Note: The Better Government Association has since issued several corrections. The story erroneously stated that the Illinois attorney general issued an opinion that right-to-work zones violated state law. The opinion argued the zones would violate federal law. The story also cited incorrect election results. In the 2010 Republican primary Senate race, Dan Proft earned 8.7 percent of the vote and Patrick J. Hughes received 19 percent. And the piece incorrectly stated that the Liberty Justice Center worked with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Center on the case representing the village of Lincolnshire. The two organizations worked together representing Mark Janus, an employee of the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services.

A small and obscure law firm backed by powerful forces sympathetic to what critics say is Gov. Bruce Rauner’s anti-union agenda is on the front lines of a groundbreaking government-versus-labor melee underway in Illinois.

The Liberty Justice Center in Chicago is representing the village of Lincolnshire in two lawsuits brought by organized labor against the municipality’s passage of an ordinance declaring a “right-to-work zone” for the private sector. In such designated areas, employees cannot be forced to pay union dues, even if a workplace within the zone is unionized.

Labor unions vehemently oppose right-to-work zones and top legal experts question the concept. As a result, municipal leaders trying to implement such zones are in for prolonged and costly legal battles at taxpayers’ expense, experts say.

Lincolnshire officials, however, took that risk because the Liberty Justice Center promised to represent them pro bono, says the north suburb’s village manager.

Liberty Justice Center is also providing pro bono representation in a case with potentially even greater labor ramifications: Challenging unions’ right to collect “fair share” dues from state workers who opt not to join a public employee union.

Liberty Justice Center is funded by and shares offices with the Illinois Policy Institute, a self-professed free-market-oriented and fiscally conservative nonprofit organization. The law center was founded in 2011 by IPI’s CEO John Tillman, conservative talk radio host Dan Proft and Hinsdale real estate developer and attorney Patrick J. Hughes.

“People who have access to government, whether it’s public employee unions or politically connected businesses or politicians, they’re in control of a large part of the political and economic power particularly in a state like Illinois,” said Jacob Huebert, the Liberty Justice Center’s senior attorney and lead on labor cases. “The center is meant to be a stopgap against that power.”

Only one other attorney and a media relations manager are listed on the center’s website; the center has five attorneys including Hughes and Huebert, a spokesperson said.

Lincolnshire vs. unions

The significance of Lincolnshire’s right-to-work zone goes far beyond the borders of the 7,250-resident suburb. It is also a test case for a key component of the Turnaround Agenda that Rauner announced shortly after taking office, a controversial list of proposed statewide reforms including term limits, cutting workers’ compensation costs for business and property tax freezes.

Attorney General Lisa M. Madigan issued an opinion saying the right-to-work zones would violate federal labor law. Union leaders threatened to sue any municipalities trying to create the zones. Democratic state legislators, especially powerful House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, have pushed back against Rauner’s agenda most notably during the ongoing state budget battle.

In December, Rauner said he was taking right-to-work zones “off the table, for now anyway,” as reported by Capitol Fax, while pursuing a less-aggressive plan to give municipalities power over unions.

Lincolnshire Village Manager Bradley Burke said village officials knew in advance that the Liberty Justice Center would represent them pro bono in legal challenges. That support was crucial to the decision to pass the ordinance, which makes note of Liberty Justice Center’s backing, Burke noted, declining to comment further.

After the Lincolnshire ordinance passed in December, unions kept their promise to sue.

Four labor unions representing engineers, laborers and carpenters filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the legality of the move. And a union engineer and a union musician filed their own lawsuit in state court charging the suburb with violating the state Open Meetings Act by refusing to let many opponents of the ordinance speak during the meeting held to consider the ordinance.

Both sides in the federal case are filing motions for summary judgment, and the court will make a decision sometime after briefings scheduled for July 29, Huebert said. In the other case, the village has denied that any violations of the Open Meetings Act occurred and the plaintiffs have asked for settlement talks; no talks or trial have been scheduled yet.

The Liberty Justice Center is also providing pro bono representation in a case with potentially even greater ramifications for organized labor. That case in federal court challenges unions’ right to collect a “fair share” of dues from Illinois public workers even if they decide not to join the union.

Federal labor law says that employees can opt out of paying dues to support the political work of unions, but they still need to pay an amount to compensate the union for its work representing the employees’ interests in dealings with the employer.

Opponents argue that being forced to pay a union at all violates their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech.

In March, the U.S. Supreme Court deadlocked 4-4 — after justice Antonin G. Scalia’s death — on California teacher Rebecca Friedrichs’ lawsuit challenging the fair share doctrine. That meant fair share still stands, a situation Rauner called “tragic.”

