John O'Connor illustration
McKnight’s Editorial Director John O’Connor
John O'Connor
John O’Connor

Well, they’re just about done counting the ballots in Illinois. And a controversial amendment to the state’s constitution appears to have squeaked through.

As for why that’s something senior living communities might want to pay attention to, here’s why: It could help ignite unionization efforts in the Land of Lincoln, and perhaps your state as well.

The successful amendment makes efforts by workers to unionize and collectively bargain a “fundamental right.” But it doesn’t stop there. The Illinois measure extends protections to “economic welfare and safety at work.” What does that mean, exactly? Frankly, whatever a judge and/or jury decides.

Ironically, the codicil comes at a time when unions are, in many ways, weaker than ever.

At the high water mark in 1954, more than one-in-three workers (almost 35%) belonged to unions. But membership in that particular club has pretty much declined ever since.

By 1983, for example, barely more than one in five wage and salary workers (20.1%) were unionized. The number dropped to 15.7% a decade later. By 2021, it was down to 10.3%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

So if barely 10% of the workforce is unionized these days, it’s probably fair to ask whether senior living operators should be concerned. The short answer: perhaps.

One reason is that a Gallup poll released in August found that 71% of Americans now support unions. By the way, that’s up from 65% before the pandemic.

So why the seeming disconnect between union support and actual membership? I would suggest there are several reasons. Perhaps most notably, workers in general see far less need for what unions have to offer, at least when compared with the sentiment of their parents or grandparents.

Employers are also largely responsible for the decline. That is arguably due to both noble (better pay and other benefits) and less than noble (union busting) causes. What results if either of those efforts becomes more limited? I think we all have a pretty good idea.

It’s possible that what just happened in Illinois was one of those weird, outlier developments. But what if it’s less of a one-off — and more of a spark?

John O’Connor is editorial director for McKnight’s Senior Living and its sister media brands, McKnight’s Long-Term Care News, which focuses on skilled nursing, and McKnight’s Home Care. Read more of his columns here.