Our state has a rich and deep labor history. Individuals began joining together to collectively advocate for themselves and their workplaces years before Montana even became a state. That’s right, Montana unions and the spirit of collective action has been “Montana” even before Montana was Montana.
Fast forward to present, and Montana and its citizens are still heavily steeped in labor tradition and philosophy, even for our non-unionized neighbors. Montana is the ONLY state in the union with worker protections enshrined in our laws- one of the biggest being Montana’s wrongful termination law. Montana is the only non at-will state in the U S of A, meaning that outside of a designated probationary period, law requires the employer to have just cause for terminating an employee. Montana is truly unique and has always valued the labor and contributions of its sons and daughters through worker protections like just cause laws and the right to unionize and collectively bargain. Even after Federal and State lawmakers over the decades have made it their mission to diminish the strength of unions and therefore effectively stifle the voices of the working citizens of Montana (ya know, the people they work for), the labor movement perseveres.
OUR RIGHTS UNDER ATTACK
The 2021 Legislature saw many an anti-labor bill, but like a true David and Goliath story, Montanans came out in droves to demonstrate our love for our fellow citizens, their labor, and the best vehicle workers have to maintain a proverbial and sometimes literal seat at the table- unions. Now, make no mistake, no one thought the detractors who put millions of dollars into stifling the voices of the average worker were just going to go away. Much like a mosquito, they continue to annoy and look for any opportunistic moment to swoop in and feed on the lifeblood of our state. Oh, and by the way, they dont always play fair.
On Tuesday January 16th, 2023, the house judiciary committee will hear HB 216 (Mercer- R- HD 46). Some of the things in the bill are redundant and have already been secured at the federal level with the Janus decision, and at the state level with last sessions HB 289 (generally revise labor laws relating to employee associations- passed), others are just reintroductions of parts and pieces of bills that failed in the last session. Let’s start with the redundancies and a little back story. Section 2(2) states “A public employee may not be required to become or remain a member of, or financially support, a labor organization as a condition of obtaining or retaining public employment.” Prior to the Janus v AFSME decision issued by the US Supreme Court in 2018, unions were able to collect an agency fee from non members, which was essentially a small fee the union could charge non-members to help cover the costs of the work that they are still required to do whether the individual working in the respective collective bargaining unit chose to be a member or not. These were not dues, and the fee payer was not a member or required to be, the individual was simply paying a fair share fee for the services rendered. The Supreme Court found this to be unconstitutional (it’s not, but that’s for another day) and ordered all public service unions still charging this agency fee to stop. The TL;DR here is that Montana’s public employees were never required to join. Post Janus, they can also get a free ride on the backs of their coworkers. This was further codified last session in HB 289.
Lets now go to Section 2(3) which states “A public employee may cancel the public employee’s membership and cease financial support of a labor organization at any time”. With a superficial glance, this seems like a non-issue to some, but let’s dive into this line from a purely financial and budgetary point of view and remove the union of it all momentarily. We all have a budget to which we adhere to. We know roughly how much income we have coming in per month, and roughly how much goes out to pay for our shelter, food, etc. You rely on the income to pay your bills. If you lost a portion of your income at random intervals throughout the year, that would throw a major wrench in your short term and long term plans, goals, or simply what you need to keep your head above the proverbial water. Now let’s put this back into a union frame. Any person, business, organization, etc cannot effectively function with that amount of budgetary uncertainty. This is why unions have designated drop periods, usually based on the calendar year, but sometimes based on other things like the date you joined, etc. It’s not shady, it’s common sense.
Now on to Section 2(4), as well as several line items in Section 3:
‘A public employer may not collect dues from compensation paid to a public employee on behalf of a labor organization without the annual affirmative consent of the public employee”. I think it’s obvious by now how the process works, but for the sake of information, let’s be very clear. An employee is hired, they are given the choice to become a member, and if for whatever reason they chose to drop, they typically have a window each year in which to do so. This line and basically ALL of section 3 aim to cripple union membership by imposing unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles in the way of the freedom to choose to associate. In the most simplistic terms, this would require an individual to OPT IN every year, rather than ongoing membership with a yearly OPT OUT period. Essentially, each collective bargaining unit in every public employees union would need to recertify and defend their right to exist every year. It also inserts the employer in questionable and potentially federally illegal positions by requiring them by law to insert themselves in the union-membership business and relationship.
HB 216 is scheduled to be heard by the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday January 17th. If there is any confusion on why the Judiciary Committee is hearing a labor bill, let me break that down. First, per page 37 of the House Rules, this bill is undoubtedly in the wrong committee. Page 37 states, in part, the following:
…legislation dealing with an enumerated subject must be referred to a standing committee as follows:
Business and Labor: Alcohol regulation other than taxation… labor unions; … workers’ compensation.
State Administration: Administrative rules; … state employees; state employee benefits; … voting.
So why is it being heard in the wrong committee? Well, because it’s more likely to pass in Judiciary than either of the appropriate committees. Slick, right?
So what can we do to hold our legislators accountable to follow the rules and take the proper channels to do their legislating? Tomorrow, Monday January 16th, 2023 during the 1 PM house floor session, there will be a motion to refer HB 216 to the appropriate committee. Make your voice heard by contacting your legislator and asking them to support the motion to refer BEFORE 1 PM on Monday January 16th.
Submit testimony here: https://leg.mt.gov/public-testimony/
You can read the bill here