USW union protest
USW union members in Gary, Indiana march during a protest against U.S. Steel in July 2016. Indiana, like all of the other states bordering Illinois, is a right-to-work state.

Jonathan Miano | The Times of Northwest Indiana

ILLINOIS NEWS NETWORK

More than half of the nation’s states have enacted laws barring forced unionization. In Illinois, lawmakers are primed to make enacting local right-to-work laws a criminal offense with up to a year in jail for the local politicians doing so.

A right-to-work law allows an employee to refuse union membership and still be employed. It’s proven to be a lightning rod on both sides of issues surrounding organized labor. Twenty-eight states have adopted right-to-work laws.

Under Senate Bill 1905, any local official in Illinois enacting right-to-work laws could potentially be charged with a class A misdemeanor. That’s a penalty often given to prostitutes, burglars, and drunk drivers and means up to a year in prison. It’s one step below a felony.

Laurie Reynolds, Prentice H. Marshall Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois College of Law, said taking a step to criminalize state-local disagreements warps the nature of local democracy.

“I have to think that a state court in Illinois would invalidate this as an abuse of state legislative power,” she said. “This is really beyond the pale.”

The General Assembly could vote to override Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto on the bill as early as Tuesday.

The village of Lincolnshire enacted an ordinance creating a “local right-to-work zone” in 2015. The new ordinance was immediately challenged in court and is still ongoing. SB 1905 would void that ordinance.

“Any legislation that proposes to criminalize the actions of legislatures for voting a certain way or upholding a certain type of opinion has severe Constitutional ramifications,” said Jennifer Pahr, JD, Director of Undergraduate Education and Lecturer in Law at the University of Illinois College of Law. “Any type of legislation that attempts to shut that down can have a chilling effect on our free speech.”

Unions criticize the laws as a way to undermine collective bargaining, referring to them as “freeloader laws.” Every state around Illinois has adopted these reforms. They’ve proven to be a draw for businesses because of lower operating costs.