Several issues are on state ballots next week, including gun control laws, tax increases, cannabis legalization, and alcohol delivery. In Illinois, residents will vote on Amendment 1 to decide what matters will fall under the scope of public-sector collective bargaining. Expanding the scope of collective bargaining would undermine worker freedom by eroding workers’ ability to set their own terms with employers, while also significantly increasing the cost of government in Illinois.
Illinois already allows government unions to negotiate over a wide range of issues, including wages, hours, and other conditions of employment. There are no limits to the types of employee benefits unions can bargain for, nor any limits on the lengths of contracts. This is in sharp contrast to neighboring states Wisconsin and Iowa, which largely limit collective bargaining to base wages.
Amendment 1 would further expand the set of topics Illinois’s public sector unions could bargain over to items completely unrelated to employment. As the Illinois Policy Institute points out, Amendment 1 expands bargaining to include vague topics such as “economic welfare” and “safety at work”.
As an example of what could be included, the Chicago Teachers Union included the creation of 4,000 housing units for students in recent contract demands. While student housing may be a worthwhile use of public funds, the decision to provide it should not be determined by a teachers’ union. Passage of Amendment 1 could result in similar items unrelated to actual employment being included in other Illinois union contracts.
Expanded mandatory bargaining is also likely to increase costs for taxpayers. Research shows that states that extend mandatory collective bargaining powers to state and local government employees spend $600 to $750 more per person each year than similar states that do not. Expanding the issues that unions can bargain for would increase these already higher costs for several reasons.
First, additional union-negotiated goodies cost money. Going back to the Chicago example, building student housing is not free. Any additional ancillary benefits or perks unions include in their contracts because of Amendment 1 must be paid for by Illinois residents in the form of higher taxes.
Second, it takes time and resources to negotiate union contracts. The government needs to pay negotiators to be on staff or contract with people to represent its interests. The more things included in negotiations, the more experts the government may need to hire. An expanded scope of bargaining also creates more room for disagreement, which can lengthen the process and lead to work stoppages that interrupt the lives of residents. Delays and disruptions cost money.
Expanding the scope of public-sector unions is particularly problematic given the influence they wield over the very public officials they negotiate with. Unions are some of the most active organizations in politics and large political donors. This makes it difficult for public officials to effectively represent taxpayer interests in negotiations.
Public-sector unions often work in industries with substantial market power, if not an outright monopoly, e.g., police departments, fire departments, bureau of motor vehicles, permitting offices, etc. If union employees go on strike as a negotiating tactic, there are often no alternative providers available. This gives public-sector unions additional leverage in negotiations in states like Illinois that allow government employees to strike.
For these reasons, public-sector unions should be restrained, not strengthened.
There is also evidence that unions reduce economic activity by reducing government flexibility and crowding out private sector investment by increasing government spending and taxes. Over the last decade, right-to-work states—where workers are not required to join a union as a condition of employment—had faster employment growth, faster working-age population growth, and smaller tax burdens. Another study finds that right-to-work laws increase workers’ self-reported life satisfaction. Unfortunately, Amendment 1 would prohibit Illinois from becoming a right-to-work state.
Instead of expanding the scope of public-sector collective bargaining, governments should enact policies that increase worker freedom. Right-to-work laws that do not require workers to join unions or pay dues are a good start. Going beyond right-to-work laws, unions should not be given exclusive representation in a workplace. Multiple unions should be free to compete for members and employees should be able to eschew a union altogether to negotiate their own terms of employment.
Unions should also be required to regularly hold recertification elections to ensure that the workers it represents still find it valuable. It makes no sense to require workers to join a union they never voted for, but that is the case in most workplaces today. Regular recertification elections would put pressure on union officials to consistently deliver value to their members or risk being dissolved or replaced by a union that does.
Public-sector unions should be restrained, but private-sector unions can be a useful way to promote dialogue between workers and employers. However, a healthy system of labor unions must allow workers to choose whether to join a union and enable more competition among unions for the opportunity to represent workers. The unions of today restrict workers’ choices by forcing people to participate against their will, and policies that expand the current system would only make things worse.