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Montana lawmakers hear bill that would change rules for public employee union fees

Montana Federation of Public Employees
Posted at 4:05 PM, Jan 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-23 18:05:27-05

HELENA — Montana lawmakers held a hearing Friday on a bill that would change the state’s laws on how public employee unions collect dues.

The House Business and Labor Committee heard testimony on House Bill 168, sponsored by Republican Rep. Bill Mercer of Billings.

The bill would require public employers to give employees a form each year, telling them they have the right not to participate in a union and asking whether they are willing to waive that right. If an employee signed that form, the employer would deduct union dues from their paycheck. Someone not signing would be interpreted as a decision to disassociate from the union, and dues could not be deducted from their check.

Mercer said the change was needed to bring Montana in line with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 decision in the case Janus v. AFSCME. The court ruled public-sector employees who choose not to join a union can’t be forced to pay any fees to the union. Prior to that decision, unions could charge an “agency fee” to unaffiliated employees who were also affected by their negotiations.

Mercer said the court’s decision made clear that an employee should have to give explicit consent before a union could collect a fee from them.

“When the United States Supreme Court is interpreting the United States Constitution, and it makes a determination that, in order to be constitutionally viable, a state or a local government must do something, that isn’t advisory, that isn’t best practices – that is a constitutional mandate,” he said.

He argued asking an employee for consent only once isn’t sufficient.

However, HB 168 drew opposition from a number of union representatives, who said it went farther than what is required by the Janus decision. They said courts have since held that the type of waiver proposed in the bill wouldn’t be necessary.

Amanda Curtis is president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, which represents the largest group of employees affected by the bill. She said she was concerned about a provision in the bill that would change language in state law, referring to a union as the “exclusive representative” only for its members. She argued that would eliminate the principle that the union negotiates for all employees, including those who aren't members.

“By meddling in that collaborative relationship between the employer and employees in Section 5, this bill will create uncertainty for both sides – the employer and the employee – in every public workplace,” Curtis said.

HB 168 is only the first bill to be heard on this subject. Republican Sen. Keith Regier of Kalispell is sponsoring a similar bill, Senate Bill 89, which has not yet had its first hearing. Union representatives also said Friday that they expected another bill that would only include what they see as the required changes to comply with the Janus decision.