Al Ekblad addresses fellow members of the Climate Solutions Council during a meeting in Missoula in early 2020. As a member of the council, created by former Gov. Steve Bullock to craft reduction strategies for carbon emissions, Ekblad argued for supporting workers displaced by shifts in the energy sector. Credit: Alex Sakariassen / MTFP

When Al Ekblad woke up on Nov. 4, 2020, his mind immediately turned to the approaching legislative session. Montana voters had just elected a slate of Republican candidates to statewide offices  — candidates the AFL-CIO, with Ekblad as executive secretary, had actively messaged against — by wider margins than pollsters had predicted. Republican supermajorities consolidated power in the statehouse. Election night was “pretty eye-opening,” Ekblad said, and he emerged from it knowing that another political fight was brewing for the labor movement.

Sure enough, at the start of the session advocates of so-called right-to-work laws began pressing lawmakers to “free Montana workers from the shackles of compulsory unionism.” Several Republican legislators proposed stricter laws regulating union dues collection in the public and private sectors, and rolled out House Bill 251, dubbed the “Worker Freedom Act,” to broadly implement right-to-work provisions in the state. When the latter made its debut in the House Business and Labor Committee in mid February, Ekblad was the first opponent at the lectern.

“I expected that bill to die in committee,” Ekblad told Montana Free Press. “And when it did not, I’m not going to lie to anybody, it gave me a pit in my stomach.”

The fight ended just before the Legislature’s mid-session break, with hundreds of union members watching from the gallery as the full House voted the bill down 38-62. Union leaders statewide hailed it as a major victory. For Ekblad, it was also a successful parting skirmish after a decade of leading the labor movement’s political arm in Montana. On June 25, the AFL-CIO announced his retirement. Characteristically, he can’t help working one more pitch for the benefits of organized labor into the occasion.

“Every occupation I’ve had has been focused on the labor movement, has been part of it,” Ekblad said. “That’s what allows me to retire. I mean, I’m going to collect four union pensions, and that allows me to retire.”

Montana union members including then-AFL-CIO Executive Secretary Al Ekblad pose on the Capitol steps in early March 2021 following the defeat of a right-to-work bill in the state Legislature. Credit: Courtesy of James Burrowes

Ekblad got his footing in the labor world courtesy of two union-member parents and a working-class Minnesota upbringing where political engagement was a household practice. After arriving in Montana in the early 1980s, he waded into the electoral scene as a volunteer for Democrat Ted Schwinden’s first gubernatorial campaign before working on several congressional campaigns in the mid-1980s. By 1987, he’d joined up with the AFL-CIO for the first time, helping the organization and the Montana Farmers Union retrain displaced workers. 

As Montana smelters and timber mills shut down throughout the late ’80s and ’90s, Ekblad continued serving out-of-work union members for the AFL-CIO, with the occasional break to work on political campaigns. He rattles off a list of notable workplace shut-downs spanning more than a decade, from a sugar beet plant in Wolf Point to the ASARCO smelter in East Helena to two separate sawmill closures in Bonner, one under Champion International and another under Stimson Lumber. In each case Ekblad was on the front lines, offering workers what relief the organization could while taking broader note of the state’s shifting labor landscape.

“Montana has been in a constant state of transition, moving away from natural resources, for as long as I’ve been involved, since the ’80s,” Ekblad said. “That’s really challenging, because those are the best blue-collar jobs in every community, and it’s changed the economy of the state. And that’s why Montana is in the top five of states that have people working more than one job, because that’s what we have to do here to survive.”

Derek Hitt, union rep for the Carpenters Local 82 and president of the Missoula Area Central Labor Council, said Ekblad’s efforts over the years have been critical to the labor movement in Montana. Since his election to the executive secretary post at the AFL-CIO in May 2011, Ekblad has argued to protect union workers in Colstrip and worked alongside U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and former Gov. Steve Bullock to end a three-month lockout at a talc plant in Three Forks. In the heat of such passion-sparking battles, Hitt describes Ekblad as a calm and collected presence who’s “cool as a cucumber.”

“I’ve seen him multiple times where people are frazzled and dazzled, and he’s like, ‘That’s good to know. Let’s move on,’” Hitt said. “It takes something to be that calm.”

 “His frame was always, how do you make sure that workers are taken care of, because when workers are taken care of, families are taken care of.”

former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock

Bullock told MTFP by phone that the talc mill lockout was among Ekblad’s most prominent moments of fighting for a union that was “being crushed.” And that particular chapter spoke to an approach Bullock glimpsed in Ekblad’s organizing activity, his conversations with two-year colleges about workforce development, and his work in the Legislature. To Bullock, it always appeared that Ekblad’s personal experience as a highway laborer had left him with a deep appreciation for the importance of good-paying jobs.

“Al wasn’t afraid to pick up the phone and talk to me about what could be done and what needed to be done,” Bullock said. “And his frame was always, how do you make sure that workers are taken care of, because when workers are taken care of, families are taken care of.”

Numerous associates offered similar assessments of Ekblad’s dedication to workers’ rights. Deputy Commissioner of Higher Education Kevin McRae first worked with him when Ekblad was representing employees in the Montana University System during a stint with the International Union of Operating Engineers. Via email, McRae recalled Ekblad as “an excellent negotiator” with the ability to “see both sides of the story.” Amanda Curtis, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, called him one of the “titans of the Montana labor movement,” a personal mentor, and a leader willing to improvise even in the face of a global pandemic.

“Last year we hosted a statewide Labor Day picnic because no one was having any in-person gatherings,” Curtis said. “Al and I sat six feet apart from each other on our separate laptops and hosted the biggest Labor Day picnic we’ve probably ever had, since everyone came to one [event] and it was virtual.”

