Voters in Illinois, Tennessee approve dueling measures on union membership

Voters cast their ballots at a polling station during midterm elections. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
  • Constitutional amendment creates right to collective bargaining
  • Voters enshrined 'right to work' law in Tennessee's constitution

(Reuters) - Voters in Illinois have approved a ballot proposal creating a constitutional right to join a union, while Tennessee voters amended their own constitution to enshrine an existing law that prohibits forcing workers to become union members in order to keep their jobs.

Nearly 59% of Illinois voters on Tuesday approved the proposal to establish a constitutional right to collectively bargain over wages, hours and working conditions, with 90% of precincts reporting, according to unofficial results from the Associated Press.

A union-backed group led by the presidents of the Illinois AFL-CIO and Chicago Federation of Labor, which represent a combined 1.4 million workers, spent more than $11 million lobbying for the proposal's passage, according to reports filed with the state.

A group formed to oppose the amendment received a single $1 million contribution from Richard Uihlein, the chief executive of shipping company Uline and a major Republican donor.

At least three other states - New York, Missouri and Hawaii - have amended their constitutions to guarantee a right to organize and collectively bargain. But the Illinois proposal is the first of its kind to be approved by voters.

Meanwhile, nearly 70% of voters in Tennessee on Tuesday voted to enshrine the state's 75-year-old "right to work" law in the state constitution, according to the AP.

Tennessee is one of 27 states with right to work laws, and is now the tenth state to include protections against compulsory union membership in its constitution. Constitutional amendments are much more difficult to repeal than laws passed by the state legislature.

Right to work laws allow employees to work in union-represented workplaces and receive union-negotiated benefits without being required to join unions or pay dues.

Supporters say the laws protect workers' rights to choose whether to join unions and boost job creation. But many unions and Democrats say right to work laws actually restrict employee choice by weakening unions, resulting in lower pay and fewer benefits.

Republican officials in Tennessee who supported the ballot proposal, including Governor Bill Lee, said it was necessary to protect workers against any future attempts to outlaw right to work laws.

Lee is the chairman of a lobbying group, Vote Yes on 1, formed last year to back the amendment. The group's leadership includes Lee's Republican predecessor, Bill Haslam, Republican members of Congress, trade group representatives and a lobbyist from snack food maker McKee Foods.

Vote Yes on 1 received more than $200,000 in donations, largely from individuals, small businesses and the campaigns of Republican elected officials, according to disclosure reports.

A group formed to oppose the ballot proposal reported raising $43,000, including donations from affiliates of the Service Employees International Union.

A Democrat-backed bill in Congress, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives last year but has stalled in the Senate, would invalidate state right to work laws.

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.