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Right-to-work bill gets first hearing in Montana Legislature
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Right-to-work bill gets first hearing in Montana Legislature

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A long line of workers told lawmakers Tuesday that making Montana a right-to-work state would cut off access to middle-class jobs, while supporters of the legislation argued it would boost economic activity in the state.

House Bill 251 is from Rep. Caleb Hinkle, a Republican from Belgrade. It would prohibit the requirement of belonging to a union as a condition of employment. The bill would also bar private-sector unions from requiring non-members covered by bargaining agreements pay union dues.

The Janus decision from the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 already made it so unions can't collect fees for collectively bargaining on behalf of non-member public employees.

Hinkle told the House Business and Labor Committee that he was motivated to carry the bill because he was fired in 2013 from a job at a supermarket deli because he couldn’t afford a union fee.

“I believe that no organization should have the power to keep an employee from working simply because the employee refuses to join or support or financially support that organization, especially if that organization has an agenda or political goals,” Hinkle said.

While Hinkle argued and pointed to studies he said show right-to-work policies would boost the state’s economy, opponents pointed to conflicting data showing states that had implemented right-to-work laws have not fared as well. Twenty-seven other states have right-to-work laws in place.

Al Ekblad, the executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO, said Tuesday the bill would harm unions.

“We believe this bill will be detrimental to our freedom to negotiate fair wages,” Ekblad said. He added workers who are not union members are already covered by collective bargaining agreements, meaning they can opt out of paying dues and still receive the benefits from bargaining.

Scott Dunlap, a trustee for the United Steelworkers Local 11-0001, said he represented about 1,600 workers at Stillwater mines in Nye and Big Timber and the smelter in Columbus.

Dunlap said most members are politically conservative and that they benefited from a mature union that secured good pay and benefits.

“Being able to organize and remain organized is a tool and benefit to many of us conservatives,” Dunlap said. “We just want to be able to get up and be productive. We want to handle our business without help or a handout and raise our families to the best of our ability. … I hope that you will vote in dissent of House Bill 251 and leave us with that tool in the bag so we can proudly raise our families and contribute to our community.”

Two large employers in the state also spoke in opposition to the bill. NorthWestern Energy and mine operator Sibanye-Stillwater said the bill is aiming to fix problems that don’t exist, would create division within the workforce and harm productive relationships between unions and employers.

Other union workers from around the state came to the Capitol to testify in opposition to the bill, numbering so many that due to time constraints the last more than two dozen to testify just provided their name and profession.

Among those supporting the bill were Greg Mourand, the vice president of the national Right to Work Committee. He told lawmakers he felt “forced unionism makes no sense.”

Mourand said federal law does not require unions to represent every worker, but instead of using that provision, unions say that since they bargain on behalf of everyone, they “force dues” from everyone.

“Today's union leadership consistently takes advantage of the provisions of federal law that give them the tyrannical power to force every worker to submit to their monopoly representation and work under their contract," Mourand said.

Randy Pope, the executive director of Montana Citizens for Right to Work, say union bosses can impose monopoly bargaining and then force dues.

“This bill would guarantee workers the right to decide for themselves whether a labor union deserves their financial support,” Pope said. He argued that a union wouldn't be motivated to do a good job arguing on behalf of workers if dues are guaranteed.

“Good unions don’t need forced dues and bad unions don’t deserve them,” Pope said. The bill was also supported by the Montana branch of Americans for Prosperity, among others including some workers and business owners.

There are several other bills this session related to unions. During the gubernatorial campaign now Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras, a Republican, said at a stop in Sidney that now-Gov. Greg Gianforte would not veto a right-to-work bill. Juras clarified to the Montana Television Network later that she had not spoken to Gianforte about such legislation and said that a bill would not be a priority. The campaign also said the audio from the event had been edited.

This session, House Bill 168 from Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, would require organized public employees to annually certify their union membership and make employers tell workers yearly about their rights to leave the union. That bill had its first hearing Jan. 22 in the House Business and Labor Committee and has not been acted on.

Senate Bill 89, from Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, would in part codify the Janus decision. But union groups also argue it would make it harder for them to collect dues by not allowing their deduction directly from paychecks. That bill passed the Senate State Administration Committee on a 5-3 vote.

Senate Bill 228 from Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, would allow for a public employee to withdraw from a bargaining unit and establish a timeline for payment of dues to cease. That bill has a hearing Feb. 22 in the Senate State Administration Committee.

There's also a draft bill from Rep. Amy Regier, R-Kalispell, to require employees of nonprofits to consent to agency fees and declare that collection of fees without consent from nurses to be an unfair labor practice.

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