The Liberty Justice Center hopes its client, Mark Janus, will eventually get his own argument before the U.S. Supreme Court, in his similar case.

A child support specialist for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, Janus argues he should not have to pay dues to the labor union

“The Liberty Justice Center and Illinois Policy Institute are working hand in hand with people like Governor Rauner on these anti-worker lawsuits,” said James Muhammad, SEIU Healthcare spokesman.

“When they say freedom of speech that sounds good, but I would argue that the union fights for freedom of speech,” continued Muhammad. “What the Liberty Justice Center wants to do is really taking away the freedom of speech of many workers because they have no one to speak for them when they get into issues where they are being fired unjustly or need raises from companies making money hand over fist who don’t want to share it.”

Huebert and Hughes both said they have not had any discussions with Rauner or his office and noted that they have been supporting right-to-work zones since before Rauner took office.

“It’s clear that what we’re trying to achieve is the same thing that Governor Rauner was trying to achieve,” Huebert said.

“We were able to do it because he wasn’t able to do it, and it fits perfectly with our mission.”

In response to questions about the Liberty Justice Center and whether the Lincolnshire lawsuits further the governor’s agenda, Rauner spokesman Catherine Kelly offered a statement: “Neither the governor nor his administration are party to either of these lawsuits. Right-to-work zones are not part of the governor’s proposed government structural reforms. He supports the rights of nonunion employees who are leading the federal case to eliminate unfair share fees in public sector jobs.”

Free market mission

Reining in labor unions fits with the mission of the Illinois Policy Institute, which promotes smaller government and a more welcoming regulatory and economic climate for businesses.

Hughes said the institute and the center staff communicates but does not directly work together and is governed by separate boards of directors. The Illinois Policy Institute declined to comment for this story, saying it is their policy not to comment on the center. Tillman, head of the Illinois Policy Institute, is on the center’s board.

Center co-founder Proft — who helped launch the center but says he never intended to be involved in daily operations — developed his conservative credentials as a student at Northwestern University, where he co-founded the conservative student paper the Northwestern Chronicle.

These days, he hosts a daily talk radio show on WIND-AM 560 and runs the Liberty Principles Political Action Committee, promoting what it calls the “economic liberty policy agenda.”

Proft and Hughes met when both were candidates in the 2010 Republican primary, Proft running for governor and Hughes vying for Barack Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat. Both lost: Proft got 8.7 of the vote, and Hughes received 19 percent. But they became friends and launched the justice center.

“The idea was you have a public interest law firm that represents the entrepreneurial capitalist, the policy innovator, against government overreach,” Proft said. He framed even the Lincolnshire case, where the firm is representing a government agency, in that vein.

“The Lincolnshire case is again representing the little guy against what essentially turns out to be an appendage of government, which is public sector unions,” he said.

Huebert joined the center early on, after graduating from law school at the University of Chicago in 2004 and working at a large firm in Columbus, Ohio.

Huebert noted that the center has worked with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Center on the Janus case.

That foundation bills itself as a charitable organization aimed to “eliminate coercive union power and compulsory unionism abuses.”

Bob Bruno, professor of labor and industrial relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said that while the Liberty Justice Center may be relatively small, he views it as part of a nationwide coordinated movement.

“It is part of a larger conservative jurisprudence and legal strategy that goes back to the 1970s as part of a larger playbook to unwind the Great Society and push back against the New Deal and what is perceived as government encroachment into the marketplace,” Bruno said.

“At a previous time in history they would have been perceived as on the fringe … they wouldn’t be taken seriously. But they have to be taken seriously now because things have evolved over the past decades. Our politics have become more partisan with the rise of conservative right-wing Republicans in the state. So now they have a voice.”

Other legal fronts

The justice center’s caseload also includes other lawsuits involving what they see as government over-reach or policies that impede the free market. For example, a lawsuit challenging a Chicago entertainment tax; a challenge to Evanston’s limits on food trucks; and a challenge to how the state awards tax credits to businesses.

While government entities and policies are often targets of the Liberty Justice Center, the attorneys hope the Lincolnshire cases will ultimately embolden other government bodies to challenge unions.

“I would imagine that there are other municipalities that would like to pass similar ordinances, they’re waiting to see what happens” with Lincolnshire, Huebert said. “Certainly if Lincolnshire succeeds, local governments in Illinois and other states will follow.”

Kari Lydersen is a regular BGA contributor specializing in government coverage at