Illinois: Where D's Can be Democrats

Last year, I wrote a piece called "California: Where Democrats Can be Democrats", noting that only in states where Democrats control all branches of government do you even have a chance to see what progressive politics might look like. The filibuster in the US Senate means that neither party ever fully has partisan control at the national level. So you have to look at the handful of states with undivided party control to see the real ideology of the parties in action.

Outside of a couple of states in the South (where conservative Dixiecrats are still migrating over to the GOP), there are few states with undivided Democratic control. California was previously the major example, but last fall, for the first time in two decades, Illinois elected a Democratic governor who could, with a Democratic legislature, enact substantive pro-labor legislation. The results this spring have already been stunning.

Looking at the results show what a difference getting full Democratic control of a state can make, especially for workers rights. Here is just a sampling of bills passed this Spring in Illinois:

• In a major victory for low-income workers, the minimum wage will be raised to $6.50 per hour in two steps by Jan 1, 2005.

• A new law now allows public employees to form unions based on card-check recognition, meaning when a majority of workers signs cards, the union automatically comes into existence. Achieving card check union recognition is one of the foremost legislative goals of unions across the country.

• The legislature amended the Illinois Human Rights Act to recognize a civil rights violation for employers adopting or implementing so-called "English-only" work rules.

• The new Illinois Prohibition of Goods from Forced Labor Act bars state procurement contracts from using foreign-made goods produced by forced, convict, or indentured labor.

• New amendment to the Employment of Strikebreakers Act and the Day and Temporary Services Act now prevent employers from contracting with day and temporary labor service firms to replace workers during a strike or a lockout. The law bars labor service agencies from sending workers to job sites where a strike, lockout or other labor problem exists.

• The state now has a Whistleblower Act that bars employers from creating rules or policies preventing employees from disclosing violations of law to state or federal law enforcement agencies.

• An Equal Pay Act was enacted to prevent employers from creating pay disparities on the basis of gender.

• And victims of domestic or sexual abuse are now included in the state's Family Leave Act, giving such victims and their family members 12 weeks of unpaid leave during recovery.

• Illinois enacted comprehensive legislation rejecting the US Supreme Court's undermining of discrimination laws in the name of "state's rights." The new Illinois State Lawsuit Immunity Act officially waives Illinois' 11th Amendment immunity to federal anti-discrimination laws, essentially nullifying those Supreme Court decisions in Illinois. This assures state public workers the right to sue under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

• And the state is investing in 195,000 jobs through funding expansion of O'Hare airport.

And this kind of innovation is not restricted to California and Illinois. Notably, one of the only other states with complete Democratic majorities is Maine, which with a new Democratic governor just passed a major expansion of health care for the uninsured this June. Combining cost controls on hospitals and insurers, an expansion of the state's Medicaid program, subsidies for low-income people, and a plan to have small business buy into insurance at lower rates, the law could become a testbed for national legislation to guarantee health care for all Americans. And the state passed new legislation to extend unemployment insurance to part-time workers, who do not qualify for it in most states.

New Jersey does not quite have uncontested Democratic control, with a state Senate evenly divided between the parties, but last year, the state enacted a project labor agreement law to assure that public works in the state would largely be built with union labor. And the governor early in his administration signed an executive order requiring that all state uniforms and apparel be manufactured in United States factories that meet safety and health standards, and pay a "nonpoverty" wage.

None of these examples mean that having Democratic party control is enough to pass progressive legislation by itself, but it does mean that with strong grassroots activism, legislation that would automatically be blocked by conservative opponents now has a chance at passage. Which is a hell of an improvement over states where divided or GOP control means that there is little chance of passing decent legislation.

Nathan Newman is a labor lawyer, longtime community activist, and author of the recently published book Net Loss [Penn State Press] on Internet policy and economic inequality. Email or see