Would-be union of legislative staffers accuse Welch of undermining organizing effort

Would-be union of legislative staffers accuse Welch of undermining organizing effort

By HANNAH MEISEL
Capitol News Illinois
hmeisel@capitolnewsillinois.com

SPRINGFIELD – Seven months after Democratic Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch advanced a measure that would allow legislative staff to unionize, members of his own staff on Tuesday blasted the speaker for allowing the bill to languish.

The legislation has not seen any action since its passage through the House in October and the would-be union claimed its attempts to get a meeting with Senate officials have been met with silence.

Read more: House approves framework allowing legislative staff to unionize

In a scathing statement, the Illinois Legislative Staff Association accused Welch of passing the bill “to deflect rising criticism” and feigning solidarity in public while privately colluding with Democratic Senate President Don Harmon to ensure the bill “went no further” once it passed the House.

“Speaker Welch took advantage of our sincere desire to work with him and used it to score political points while continuing to undermine our efforts to organize,” the lengthy statement said. “This whole exercise was nothing but a hollow ruse, meant to gaslight us while we drafted his bills, staffed his committees, crafted his talking points and analyzed his budget.”

ILSA, which is currently made up of staff for the House Democratic caucus, formed in secret in 2022 and went public with its unionization efforts last year. The association then spent the summer accusing Welch of stonewalling its efforts for recognition.

But in September, the speaker announced House Bill 4148, which would explicitly allow legislative staff to unionize – something labor experts warn may not be possible under existing Illinois law. The following month, Welch sat side by side with would-be union members to testify on the bill during the General Assembly’s fall veto session, celebrating the bill’s passage in the full House.

Read more: Welch introduces bill to allow legislative staff to unionize | Illinois House Speaker’s staff could test limits of Workers’ Rights Amendment

Since then, however, relations have once again soured, according to ILSA. The association said it had chosen “to tolerate (Welch’s) political theatre” in the fall so long as “there appeared to be a good faith dialogue between ourselves and management.”

“But now, the Speaker and his team have chosen to spurn our goodwill and abuse our trust,” the association said in its statement, which also included an unflattering comparison to former House Speaker Michael Madigan, who spent 36 years in power. 

Welch’s office responded Tuesday saying the speaker’s “record is clear” on the staff unionization effort.

“He was proud to stand alongside staff to deliver a change in current statute,” Welch spokesperson Jaclyn Driscoll said in a text. “He remains hopeful the bill will be signed into law.”

A spokesperson for the Senate president’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The speaker’s office also pointed to nine specific areas of improvement for staffers within the speaker’s purview since Welch took power in 2021, including near-14 percent pay raises this year following raises last year that averaged to 8 percent.

Legislative assistants have received a 43 percent increase in salary since 2020, according to the office, while research analysts and communications specialists have received 23 percent pay hikes. Base pay for new employees was also raised “significantly” this year, the office said.

The improvements also included “flex hours” that enable staff to make their own schedules when the General Assembly isn’t in session, along with most staffers receiving benefits on their first day of employment. For years, speaker’s office employees needed to work a contractual period before becoming eligible for benefits. For the limited number of staffers who still have a contractual period, the speaker’s office reimburses employees for health insurance purchased before they become eligible for the state’s insurance plan.

The office also pointed to restructuring done to separate the Welch era from the way his predecessor ran the speaker’s office. Under Madigan, many House Democratic staffers were more or less required to take leaves of absence from state employment and go work on political campaigns.

“In 2018, job descriptions didn’t exist,” the office said, referencing the year Madigan’s former chief of staff Tim Mapes was forced to resign after being accused of sexual harassment and bullying by a longtime staffer.

Mapes, who was convicted on federal perjury and attempted obstruction of justice charges last summer, was alleged to have created a culture of fear in a 2019 report ordered by Madigan to examine his former deputy’s handling of staffers. 

Read more: Report: ‘Bullying’ rife in House Speaker’s office

“We’ve also put a real emphasis on mental and emotional health in this office,” Welch’s office said Tuesday, noting the office offers free seminars for staff during the workday “focusing on mental health and overall wellness.” 

The association’s salvo comes just a few days before the scheduled Friday adjournment of the legislature’s spring session.

Asked if staffers were planning a walk-out this week, association organizer and legislative analyst Brady Burden replied in a text message: “If they can’t pass a budget, it won’t be because of us.”

 

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

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