Eye On Illinois: Would pro-union amendment have helped Dems in 2020?

Will Illinoisans approve a pro-union amendment to the state constitution in 2022? It’s certainly worth discussing. Another intriguing question looms: Why didn’t they get the chance in 2020?

On Wednesday, the House followed the Senate in approving for the November 2022 ballot of a constitutional amendment guaranteeing workers the right to unionize. Without analyzing the actual referendum, it’s obvious this issue is important to the labor unions that also are a reliable donor and voter block for Democrats who control the majority of state government.

Gov. JB Pritzker and U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth face potentially challenging re-election bids in 2022. Three Supreme Court incumbents likely will seek retention (Republicans Michael Burke and Rita German and Democrat Mary Jane Theis) while a fourth seat will have no incumbent. It’s smart politics to give union members and pro-labor voters another reason to head to the polls.

But 2020 was similarly consequential, as Democrat Thomas Kilbride became the first Supreme Court justice to lose a retention vote in the 50 years of the current system, falling about 4 points shy of the 60% needed to win another decade on the bench. Kilbride’s total lagged behind President Joe Biden’s 57.54% in Illinois, but it was well ahead of the graduated income tax amendment, which didn’t even get 47% in support.

According to WUIS-FM, International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 pushed to get this question on the ballot in 2020, but Pritzker thought it wouldn’t help the tax change vote. The station also noted the pandemic-truncated General Assembly session likely shuffled the priority deck.

Changing the state’s tax structure was a major Pritzker campaign plank and a speculative cornerstone of most of his short-term plans since taking office. It’s entirely likely nothing would’ve helped a referendum that failed to such a notable degree, but Kilbride was close enough to success an extra nudge could’ve been significant.

Labor was no small player in 2020. Dozens of national, statewide and local unions representing tens of millions backed the successful Biden campaign with endorsements, which presumably translated to votes. That Pritzker’s tax amendment failed anyway speaks more to the unpopularity of the measure on its own than any ballot machinations. Many of the same forces that mobilized against the tax effort are likely to align against the union push.

The political intrigue gains another layer when factoring the strength of organized labor into ongoing discussions about criminal justice reform legislation, a debate that tends to flip the rhetorical tables by putting Democrats at odds with powerful police unions. Perhaps that’s part of why nine House Republicans joined 71 Democrats in placing the referendum on the ballot.

The vote is 18 months off, but the discourse is well underway.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.