Unionized workers picket outside of Howard Brown Health Sheridan at 4025 N. Sheridan Rd. last month. A revived ordinance in City Council would mandate large social and human services like Howard Brown Health sign a labor peace agreement promising not to engage in union busting. (Illinois Nurses Association)

An ordinance that establishes a labor peace agreement between human services providers and workers passed in the City Council on Wednesday after sitting idle for more than three years. 

The Human Service Workforce Advancement Agreement mandates organizations receiving city funding with 20 or more employees remain neutral if its employees choose to seek union representation. 

In return, labor organizations and its members are prohibited from engaging in work stoppages, boycotts or any other actions that could hinder essential services from being delivered. 

The lead up to its passage was highly contentious as human services providers painted a grim forecast, saying the ordinance would trigger an exodus of vital services for an already vulnerable population. The reason for that, some argued, was the cost associated with the ordinance.

Juan Carlos Linares, president and CEO of Association House of Chicago, dubbed the agreement “a reduction in human services workforce ordinance” because of these costs. Linares admitted to never seeing a labor peace agreement before this ordinance and said the vagueness of it left a lot more questions than answers. 

Linares and others stressed their concerns over the economic impact in a joint committee hearing just a day before the City Council overwhelmingly passed the ordinance — 41 to 2.

The ordinance that passed was an updated version that made some modifications, such as excluding hospitals.  

Does the labor agreement actually cost anything? The short answer is, no. 

Is this Chicago’s first labor peace agreement?

A labor peace agreement isn’t a novel idea in Chicago and has already been implemented in other areas of city contracts. 

In 2016, low-waged workers at O’Hare International Airport protested for days claiming they were victims of wage theft and threatened to go on strike during the busy Thanksgiving holiday

Hundreds of workers did strike the Tuesday following Thanksgiving Day, which was organized by the Service Employees International Union Local 1 which involved airplane cabin cleaners, baggage handlers and janitors. 

These were nonunionized workers who went on an unfair labor practice strike. It came on the heels of these workers claiming they were victims of wage theft that totaled $1.2 million. 

In an effort to stave off more unauthorized work stoppages and to improve the wages of airport workers, Mayor Rahm Emanuel pushed hard for an ordinance that would tie licenses for airport contracts to a labor peace agreement.

This ordinance, similar to the one passed on Wednesday, doesn’t force companies to pay their employees a certain wage but would allow the union to access their employees to organize, if those workers choose to. 

“The company doesn’t have to pay a certain wage. The company . . . has to allow them to organize,” former Ald. Pat O’Conner (40th) told the Chicago Sun-Times at the time.

The Chicago Department of Aviation has described its labor peace agreement as not “a collective bargaining agreement, but is essentially a document that eases the labor organization’s path to a collective bargaining agreement in exchange for the labor organization’s agreement that it will not engage in economic interference.” 

More recently, a labor peace agreement was signed between Bally’s casino and several unions. 

Does the new ordinance have a dollar sign attached to it? 

The Illinois Answers Project previously reported on the renewed fight to pass a labor peace agreement during the lame-duck session of City Council. The agreement changed slightly as hospitals successfully lobbied to be exempt from the ordinance.

More notably, the ordinance removed the language that said essential service nonprofits with at least $1 million in revenue would be forced into the agreement. Instead, providers with city contracts that have at least 20 employees will be impacted. 

A coalition of these human services providers tripped over each other to say they respect their workers right to unionize during a joint meeting with the Health and Human Relations and Workforce Development committees, but added the ordinance itself would be too costly without additional funding. 

The truth is the ordinance doesn’t cost anything and doesn’t require how much employers pay their workers. 

It simply states that these employers won’t engage in union busting tactics such as hiring outside consultants to stamp down organizing efforts in their workplace — if those workers choose to do so.

The resurgence of this ordinance is largely in response to how workers at Howard Brown Health were treated during their organizing efforts, which featured mass layoffs. 

Providers also listed concerns of having to search for a union during the joint committee hearing on Tuesday which would take them away from providing their essential services. 

“We have to seek out a labor organization as it’s written in the substitute ordinance,” Linares said during that joint committee hearing on Tuesday.

But that’s not written in the ordinance that passed on Wednesday which says those employers are not required to “recognize a Labor Organization as the bargaining representative for its employees, adopt any particular recognition process, or enter into a collective bargaining agreement with a Labor Organization.”

“It really felt like the definition of gas lighting because we’ve had multiple meetings about this,” Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th), who supported the ordinance, told the Illinois Answers Project. “We have worked directly with all those organizations answering their questions but they keep claiming the same thing, which is just not true.” 

It’s not the ordinance that these agencies fear, Vasquez said. It is the idea of workers having collective power if they chose to organize. 

“Here’s what I believe, unions will be working hand in hand with those organizations fighting for more funding at the state and city level. Vasquez said. “It is in the best interest of both sides and those who need it.”

But all that remains a “big if,” Vasquez said. 

If your workers are doing fine and they don’t care to organize, then they won’t,” Vasquez said. “But nothing motivates workers more to organize than being treated unfairly, I believe.” 

Manny Ramos is a former solutions and accountability reporter at the Illinois Answers Project.