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Union membership in Illinois dropped by 27,000 workers in 2023

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(The Center Square) – Public and private sector unions in Illinois saw 27,000 workers reject union membership in 2023.

Criticizing a new bill filed in the Illinois legislature that would require high schools to observe “Workplace Readiness Week,” Mailee Smith, the Illinois Policy Institute’s senior director of Labor Policy and staff attorney, said unions, particularly government unions, will do whatever they can to ensure they maintain that foothold over power.

“With this bill, it is about getting the kids … early on to give them this information about unionization and this becomes part of their thought process and part of their worldview without any sort of opposite viewpoint being taught to them,” Smith said.

Smith said House Bill 4417 is just one part of the reaction from Illinois politicians to union membership being the lowest it’s been in 34 years on record.

Another reaction from unions to declining numbers Smith said is the passage of Amendment 1 in 2022, which states that no law shall be passed that interferes with, negates, or diminishes the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively over their wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.

“I think Amendment 1 is a part of this reaction to union membership being down. They are seeking ways to maintain their power,” Smith said. “Their power, right now, is through membership and having people pay those dues into their unions so they can fund political candidates.”

Illinois saw overall union membership at 20.8% in 1989 compared to just 12.8% in 2023.

Ryan Otto, an executive board member for Sheet Metal Workers Union Local 1, recruits for his union and said there has been a decline in membership.

“A lot of kids pay for these degrees and learn a lot but they don’t necessarily get a job either right away,” Otto said.

Otto explained his union starts everyone out at about $20 an hour through a four-year apprenticeship and in four years that former apprentice will be making full pay.

“We cover the cost of your schooling and get you your certificates,” Otto said. “All you have to do is be a part of our membership for 10 years. Somewhere along the line everybody was focused on college and your degree and a lot of people just want to do a tech-type job.”

Otto said he thinks the youth needs the knowledge to know what job opportunities are out there.

Otto said he doesn’t see how HB4417 can be geared towards unions only. He said everyone can get out there and inform youth about certain career paths.

“There’s opportunities for everyone to get out there and talk to youth. There are some companies that will take advantage. If the market pays $113- $130 an hour and you’re paying your guy $25 an hour and then charging them out of their own money to pay for insurance … kids need to know there’s options out there where they can make a good living and have their insurance and retirement paid for,” Otto said.

Smith criticized the bill, saying Illinois schools are struggling and that the majority of kids can’t read or do math at grade level. Illinois needs to ensure teachers have enough time during the day to teach the basics, she said.

“Until we are developing children into graduates that can read at grade level … they’re not even going to know how to fill out a form for an apprenticeship. So we need to be focusing on providing teachers with what they need, specifically time,” Smith said.

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