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Opponents, supporters pack hearing on right-to-work bill

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Posted at 4:26 PM, Feb 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-16 19:37:04-05

HELENA — Union members – and some big corporations employing union workers – lined up Tuesday to oppose a bill to make Montana a “right-to-work” state, arguing it would lower wages and needlessly undermine organized labor here.

The pro-labor forces squared off against the National Right to Work Committee and other free-market lobbyists, which said it’s time for Montana to become the 28th right-to-work state and ban what they called “forced unionism.”

“Under current law in Montana, employees who never requested union representation can be forced to accept a labor union as their exclusive monopoly bargaining agent,” said Greg Mourad of the national committee. “Then, rubbing salt in the wound, they can be forced to pay for representation they never requested, do not want and indeed may be working against their interests.”

Mourad testified in favor of House Bill 251, which would forbid any Montana employer from making union membership a condition of employment – and, prohibit labor unions in the private sector from collecting fees from non-members who are covered by a union contract.

The latter ban already exists for public-sector workers and unions.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Caleb Hinkle, R-Belgrade, told the House Business and Labor Committee that no worker should be compelled to join or support a union, regardless of what contract it bargains.

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Rep. Caleb Hinkle, R-Belgrade.

He said he was let go from deli-clerk job at a Bozeman supermarket in 2013 because he couldn’t afford to pay the union’s $500 initiation fee. He called it “nothing short of extortion from a union who is not fighting for my pay or my workers’ rights.”

Hinkle and other backers also said the bill would not harm unions that offer good representation and benefits for workers, and that right-to-work states have better economies and more disposable income for their workers.

But a parade of union members and representatives said many studies have shown just the opposite: That right-to-work states have lower wages, less benefits for workers, and generally poorer outcomes for the average person, on everything from health coverage to life expectancy.

Al Ekblad of the Montana AFL-CIO said unions workforces have less turnover and better processes to handle workplace disagreements, and that unions also help finance and run apprenticeships that create a skilled, well-paid workforce in Montana.

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Al Ekblad, executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO

“Workers in Montana are already free to choose if they wish to join a union or not,” he said. “This legislation won’t change that. But what it will do is hurt workers’ ability to advocate for themselves and the good benefits to support their family … This bill is unnecessary and a solution in search of a problem.”

Representatives of two prominent employers with union workforces also testified against the bill: NorthWestern Energy and the Sibanye-Stillwater Mine in south-central Montana.

David Hoffman of NorthWestern told the committee that 644 of its 1,500 employees are represented by unions, which help promote a culture of safety and hard work.

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David Hoffman, NorthWestern Energy.

“Our workers strive to keep your lights on and the gas flowing safely and reliably,” he said. “I can’t think of one example where right-to-work would improve our workforce. As a matter of fact, I think it would create division and resentment within it.”

Heather McDowell of the mining company said most of its 2,000 employees are unionized, and that HB251 would “impair our collaborative relationship” with its workers.

HB251 is one of several bills before the Legislature designed to make it more difficult for labor unions to collect dues or fees that support their work. So far, none of them has made it to the House or Senate floor for a vote.