DECATUR, Ill. (WCIA) – A new report shows that more workers across the state are forming unions, even though union membership is declining.
There was no shortage of unions represented at Decatur’s Labor Day parade on Monday, from steel workers to iron workers and firefighters.
“I think it’s big to look at the societal impact that the labor unions have had throughout the years,” said Kyle Gorrell, a firefighter with Decatur Firefighters Local 505. “For us, it’s big today because we get to give back to the community in which we work and we live in, so that’s big for us to involve our families into.”
In Illinois, there’s been an increase in the number of workers engaged in organizing unions.
A recent report from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute and the University of Illinois shows that from 2021 to 2022, the number of union petitions grew from 100 to 133.
The number of successful petitions also increased from 60 in 2021 to 72 in 2022, which represents more than 9,600 newly unionized employees. According to the report, those are the highest numbers in the state over the past decade.
“I think right now, there’s a resurgence in the labor movement because of the importance of the issues that they fight for,” said U.S. Rep. Nikki Budzinski (IL-13), who also worked on labor policies in Governor Pritzker’s administration. “So again, for me, it’s about good wages, good benefits, a retirement with dignity, and safe working conditions.”
U of I labor and employment relations professor Robert Bruno is one of the co-authors of the report. He said for decades, workers have grown frustrated because of wages and growing income inequality.
On top of that, Bruno said labor laws created nationwide meant to hurt workers’ abilities to organize unions. Then, the pandemic hit.
“Workers then, during the pandemic, feel even more vulnerable, more exploited, because companies continued to work and generate profits,” Bruno said. “But workers felt really, really vulnerable, and those non-union workers, I think began to think about, ‘Well, how do we protect ourselves,’ and the best way to do it was perhaps to unionize.”
Despite the growth in petitions, membership in unions in Illinois has gradually declined over the past decade. Bruno said part of that has to do with vacancies in public sector jobs, along with shifts in the economy — from one based on manufacturing to one that is more service- and knowledge- based.
“You find a smaller workforce in areas that were more heavily unionized, and a growing workforce in areas that have historically not been unionized or they’re whole new sectors,” Bruno said. “Then you’re going to see a drop in that percentage.”
Last year, voters approved Amendment 1, better known as the Worker’s Rights Amendment. It enshrined the right to collectively bargain in the Illinois Constitution, but the authors of the report say it could take some time before its impact is felt in the state.