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"Right-to-work," other bills restricting unions fall short at Montana Legislature

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Posted at 1:20 PM, Mar 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-02 19:23:50-05

HELENA — The Montana House has rejected a bill to implement “right-to-work” in the state by a wide margin. It was the latest in a series of bills restricting unions that have fallen short at the Legislature this week.

On Tuesday morning, the House voted 62-38 against House Bill 251, sponsored by Rep. Caleb Hinkle, a Republican from Belgrade.

The bill would have stated people cannot be forced to join or pay dues to a union as a condition of employment and required that they give written approval to have any money for the union deducted from their paycheck.

Some 29 Republicans joined all 33 Democrats in opposing HB 251, while the remaining 38 Republicans supported it.

The vote came after hundreds of union members filled the Montana State Capitol Monday and Tuesday as a show of opposition to the bill.

“I believe the presence here at the Capitol made a huge difference in the vote – having everybody here as one, our local brothers and sisters here,” said CJ Schultz, president of the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 30 in Billings.

Schultz said about 50 members of his union were at the Capitol Tuesday. He said they made the trip over to oppose a bill they saw as an attack.

“We’re major proponents of good wages, good working wages,” Schultz said. “These bills are designed to hurt us. They’re union-bashing.”

Hinkle said Tuesday he became interested in right-to-work several years ago, after being required to pay union fees in a low-wage job where he didn’t feel the union’s negotiations had benefited him.

He argued HB 251 was protecting a worker’s right to choose whether or not to associate with the union.

“Put simply, good unions do not need the ability to force workers to pay up or be fired – and bad ones don’t deserve it,” he said.

HB 251 would essentially extend the provisions of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME to the private sector.

The decision stated public employees couldn’t be forced to pay a fee to a union if they’re not members, based on a constitutional right to freedom of association.

Republican Rep. Jedediah Hinkle of Belgrade – Caleb Hinkle’s brother – noted Tuesday that public-sector unions have not disappeared since the Janus decision.

He said the union members who came to the Capitol wouldn’t lose benefits if the bill went forward.

“I can guarantee you that if right-to-work was passed today, none of these good folks in the balcony here would leave the union,” said Republican Rep. Jedediah Hinkle.

“They would stay in the union because they believe that the union has benefited them," Hinkle continued.

But opponents said HB 251 was part of a pattern of proposals that would eventually erode unions’ ability to effectively bargain on behalf of their members.

“It’s not going to kill it today, but it’s another step in the direction of killing unions, and it’s going to hurt all of our workers,” said Rep. Gregory Frazer, a Republican from Deer Lodge.

HB 251 was one of three notable bills up for debate this week that would have put restrictions on unions. The two others failed to pass the Senate on Monday.

Senate Bill 89, sponsored by Republican Sen. Keith Regier of Kalispell, would have prohibited public employers from deducting union dues from their workers’ paychecks. It was defeated 22-28.

Senate Bill 228, from Sen. Greg Hertz, a Republican from Polson, also failed, on a tied 25-25 vote. That bill would have made it easier for public employees to withdraw from their union.

Schultz said he was proud of the way union members had made themselves heard at the Capitol this week.

“It was great to see our legislators at work, be a part of the system,” he said. “We just need to start being on the offense and not the defense, and let them know that there are people out there that care about this.”