House Speaker Welch sued by staff over union issue

Members of Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch’s staff filed a lawsuit against him on Friday alleging he deprived them of their rights to organize as a union.

About 20 House staff members have pressured Welch to recognize their efforts to form a union for more than a year, leading the speaker to sponsor a measure that would allow legislative staffers working at the state Capitol to organize. The measure passed through the House last year but has since stalled in the Senate.

*”We will not be put off, ignored or gaslit any longer,” the union said in a statement announcing the lawsuit.

Staff members who formed the Illinois Legislative Staff Association accuse the speaker of violating the Workers’ Rights Amendment, which declared forming a union as a “fundamental right” when it was enshrined in the state constitution after the November 2022 election. ILSA and Welch staffer Brady Burden are named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which was filed in Cook County Circuit Court. Welch, who’s signaled his support for the amendment in the past, is the lone defendant.

At the time Welch filed the bill in September that would allow his staff to unionize, his office said that even with the Workers’ Rights Amendment, state law specifically prohibits legislative staff from forming a union, necessitating new legislation.

But the plaintiffs allege that the legislation violates their rights under the amendment by, among other things, authorizing collective bargaining only after June 1, 2026, “and seeks to ratify by law the Defendant Speaker’s deprivation of the constitutional right prior to that date.” They also accuse Welch of violating their constitutional rights by refusing to bargain.

The plaintiffs are seeking relief that includes the appointment of a mediator to “confer with the parties and assist them” in the collective bargaining process and an order barring Welch “from any act to forestall bargaining with the purpose or intent of depriving them of the constitutional rights guaranteed” by the Workers’ Rights Amendment.

“The Defendant Speaker has unlawfully created a climate of fear among the Speaker’s staff and within the ILSA and sought to chill the open exercise by the ILSA and its members and Plaintiff Brady of their right to seek and demand good faith bargaining,” the plaintiffs allege in the suit.

A spokeswoman for Welch said the office has not yet seen the lawsuit and had no comment.

The lawsuit was filed after ILSA in early May released a lengthy statement that placed the blame on legislative leaders for allowing the legislation opening the door to efforts to organize to stall after it was passed by the House.

“It was not voted on, it was not debated, it was not assigned to a committee, it was not so much as considered,” the association said. “And when we reached out to (Senate President Don) Harmon’s staff to begin a dialogue on October 25, 2023, November 28, 2023 and February 9, 2024, we were ignored.”

“The handling of (the legislation)–and the return of leadership to their former policy of stonewalling us–confirms what we already suspected, that there was never any intention of this bill becoming law,” the association said. “It is clear to us that Speaker Welch and President Harmon had an understanding: Welch would pass a bill to deflect rising criticism, and Harmon would make sure that the bill went no further.”

Under the House measure, legislative employees would be allowed to collectively bargain “through representatives of their choosing on questions of wages, hours and other conditions of employment.”

The bill also says the General Assembly would establish an office of state legislative labor relations to manage the interests of the legislature in union-related matters with the employees. It would also give the state panel of the Illinois Labor Relations Board jurisdiction over collective bargaining matters between employee organizations and the legislature.

The proposal’s definition of “legislative employee” does not include upper-echelon staffers such as the chief of staff, deputy chief of staff, legal counsel or other staffers who work in high-profile supervisory roles.

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