Union members wait in a Capitol hallway for the vote on House Bill 251 on Tuesday, March 2. Credit: Eric Dietrich/MTFP

HELENA — An atmosphere of unease permeated the gallery above the Montana House of Representatives Tuesday morning as hundreds of union members watched the vote on a controversial “right-to-work” bill. They’d driven from across the state and adjusted for an eleventh-hour schedule change to serve as a physical reminder to lawmakers of the longstanding presence of organized labor in the state. Al Ekblad, executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO, said that in his three decades in and around the labor movement, it was the first time a major piece of right-to-work legislation had hit the House floor.

“It was a defining moment for the people that came to participate as citizen lobbyists,” Ekblad said. “It’s going up for a vote, so there’s certainly a sense of apprehension until the vote takes place. Nobody’s foolish enough in this world to anticipate that the victory is guaranteed.”

The proposal under consideration was House Bill 251, which would have implemented sweeping changes to state labor laws, including a requirement that workers provide employers written consent to deduct union dues from their paychecks. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Caleb Hinkle, R-Belgrade, informed the House ahead of the vote that he’d had a personal brush with problematic union fees in the past. While working at a grocery store deli in Bozeman in 2013, Hinkle said, he was informed he had to pay a $500 union initiation fee or be let go.

“Since that fee alone would have consumed my entire paycheck and I had just paid rent, I had to be let go,” Hinkle said. “This is nothing short of extortion from a union that was clearly not fighting for my paying worker rights. This led to the worst financial situation of my life.”

Following Hinkle’s introduction, lawmakers debated HB 251 for roughly half an hour. Rep. Derek Harvey, D-Butte, invoked the storied history of organized labor in his district, from the violent death of labor leader Frank Little to the 1920 Anaconda Road Massacre. Rep. Jim Keane, a longtime lawmaker and fellow Butte Democrat, pointed to the crowds above the chamber and chastised his colleagues for taking up a bill he said would harm them, rather than a bill to help improve Montana’s job market.

“It was a defining moment for the people that came to participate as citizen lobbyists. It’s going up for a vote, so there’s certainly a sense of apprehension until the vote takes place. Nobody’s foolish enough in this world to anticipate that the victory is guaranteed.”

Al Ekblad, executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO

Members of Hinkle’s own party split over HB 251. Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Glendive, rose to argue that the bill would free Montana from the “shackles of compulsory unionism,” while Rep. Greg Frazer, R-Deer Lodge, and himself a union member, referred to it as a “punish all because of what happened to one” bill. Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, said he agreed with the bill’s intent to give Montana workers more choice and praised Hinkle for displaying “more courage than most people have” in carrying such a controversial proposal. Even so, Tschida said he’d have to vote “no” on HB 251.

Tensions over union legislation were already high before the House gaveled in Tuesday. The Senate held a vote Monday afternoon on Senate Bill 89, which would have barred public employers from deducting union dues from employee paychecks. Sen. Keith Regier, R-Whitefish, said he sponsored SB 89 in order to bring Montana law in line with a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Regier told the Senate he was concerned not only that dues deductions give a false impression that union membership is mandatory, but that the money ends up fueling political union activity that disproportionately favors Democrats.

Several Senate Republicans voiced opposition to SB 89 out of what they called consideration and respect for unionized workers in their districts. The bill failed to pass, with nine Republicans and 19 Democrats voting against it. In an emailed statement Monday, Montana Federation of Public Employees President Amanda Curtis praised the vote as a “huge victory” for Montana families and essential workers.

“While this legislation should never have made it this far, we commend the bipartisan majority of legislators who did the right thing by voting it down,” Curtis wrote.

The fate of SB 89 was still fresh Tuesday as union members watched the debate on HB 251 wind down. When the votes were tallied, HB 251 failed, with 29 Republicans and all 33 House Democrats voting against it. For one political group, the vote was a notable loss. Americans for Prosperity had appeared as an early, and often lone, proponent for right-to-work bills this session. 

“While Right to Work wasn’t in our agenda for 2021, it is disappointing to see legislators vote against such an important step in re-establishing free association rights in Montana,” David Herbst, state director for AFP-Montana, told Montana Free Press via email. “As such it will be a component to our 2021 legislative scorecard, and we hope to continue connecting legislators over the next 2 years to why Right to Work is good for Montana.”

Ekblad described the reaction to the vote among the people gathered in the gallery and the hallways outside the House as a mixture of relief, joy and gratitude. It was a defining moment, he reiterated, for them and for Montana as a whole. Still, Ekblad conceded the fight over right-to-work probably isn’t over.

“I don’t think this issue’s going to go away, but certainly I think workers’ voices were heard in the Montana Legislature in defeating this bill,” Ekblad said. “And I guarantee if they bring this bill back in two years, Montana workers will show up again.”

CORRECTION: This story was updated March 3, 2021 to correct the number of Republican legislators who voted against HB 251. The number is 29, not 19.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...