On the political stage, former Democratic legislator Robyn Driscoll of Billings said Ekblad was notably different from other lobbyists working the halls of the Montana Capitol. He was a man of few words, she said, who offered clear, concise testimony and worked honestly and effectively with lawmakers of both parties. Ekblad was one of the first calls Driscoll made when she decided in 2019 to run for chair of the Montana Democratic Party, the position she now holds. For Driscoll, too, the word “calm” comes immediately to mind. 

“I’ve never heard anybody, Republican or Democrat, talk about him being offensive or playing dirty politics by any stretch of the imagination,” Driscoll said. “I think he’s got a real good finger on the political pulse in the state of Montana.”

If there’s one issue that’s set Ekblad up for criticism, however, it’s coal. Prior to taking the reins at the AFL-CIO, Ekblad was a prominent voice of support for leasing state land in the Otter Creek Valley to Arch Coal. For Ekblad, the proposed Otter Creek coal mine was inseparable from the labor movement’s broader goal of creating and supporting all sorts of jobs in mining, construction and other fields. A report produced by the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research in 2012 estimated the mine would create 2,648 construction jobs alone during its peak building year. But the environmental community viewed Otter Creek as a threat to wildlife, water quality and agriculture, and an unwelcome perpetuation of Montana’s reliance on coal-fired power from Colstrip.

“Montana has been in a constant state of transition, moving away from natural resources, for as long as I’ve been involved, since the ’80s. That’s really challenging, because those are the best blue-collar jobs in every community, and it’s changed the economy of the state.”

Former MONTANA AFL-CIO Executive secretary al ekblad

Anne Hedges, director of policy and legislative affairs at the Montana Environmental Information Center, found Ekblad’s position on Otter Creek maddening for a number of reasons. For starters, she said, the company pursuing the lease was notorious for union-busting, and the state’s agreement offered no guarantee that the jobs would go to union members. The situation had her “pulling my hair out.”

“At the very least, if there was going to be a mine there, it should have been a union mine,” Hedges said. “And the unions weren’t advocating for that. So it was incredibly frustrating.”

Hedges also considers the Otter Creek debate — and the ongoing tension over the Colstrip power plant — as a missed opportunity for labor in Montana. Her assessment is that union leaders haven’t done enough to embrace the potential for job growth in renewable energy and push Colstrip owners to commit to transition funding for workers as the plant winds down. Hedges doesn’t doubt that Ekblad takes climate change seriously, and he’s “a nice guy,” she said, smart and strategic, “a formidable adversary.” But she’s never seen eye-to-eye with his positions on coal-fired power.

“They just believe that if they keep fighting, they can keep the plant open forever instead of accepting the change that is absolutely coming down the pike,” Hedges said. “That change is not carbon capture and sequestration. Nobody wants to pay $2 billion dollars to capture a little bit of carbon dioxide out of Colstrip Unit 3 and 4. Nobody. And yet we still are having that conversation.”

Ekblad has indeed put up an argument for Colstrip’s continued operation, and for the use of carbon-capture technology to make the operation more environmentally sound. The AFL-CIO and its members do have an agenda that actively supports clean energy, he said, but major change can’t come at the cost of hundreds of jobs, especially when Montanans rely on the plant’s power to heat their homes in January or, in the case of the current heatwave, crank up their air conditioning. 

Ekblad’s push has long been to establish a framework to support future energy transitions. As a member of Bullock’s 25-person Climate Solutions Council, Ekblad made a strong pitch not just for transition money for workers, but for a robust apprenticeship program that would allow displaced workers to support their families financially while they retrain for new jobs. He also floated the idea of tying those apprenticeships to tax credits and incentives in the renewable energy sector. When it comes to one of Montana’s most polarizing issues, Ekblad said he’s tried hard to be a realist on behalf of a diverse community of union members.

“You know, the hardcore environmentalists say, ‘Absolutely no fossil fuels,’ and then you have the hardcore people on the Republican side that say, ‘No green energy. We’re going to run Colstrip until the coal is gone,” Ekblad said. “Neither of those positions work. I mean, that’s just reality.”

CNN reporters interview AFL-CIO Executive Secretary Al Ekblad in Helena about cuts to Montana unemployment insurance. Credit: Courtesy of James Burrowes

Debates over energy, workers’ rights and the right-to-work agenda will continue long after Ekblad’s departure, and union leaders like Hitt and Ekblad’s successor, James Holbrook, are confident that in a pinch, his knowledge and experience will be just a phone call away. 

For Ekblad, meanwhile, the biggest victory of the past decade didn’t occur in a meeting room or on the House floor. Even as statewide union membership has fluctuated over the past 10 years,  dipping to a low of 10.5% of the workforce in 2019 before rebounding to 12% last year, Montana’s labor movement is more unified than ever, he said, with 91% of union members in the state now affiliated with the AFL-CIO — one of the highest union density rates in the nation. That strength has allowed union leaders to beat back unpopular proposals such as HB 251 by ensuring that individual unions can’t be lured away from the larger movement with what Hitt calls “sweetheart deals.” 

That ability to rally as one voice will doubtless prove useful in the years to come, Ekblad said, because if workers don’t have a vehicle with which to organize and bargain for themselves, the labor riots that punctuated the 1910s and ’20s are destined to be repeated. In short, the battle Ekblad has long fought is far from over.

“Until workers have a more level playing field, if that doesn’t happen, you’re going to see more and more strikes that are not supported specifically by the labor movement,” Ekblad said, “but they’re going to be people pushing back against society on shit that should have been changed 50 years ago.”

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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.