HELENA — Bills making it harder for labor unions to collect dues or fees – including “right to work” measures – have been defeated in Montana for many years, by organized labor and its allies.
But this year, with Republicans firmly in control of the Legislature and the governor’s office for the first time in almost two decades, right-to-work supporters and foes of unions are hoping for a different outcome.
“Right to work, as a whole, has not been in the conversation at the Legislature since 2009, and I want to bring that conversation back,” says Rep. Caleb Hinkle, R-Belgrade, sponsor of the bill to make Montana a right-to-work state.
Hinkle’s House Bill 251 isn’t the only such bill before the 2021 Legislature. Two others would restrict how unions representing public employees collect dues or manage their membership, and another bill affecting unions representing health-care workers is being drafted.
Amanda Curtis, president of the state’s largest labor union – the Montana Federation of Public Employees – told MTN News the bills are an attempt to undermine unions, particularly those representing government workers.
“They’re mad at us because we’re strong,” she said. “I think there’s a more extreme faction of the Republican Party that has a philosophy of smaller government, under any circumstances. … We represent government to them.”
None of the bills has been debated or voted yet on the floor of the Senate or House, although one has been emerged from committee.
Republicans hold big majorities at the Legislature this year – 67-33 in the House and 31-19 in the state Senate, and every right-to-work-related bill is sponsored by a Republican.
Curtis and other union officials said they may be able to defeat the bills, with a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans. But, if that fails, they no longer have a Democratic governor as a backstop – and wonder out loud what Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte will do if the bills reach his desk.
“He’s been unwilling to go on record in support, or not, of unions and Montana workers and has always skirted the question,” Curtis said.
When asked where he stood on the issue, Gianforte’s office told MTN News that right-to-work bills are “not one of his priorities,” but declined to elaborate.
The right-to-work and related bills restricting unions this session include:
· HB251, from Hinkle, which says no worker in Montana can be required to belong to or financially support a union, as a condition of employment.
Hinkle’s bill would make Montana a right-to-work state, essentially saying unions cannot collect fees from any non-members – even if the union has collectively bargained for that workers’ pay and benefits.
That prohibition already exists for unions representing public employees; Hinkle’s bill would extend it to the private sector. The bill is scheduled for a hearing on Feb. 16.
· Senate Bill 89, which would prohibit government employers from having a payroll checkoff to collect dues from employees who are union members. The practice is widespread in Montana now.
Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell is the sponsor. It was approved by a Senate committee last week.
· HB168, which says public-employee union members must give their consent, every year, to have dues taken from their paycheck, and can opt out at any time. Sponsored by Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, the bill remains in committee.
· A draft bill, requested by Rep. Amy Regier, R-Kalispell, says unions cannot collect any fees from employees of a nonprofit health-care corporation, without their consent.
Hinkle said his bill is not anti-union and that any union that provides or bargains for legitimate benefits should not fear right-to-work requirements. If those benefits are good for the employee, he or she will join or support the union – but they should have that choice, he said.
“I do believe that some (unions) exploit workers, but a good portion of them do provide good, legitimate benefits, and those ones would not only survive but thrive,” he said.
He also said his support for the bill is underpinned by a personal experience. Seven years ago, he got a job at a grocery store deli, and had to pay $35 a month to the union representing him, even though he wasn’t a member, he said.
But then his boss said Hinkle had to pay a $500 initiation fee to the union, or lose his job, Hinkle said – and he couldn’t afford it, and was let go.
“They let me go and pushed me into one of the worst financial situations of my life,” he said.
Union officials said Hinkle’s bill, or any right-to-work legislation, essentially forces unions to give away their bargaining services for free, to those who benefit from a union contract but don’t want to join the union or financially support it.
Al Ekblad, executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO, told MTN News that right-to-work laws are not “worker freedom” laws but rather laws that undercut the strength of unions and lead to lower wages and benefits for workers overall.
“The only freedom that’s being gained here is for out-of-state corporations to be more greedy and make more money and take it out of this state,” he said. “These bills will hurt every worker in the state.”
Sen. Keith Regier said he brought SB89 because government should not be in the business of collecting dues for the union – especially when the union is involved in partisan political causes.
Having a payroll checkoff for union dues “makes the state complicit in the union’s political activity,” he told MTN News.
Union officials said Regier’s arguments are wrong and misleading, on several levels.
Union dues don’t support any political activity – that money comes from voluntary contributions, from members to the union’s political-action committee, and is not collected by the state, they said.
And, the payroll checkoff is one of scores allowed by the state, for all types of groups and purposes, many of which are involved in politics, they added.
“It’s amazing to me that it’s still OK for the state government and public employers to collect contributions to the National Rifle Association, but they’re going to say it’s not appropriate for a worker to sign an agreement and have their dues deducted and sent to their union,” Ekblad said.