now says it disputes the association’s characterization that Welch had not been willing to engage, saying his top officials had communicated with the staffers earlier this year and explained how the law didn’t allow them to be voluntarily recognized as a union.
The staffers petitioned the state’s Labor Relations Board, which denied their petition, Welch’s office said, adding the decision meant, for instance, that the staffers would have no avenue to file grievances.
Earlier this year, Welch’s office said the speaker tasked his senior staff to talk to labor experts and research policies in other states that have passed similar legislation, Welch’s office said.
Welch spokeswoman Jaclyn Driscoll on Wednesday declined the Tribune’s request to interview Welch. But she said in a statement that he believes union protections “should apply to workers throughout the (state) Capitol, not just those employed by the House,” noting that California, Oregon and Washington have advanced similar legislation “and the work we are doing builds on that.”
According to the association, the $40,000-a-year starting salary for ITS staff members is more than $4,000 less than it was in 2011 if adjusted to 2022 dollars.
The association said the workload has increased for its staffers, noting there are about 2.9 House Democrats per legislative staffer this year, compared to about 2.5 per staffer last year and roughly 1.9 per staffer in 2021 when the General Assembly was emerging from frequent remote state business due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The association has also said there’s been higher turnover of its legislative staff through 2022 and the group said its average pay is less than the pay for House Republican and Senate Democrat staffers and legislative liaisons in the governor’s office.