“Big Jim” stood tall for education employees, students and working families

During his four terms as Illinois Governor, Jim Thompson acquired a deserved reputation as a builder. His legacy includes scores of crucial roads, bridges and buildings, in every part of the state, that were constructed or restored under his leadership.

But nothing Jim Thompson built, no legislation he signed into law, has had greater impact on the quality of life for millions of Illinoisans than the collective bargaining legislation he signed into law in the 1980s.

Prior to collective bargaining, public school teachers and support staff professionals were routinely treated as second-class citizens by local school boards. The boards would often dictate the terms of the employee contracts, which established not only compensation but also the teaching and learning conditions in the schools, including class size.

If the employees considered the board’s offer unfair, or harmful for students, the teachers and staff were often told “take it or leave it.”

When that happened, in the absence of a law that forced school boards to negotiate with the union representing the employees, only one option was available; employees would have to withhold their services until the board was ready to negotiate a fair agreement.

Strikes were not legal but, with no bargaining rights, strikes were the only option to improve conditions for teaching and learning. So, there were strikes.

Many strikes.

In the seven years before collective bargaining, there were, on average, 25 teacher strikes each year. This constant turmoil was bad for the teaching profession, bad for the students and bad for the communities served by public schools.

Governor Thompson realized this and told the Illinois Education Association that, if we could convince the General Assembly to pass a collective bargaining bill, he would sign it.

A lot of people didn’t think Big Jim meant what he said. They also assumed the question would never be answered, since they didn’t expect the legislature to pass legislation that would empower education employees to improve conditions in public schools.

Those people were wrong. School employees organized and mobilized and lobbied their lawmakers. It was a tough fight that went on for years. It all would have been for naught had Governor Thompson not kept his word.

Despite intense pressure from business interests and from his fellow Republicans, on Sept. 23, 1983, Governor Thompson signed into law the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act. He would later sign legislation giving similar rights to other public employees.

Not only that, the governor stood with working families when legislators in his own party tried to pass “right to work” legislation aimed at reducing the power of unions.

The impact of collective bargaining cannot be overstated. Instead of acrimony in nearly every employee contract discussion, there was now a process that would have to be followed. Agreements that were fair to both sides would become commonplace. Strikes became very rare.

Collective bargaining meant Illinois teachers would be treated as professionals, thereby allowing districts to attract and retaining quality teachers, to the benefit of the students.

Teaching and learning conditions greatly improved over time as school employees were able to effectively advocate for students on issues such as class size, cleanliness and building safety. Even now, as our districts wrestle with how best to educate children during a pandemic, the safety of students and school employees has been on the front burner for local education associations.

When former Gov. James R. Thompson died on Aug. 14, 2020, working people in general, and public school teachers, education support professionals and students in particular, lost one of their greatest champions.

Illinois school employees will never forget “Big Jim.” His legacy lives on in the physical structures he built, and in the lives of the children whose education he helped improve by empowering teachers and school employees.


The 135,000 member Illinois Education Association (IEA-NEA) is the state’s largest education employee’s organization. IEA represents preK-12 teachers outside of the city of Chicago and education support staff, higher education faculty, retired education employees and students preparing to become teachers, statewide.

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