HELENA – In a high-profile case that could greatly undermine the power of labor unions, Gov. Steve Bullock has told the U.S. Supreme Court it should uphold unions’ abilities to require members to pay “agency fees.”
Bullock, in a brief filed late Thursday, said states should be able to decide themselves whether to allow agency fees – and that the fees have helped create a stable, unionized public workforce that has benefited Montana for decades.
“Public unions now play a fundamental role in Montana’s ability to govern itself effectively and efficiently,” he wrote.
The lawsuit seeking to end agency fees would “upend 40 years of carefully calibrated state labor policy that, as in Montana, has helped bring about peace after years of labor unrest and (has) improved government services,” he continued. “No law or policy justifies such an extreme step.”
The Supreme Court is considering a challenge to a 40-year-old decision that allows labor unions to charge workers “agency fees” that help support the union but not its political activities.
Montana law allows such fees to be charged to workers who are represented by the union, but who may not agree with the union’s political activity. The fees are less than full union dues and support the union’s administrative and organizing costs.
A ruling against the unions likely would mean big losses in membership and funding for many unions that represent government workers.
Bullock, a Democrat, so far is the only governor to weigh in on the case. He also filed a brief in a similar case two years that deadlocked before the court when it had only eight members, after Justice Antonin Scalia died in early 2016.
Bullock opens his brief recounting the 1920 “Anaconda Road Massacre,” when 14 miners were shot – one, fatally – during a strike in Butte, noting that “the culprits were never punished.”
He goes on to say that Montana has a “rich and unique labor history,” leading up to the 1973 law that says when a majority of public employees in a bargaining unit votes to unionize, the union becomes the “exclusive representative” of those employees.
The same law allows that “exclusive representative” to charge agency fees, but does not mandate them, the brief says, giving public-sector unions a significant role in the state’s workforce.
That influence has been good for the state, reducing labor strife, keeping costs down and attracting qualified employees to government, Bullock argues.
Montana’s right to structure its labor relations and maintain that “exclusive representation” should not be overruled, he says.