HELENA - People who visit the Montana State Capitol in the summer, notice the lawns, floral displays and the rest of the grounds.
The people tasked with maintaining all of that are landscape technicians, with the state’s General Services Division.
“We love our work,” said Zach Clinch, who joined the landscape crew about a year ago. “We take pride in a lot of it, whenever tourists come up and say, ‘Hey, this place looks great.’”
The crew currently includes seven employees, and they oversee the landscaping at the Capitol and at the other state-owned buildings around Helena.
At this time of year, technicians are busy mowing, weeding, working with flower displays and taking care of trees.
In the winter, they plow sidewalks, put down sand and do other safety work.
Since June 2021, they have been doing all of that while working under an expired contract.
The landscape crew is part of a collective bargaining unit called the Capitol Complex Craft Council, which combines workers from multiple unions.
Carpenters, painters, plumbers and other maintenance workers that take care of the state’s buildings are all included.
Under the council’s most recent contract with the Montana Department of Administration (DOA) — which expired in June 2021 — landscape technicians start at a salary of $18.53 an hour.
Clinch said they initially asked for a 6% raise and a cost-of-living increase.
The council and DOA weren’t able to come to an agreement on terms, and the workers eventually began preparing for mediation.
But that process hasn’t taken place yet.
The terms of the prior contract have remained in place while negotiations have continued.
Clinch told MTN workers saw their interactions with the department as slow and frustrating. He feels the state is undervaluing the work they do.
“I don’t want this to be a steppingstone,” he said. “I mean, it’s the Capitol, it’s kind of the crown jewel of the state. It’s where you’d think everybody would want to be.”
He says, since he joined, two of his fellow employees have left to work for the city of Helena, while others are taking on second jobs.
“Where we are, especially where cost of living is – I mean the price of homes and everything – where we stand is no one should really have to work a second job to be able to get by,” Clinch said. “We’re not all looking to be able to live in a mansion, but we should be able to go home and feel comfortable at the end of the night that financially we’re okay.”
MTN reached out to DOA about this issue and this week, they released a statement.
At the conclusion of the legislative session all collective bargaining agreements are negotiated for the coming biennium applying pay levels and benefits approved by the legislature,” the statement said. “Department of Administration management have maintained a cooperative dialogue with the union entities in this council and have agreed to mediation or to return to the bargaining table in an effort to finalize terms related to the parties’ collective bargaining agreement.
A department spokesperson said the state currently has more than 60 collective bargaining agreements, and a small number are still being negotiated.
After the department’s statement, MTN followed back up with the workers.
They said they haven’t yet heard a date or time for continuing negotiations or mediation, and they’re concerned the state is again prolonging the process.
“We have been more than accommodating and have acted in good faith throughout the entire process,” the workers’ representative said in a statement. “It is time for the State to hold up their end.”
Clinch told MTN workers are concerned a contract may not be finalized before Nov. 15.
That is the date when the state employee pay plan, approved during the last legislative session, implements a 55¢-cent raise for all state workers.
State law says that raise won’t apply to workers if their collective bargaining agreement hasn’t been ratified yet.
A DOA spokesperson said, if the Capitol Complex Craft Council’s agreement is approved after Nov. 15, employees will receive the pay increase retroactively.
Clinch said he hopes they can reach an agreement soon.
“I don’t think we ask too much; we just ask to be paid for the work we do,” he said. “We’re all very good at our jobs – a lot of us went through special training, have special degrees, certifications. At the end of the day, we’re just looking for a fair contract that’s somewhat even close to what a lot of other people in our trades around the state or around the country make.”