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Unionized workers gather at picket line (copy)

Randy Tocci, president of International Brotherhood of Boilermakers’ Local D-239, speaks to picketers outside Imerys Talc America's Three Forks talc-milling plant last August. Workers were locked out of the plant for almost three months in 2018.

A Missoula lawmaker introduced a bill Thursday to make it easier for public employees to opt out of union membership and fees, but that -- union officials say -- is a reach too far.

House Majority Leader Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, told the state House Business and Labor Committee on Tuesday his House Bill 323 would bring Montana in line with a major U.S. Supreme Court decision. Tschida’s bill would institute what he called an “opt-in” policy for public sector unions, explicitly outlining that public employees do not have to become union members to obtain or keep their jobs.

The bill would also explicitly prohibit collection of union dues from nonmember public employees.

On June 27, 2018, the court ruled in a 5-4 decision in Janus vs. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31 that union fees assessed to non-union public employees violated the First Amendment.

Tschida called the bill “a freedom bill, a personal rights bill and a bill that supports the working person and his and her own decision to implement their God-given rights, however they want those expressed.”

“If you’d rather focus your career in public service without being forced to pay money to a government union, you can have that freedom of choice as well,” Tschida said.

Tschida also noted that public employees have only the month of September to opt out of unions. The bill mandates that they be allowed to opt out “at any time.”

The bill drew the support of Americans for Prosperity but took criticism from the Montana Federation of Public Employees (MFPE), the Montana AFL-CIO and union representatives from around the state, including Tschida’s home of Missoula.

Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney called the bill “unnecessary” and said it stretched “far beyond the court’s decision.”

“To be clear, Janus did one thing: It said that even if you benefit from collective bargaining, you don’t have to pay for that benefit if you don’t want to,” Cooney said. “It did not change union membership requirements, it did not change public policy regarding the importance of unions and it did not modify the purpose of unfair labor practices laws.”

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Eric Feaver, president of the MFPE, gave the committee an edited version of Tschida’s bill he believed would properly reconcile state law with the court’s decision. Feaver’s version included the same text on unfair labor practices of public employers as Tschida's but struck nearly everything else.

That remaining section “strikes from the code agency fees negotiated by unions for employers,” Feaver said, adding that Montana unions with public employee bargaining units had not collected agency fees since last June. “That’s what Janus did," he said.

Tschida closed by telling the committee his bill would not cause “significant change” in state law.

“Anyone who’s served in the Legislature for even a short period of time knows the important difference between two words: ‘shall,’ and ‘may,’” Tschida said. “And at this point in time, most of what we heard in opposition was conjecture about what may happen as a result of this.”

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