Koch-ALEC Right to Work Power Play Exposed in a Small Illinois Village

By Kim Haddow

Last month, four unions sued the Village of Lincolnshire in federal court in Chicago. The unions representing engineers, construction workers, and carpenters--including three affiliated with the AFL-CIO--filed suit on February 18, 2016, to have Lincolnshire's anti-union "right-to-work" ordinance declared invalid and prevent its enforcement.

Two days after the federal lawsuit was filed, the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 filed a related lawsuit alleging that Lincolnshire Mayor Elizabeth Brandt wrongfully barred two men from speaking against the ordinance when it was originally being considered in December.

So how did a town with a population of 7,280 become a frontline in the national fight to destroy unions? Because Lincolnshire is in the vanguard of the latest, localized scheme to dismantle unions drawn directly from the Koch playbook.

A closer look at the lengths Lincolnshire's mayor and some members of the village's Board of Trustees went to in order to pass a right-to-work ordinance—which included ignoring legal opinions, constituents and the media—reveals how nationally-funded conservative organizations are using local government to gain a foothold in their fight to weaken unions everywhere.

Lincolnshire: Where National Ideology Trumps Local Democracy

Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, a private equity mogul elected in 2014, has links to the Koch brothers. Over the years, Rauner has donated to the Koch network of institutions, including $150,000 to the Kochs' Americans for Prosperity group. In 2014, AFP returned the favor, attacking his opponent Democrat Pat Quinn.

After taking office, Rauner released what his administration called a "Turnaround Agenda" for the state, which borrowed heavily from the Koch library of ideas, including multiple union busting measures, repeal of higher wages for construction workers, pension privatization and more.

Blocked by a state legislature controlled by Democrats, Rauner couldn't enact a full-scale "right-to-work" law in Illinois. To overcome that obstacle, Rauner encouraged municipalities, counties, school districts, and other forms of local government to enact local right-to-work zones in their communities, what he called "Employee Empowerment Zones."

Rauner sent cookie-cutter templates and resolutions to local municipalities, but the "turnaround agenda" was not being broadly embraced. There were only a handful of exceptions throughout the entire state that supported the governor's plan and most of those were extremely small municipalities. The Village of Lincolnshire was notable because it was the only Chicago-area municipality to adopt Rauner's plan. Lincolnshire passed a resolution on May 11, 2015, supporting the overall "Turnaround" agenda.

After passing a supportive resolution for the Governor's larger agenda, the newly-elected Mayor of Lincolnshire, Elizabeth Brandt, then sought to pass a binding right-to-work ordinance. In a November 4, 2015 email, she asked that the Governor's local right-to-work zone proposal be added to the next Committee of the Whole meeting.

The proposal was officially described as an "Ordinance Pertaining to Economic Development and Worker Empowerment by Regulation of Involuntary Payroll Deductions for Private Sector Workers in the Village of Lincolnshire." But it was actually drawn straight from the Koch playbook.

Koch-ALEC "Model" Bill Rolled Out in Lincolnshire

Materials included in the November 23, 2015 Lincolnshire Board of Trustees agenda packet included a report from the conservative Illinois Policy Institute, which pushed the idea of establishing local right-to-work zones. The Illinois Policy Institute is a member of the State Policy Network, an umbrella institution for 64 centrally-funded/connected right-wing think tanks. It is also a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a bill mill which allows corporations to draft and distribute to state legislators model bills that benefit their own bottom lines.

The Lincolnshire bill's operative language comes verbatim from this ALEC model. See the side by side comparison here.

What the information packet failed to include was a full copy of the formal opinion of the Illinois Attorney General, which declared that federal law prohibited such a right-to-work policy from being enforced on the local level.

On November 30, Lincolnshire Village Administrator Brad Burke sent around an email—obtained by the Center of Media and Democracy though a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request—to the mayor and members of the Board of Trustees about the conflicting opinions on the matter. Given the divergence in views, the village administrator asked if the mayor and trustees would like to direct Lincolnshire Village Attorney Adam Simon to issue an opinion about the legality of the proposed ordinance.

Mayor Brandt quickly cut off that idea, saying "I do not want an opinion from Adam," and that she thought that the Attorney General's opinion "was weak." One of the strongest supporters of the proposed ordinance on the board, Tom McDonough, said that he also had "no desire" to order such an opinion from the village's own attorney.

Discounting Public Input and the Media

The fact that the citizens of Lincolnshire were opposed to the right-to-work ordinance didn't stop the Mayor either. Based on FOIA records, the mayor received about a dozen emails and other communications from the public. The vast majority of this feedback from the public was in opposition to the proposed right-to-work ordinance. While the mayor didn't appear to forward those many critical communications, she did in fact forward some of the unrepresentative few that were supportive to the board.

The Village Board voted on the right-to-work ordinance on December 14, 2015 and it passed 5-1. Several emails at that time indicate that the mayor and various members of the board were actively avoiding questions from some of the media. In one case Mayor Brandt suggests that Trustee Leider "not make yourself available" to an AP reporter who requested an interview regarding the right-to-work vote.

Protected and Praised by the Right-Wing

At the time of the vote for the ordinance, a statement was included in the record that the Village of Lincolnshire would be represented by the Liberty Justice Center on a pro bono basis on matters related to the passage of the ordinance. The Liberty Justice Center is a conservative policy litigation center that was started by the Illinois Policy Institute. Essentially the Village of Lincolnshire planned to completely outsource both its bill drafting and its legal defense work to the Illinois Policy Institute .

Many conservative interests praised Lincolnshire and its mayor for passing their anti-union ordinance in the face of certain lawsuits. One such celebratory message came from Jon Russell, Director of the American City County Exchange (ACCE). ACCE is an offshoot of ALEC and similarly attempts to push conservative ideology and corporate-friendly policy at the local government level. In a January 29, 2016 email to Mayor Brandt, Russell congratulated her on the passage of their ordinance.

ACCE has worked with anti-union advocate Brent Yessin to pass similar ordinances in Kentucky, but this effort was quashed by a federal court which held that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) preempts a county government from enacting a right-to-work ordinance applicable only to a locality.

Ironically this is the same ACCE, along with ALEC, that is heavily promoting the use of preemption bills to limit local lawmaking power over progressive policies they disagree with, including minimum wage hikes.

Clearly, for these groups, the conservative belief that local government governs best is situational—especially when it comes to weakening unions and advancing the Koch agenda.


The author listed as "PRwatch Editors" is for reports attributable to CMD's editors or guest authors.