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April 15, 2019

Right To Work in Illinois? Not Anymore.

New legislation prohibiting municipalities in Illinois from passing local ordinances banning union security clauses was signed into law by Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker on April 12, 2019. The new law puts an end to an experiment that began in 2015 in Lincolnshire, a Chicago suburb, but it may prolong the national debate over such ordinances if the Supreme Court refuses to weigh in.

How Right-To-Work Laws Work

The core issue that right-to-work laws seek to address is the “union security clause”: a provision in a contract between a union and employer that requires the employer to fire any employee who fails to pay dues or other required payments to the union.

Union security clauses are legal under federal law. But, a state can pass a “right-to-work” law to prohibit employers and unions from including union security clauses in their contracts. When a state elects to be a right-to-work state, employees will not lose their jobs if they choose not to financially support a union. The more employees opt out, the less revenue unions in that state receive from the employees they represent. The United States is divided on this issue. About half of U.S. states, not including Illinois, have a “right-to-work” law.

Can Municipalities Ban Union Security Clauses if the State Doesn’t?

In 2015, the Chicago suburb of Lincolnshire broke ranks with the rest of the state by passing its own local right-to-work ordinance. If other municipalities followed suit, the growing patchwork could have turned much of Illinois into a right-to-work state, even if the state legislature did not pass such a law. This phenomenon has occurred in other states, including Kentucky and New Mexico.

Until Illinois passed the new law banning municipalities from passing such ordinances, stakeholders there had debated whether municipalities should be allowed to ban union security clauses at the local level. Federal courts struck down Lincolnshire’s ordinance, reasoning that only states can pass right-to-work laws. But courts elsewhere in the country have reached the opposite result, upholding other local right-to-work ordinances.

Lincolnshire has asked the Supreme Court to rule on the issue, hoping that it will uphold its ordinance and establish that municipalities across the country can pass similar ordinances. Ironically, at the same time Illinois’ law answers this question within its borders, it may prolong the debate in the rest of the country, because the Supreme Court may now see Lincolnshire’s challenge as moot and refuse to take the case. If so, the rest of the country will have to continue waiting for a nationally uniform policy regarding local right-to-work ordinances.

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