CHICAGO — If there was an item in the Painters District Council 30 monthly newsletter regarding “right to work” in Illinois, Dave Schmidgall must have missed it. The longtime union painter, living in Peoria and approaching 50, has a mindset that many of his union brothers and sisters his age have:
“It’ll never happen,” he said.
Unless a union-busting lawyer from Florida and Republican Governor Bruce Rauner get their way, that is. Unable to pass a bill statewide with a Democratic supermajority in the legislature, Rauner and others are pushing for counties to enact their own “empowerment zones,” where right-to-work would become law. In Brent Yessin, the lawyer who runs a nonprofit called Protect My Check, unions have a powerful foe.
Union advocates argue that collecting dues from members who don’t wish to be represented by the union is essential to keeping the organizations alive. In right-to-work states—and in the “empowerment zones” Rauner and others like Yessin are pushing for—unions wouldn’t be allowed to collect these “fair share dues” from members who opt out of union membership. (As union membership declines, poverty increases.)
While many in Illinois, like Schmidgall, consider right to work impossible, they might want to start paying attention before counties begin turning anti-union one by one like they have in neighboring Kentucky. In the last six months in there, Yessin has been instrumental in implementing right to work in 12 of Kentucky’s 120 counties. While he wouldn’t say who exactly he’s working with, Yessin made clear his organization is taking the fight to Illinois.
Yessin and Rauner contend that the Illinois constitution grants “home rule” powers to any municipality with more than 25,000 residents, giving cities and counties the right to decide for themselves if they want to become right to work.
“The goal would be to pass enough of them that you have an influence on state policy,” Yessin told The Daily Beast of local right-to-work ordinances. In Kentucky, Yessin and his allies believe they are reaching a “tipping point,” where lawmakers will pass right to work at the state level simply because so many counties have already done it.
“I think downstate Illinois gets a lot more interested as we push into Kentucky and Missouri.”
He may be correct. In June, Effingham, just a two-hour drive from the Kentucky border, broached the subject. The city council introduced a resolution to support Rauner’s agenda, which calls for cities and counties to decide for themselves whether to enact right to work. Dexter Sloan, a union worker, spoke against the resolution at a city council meeting.
“Almost five years ago, my firstborn son had a brain aneurysm and died in my arms—because I didn’t have insurance,” Sloan said, according to the local paper. “That’s when I left and went union.”
While union members like Sloan have been vocal in their opposition to right to work, those who support it are less likely to speak up. Cue Yessin and Protect My Check.
“Union people think it’s a bunch of millionaires sitting around in a room and deciding to push this,” he said. “Contrary to the union’s opinions on this, if there’s not a grassroots support, we’re not going to shove it down their throat.”
It’s virtually impossible to tell how true Yessin’s claim is. Protect My Check is a nonprofit that isn’t required to disclose its donors. Like many political action committees, Protect My Check is designated as a 501(c)(4) tax-exempt organization by the IRS. Such organizations are technically designed to promote social welfare, like charities and local church groups, but often serve partisan ends. Yessin said the group accepts donations from local business people who support right to work, but it also receives big donations and grants from larger groups, although he wouldn’t say whom.
Through Protect My Check, Yessin helps to craft right-to-work ordinances and, in some cases, defend them when they come under attack in court. This is currently the case in Kentucky, where some of the 12 right-to-work counties are now in a legal fight with unions who contend the ordinances violate state and federal labor laws.
Yessin has been involved in similar battles for decades, and his connections in the business community combined with his legal expertise make him a formidable ally for small-town legislators looking to enact right to work. Yessin and his group give local governments the legal and financial muscle to defend their actions, muscle that is often only available to the unions they’re fighting against.
Rauner’s staff didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment, and the governor’s administration denied a Freedom of Information Act request that called for the release of emails related to right to work.
“I never comment on communications with elected officials unless it helps them,” Yessin said when asked whether he’s been in talks with the Rauner administration.
Democratic Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said that the National Labor Relations Act does not allow local units of government like cities and counties to enact right to work. The Rauner administration told the Chicago Tribune that it “respectfully disagrees” with Madigan.
Schmidgall hadn’t heard of Yessin, and while he certainly has his gripes with the union and the dues he has to pay, he said right to work simply isn’t feasible for him. He’s almost done paying off his house. A new-but-used Harley Davidson sits in his garage next to a truck with just a few payments left on it. His pool is clean, full and ready for summer; his fridge is stocked with beer.
“It’s never going to happen here, dude,” Schmidgall said. “Besides, I only have eight years until retirement. There’s no way in hell it’ll happen before then.”