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Illinois legislative staff union sues Speaker Welch demanding recognition

man in glasses looking forward
Brady Burden, 27, is an analyst in Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch’s office. Burden and other members of the Illinois Legislative Staff Association filed a lawsuit Friday against Welch alleging he’s violating their right to organize.

In 2022, Illinois voters approved a ballot measure granting every employee in the state the constitutional right to collectively bargain.

Brady Burden and a group of employees in House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch’s (D-Hillside) office took note.

Burden, a 27-year-old analyst, has been working in the Speaker’s office since 2020 – starting during Michael Madigan’s administration. He said workers at the end of Madigan’s reign and beginning of Welch’s tenure faced poor working conditions, low pay and inadequate comp time policies – but the passage of the Workers Rights Amendment offered a measure of hope.

Members of Speaker Welch’s legislative and research and appropriations units formed the Illinois Legislative Staff Association and kick started what has been an 18-month process to get recognition.

Burden said members have faced pushback by otherwise union-friendly Democrats. Without recognition and certification from the Illinois Labor Relations Board, or ILRB, members are unable to collectively bargain and Burden said they have no choice but to go to court.

ILSA filed a lawsuit against Speaker Welch in Cook County Circuit Court Friday, alleging he’s violating their right to organize under Article I Section 25 of the Illinois Constitution – the ballot measure voters approved.

“Plaintiff Burden and the plaintiff labor organization seek a declaratory judgment that the Defendant Speaker’s refusal to engage in any collective bargaining with his employees or recognize the legitimacy of their individual rights and the rights of Plaintiff ILSA to collective bargaining under the Illinois Constitution violates the constitutional duty of the Speaker to perform or carry out the lawful business of the State,” the lawsuit reads.

ILSA is asking for declaratory relief and wants the court to clearly define what their constitutional rights are, as well as injunctive relief – a court order that Speaker Welch stop violating those rights. The union also wants assurances of their right to organize without reprisal.

Burden said unionization efforts hit a snag from the beginning.

General Assembly employees are among a small number of groups carved out of state labor laws – agricultural workers and independent contractors are also in this category. That means they do not fall under the jurisdiction of the ILRB, which oversees the election unions must hold to be certified and recognized.

ILSA tried to work around this. In 2023, organizers said 70% of its 35 potential unit members signed petition cards saying they supported the efforts, a percentage they believed signaled an election was unnecessary.

But the Speaker’s office replied that it would be undemocratic to forgo an election.

Instead, Welch put forth legislation that would allow all statehouse employees – not just his – to unionize. The bill would create the Office of State Legislative Labor Relations, which would be responsible for negotiating with a representative of the union’s choosing regarding “wages, hours and other conditions of employment” — a process that doesn’t currently exist for legislative employees.

It would also change state labor laws to give ILRB jurisdiction.

“I believe in workers’ rights and will always believe in workers’ rights,” Welch said on the floor last October as the measure was called for debate. “All our staff … thank you for what you do. You keep this place running and help us deliver results for the people of this great state.”

The bill passed the Illinois House that day and landed in the Senate Assignments committee, but the union said their attempts to meet with the Senate were rebuffed and the bill hasn’t moved again.

Burden said May 17 was the final straw – lawmakers’ self imposed deadline to pass bills came and went, and the bill remained stagnant.

“It is clear to us that Speaker Welch and [Senate] President [Don] Harmon had an understanding: Welch would pass a bill to deflect rising criticism, and Harmon would make sure that the bill went no further,” ILSA said in the release.

That it’s Democrats stonewalling these efforts isn’t lost on Burden.

“I have no doubt that [the] Speaker believes himself to be pro labor. And his actions prior to being speaker kind of show that,” he said. “Like, he’s gotten incredibly high ratings from the AFL-CIO and their legislative scorecard in the past. But the act of being management kind of changes that dynamic. And at some point, he has to come to terms with what that looks like.”

The Speaker’s office points to a number of positive changes that were made while ILSA was seeking recognition. A spokesperson said many existing employees received raises ranging from 8% to more than 40%, while starting base salaries for new employees also increased.

They’ve also implemented non-session flex hours, giving employees more flexibility in legislative “off months,” and they’re offering more access to mental health resources.

“The Speaker’s record is clear,” said Jaclyn Driscoll, Speaker Welch’s spokesperson. “He was proud to stand alongside staff to deliver a change in current statute. He remains hopeful the bill will be signed into law.”

Lawmakers this week finished up their business for this year’s spring legislative session. The earliest the Senate could consider the bill would be during the two week fall veto session in November.

Whether the bill moves again or not, Burden and other ILSA members want to use what they see as their constitutionally protected right to collectively bargain for wages and benefits.

“Come to the table, man. That’s all we’ve wanted,” he said. “Like, literally, for a year and a half, we’ve been asking you to sit down and talk to your staff. Come talk to us when it’s not a PR opportunity for you, when there aren’t cameras.”

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Severe storms possible Thursday evening and overnight

From the National Weather Service in Central Illinois: A line of t’storms will affect the area late Thursday afternoon into the overnight hours. Some severe storms are in the forecast, with damaging wind gusts and large hail. Stay weather aware and be ready to take shelter when storms approach.