Credit: Courtesy Montana Federation of Public Employees

Union leaders and rank-and-file members rallied in opposition Friday to a legislative proposal that would require state and local government employers to obtain written notification from employees that they wish to join a union and have union membership dues withdrawn from their paychecks.

The House Business and Labor Committee heard testimony on House Bill 168, sponsored by Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings. The measure would revise state labor laws to establish a consent agreement for public employees granting their employers permission to collect union-associated fees. That notification would have to be renewed annually.

Mercer said HB 168 is necessary to bring Montana law into compliance with a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling regarding the collection of fees by labor unions from non-union members. He further stated that while it is the constitutional right of any public employee to associate through a union, that employee also has a choice to waive that right, and government employers should not assume their employees understand that choice.

“This bill simply says if you’re a public employee, you are entitled to a disclosure of what your constitutional rights are,” Mercer said. “And if you, with awareness of those constitutional rights, decide that you want to join a union, that is your right.”

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Henry Kriegel, testifying on behalf of the conservative policy group Americans for Prosperity, was the sole proponent of HB 168 in the hearing. He said the bill would ensure that public employees in Montana are more aware of their rights to opt out of union membership and require unions to make a compelling case to prospective new members.

“Under HB 168, if public employee unions would like to retain or even increase membership, they would be incentivized to further improve their services and communicate those improvements to their potential members simply because there is no guarantee that employees will join,” Kriegel said.

Roughly two-dozen union members from across the state testified in person and remotely in opposition to the proposal. Many argued that creating a consent process between employers and employees amounts to government overreach, complicating and potentially eroding relationships that currently exist among employers, employees and unions. 

Others said mandating annual renewals of that consent would place undue burdens on various sectors of government. Aaron Meaders, president of the Federation of State Prison Employees, told the committee that tracking down individual corrections employees for those renewals would be an “unreal” task. Rep. Greg Frazer, R-Deer Lodge, spoke as a union member and Department of Corrections employee in opposing the bill on the same grounds.

“Don’t make my job any more difficult or challenging,” Frazer said. “It’s hard enough as it is.” 

Amanda Curtis, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, said HB 168 reaches well beyond the issues raised in the Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling by meddling in the employer-union relationship that’s central to improving working conditions and resolving workplace disputes. Further, Curtis said, the consent process is unnecessary, since public employees sign union contracts when they begin their employment — contracts, she stressed, that already contain an opt-out clause.

“Currently, any union member has the right to opt out of the union,” said Curtis, whose organization represents the bulk of employees impacted by Mercer’s proposal. “And this bill does not help that situation and is not necessary.”

Vicky Byrd, CEO of the Montana Nurses Association, went so far as to call HB 168 an assault on the legacy of Mary Munger, who led a push in the 1960s to secure collective bargaining rights for nurses in Montana. Munger, herself a nurse, died in 2019.

“No one should ever have to waive any of their constitutional rights,” Byrd said.

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Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.