Rep. Derek Harvey, D-Butte, addresses a crowd of union workers assembled to oppose right-to-work legislation on Feb. 17. Credit: Arren Kimbel-Sannit / MTFP

The House Business and Labor Committee voted 12-7 Wednesday to table a bill establishing Montana as the nation’s 28th right-to-work state. 

House Bill 448, sponsored by Rep. James Bergstrom, R-Buffalo, would have prohibited private sector union contracts that require employees to join a union or otherwise pay fees for their representation.

The bill’s hearing last week generated an outpouring of opposition from union tradespeople and leadership who said the bill would erode the benefits workers receive through organized labor and buck Montana’s long-standing tradition of collective action. The proposal’s four proponents, all but one of whom was tied to national efforts to push right-to-work, said so-called union security agreements limit the freedom of workers and disincentivize effective representation. 

“I would just like to say that there was quite a bit of information out there and politics and some intimidation and that’s all I want to say about it,” Bergstrom said Wednesday morning as the committee prepared to take a vote on the bill. 

Tabling HB 448 “is a real good outcome for working people in Montana, for sure,” said Mario Martinez, the lead representative for Montana Carpenters Local 82. “We’re really happy with the way that the representatives have been able to see past out-of-state interests and make sure that we’re preserving good livable wages and an ability to have health care and retirement.”


Union representatives and opponents to the bill on the Business and Labor Committee have expressed cautious optimism throughout the week that the bill would stall in committee. Indeed, several Republicans — including committee chair Rep. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls — joined with all Democrats on the committee to table the bill Wednesday. 

Last session, Rep. Caleb Hinkle, R-Belgrade, brought similar legislation that made it to the House floor but no further, with union workers packing the gallery overhead as lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to kill the bill. 

Union supporters are still monitoring the bill for the possibility of a motion to “blast” it out of committee and to the floor, which the House can do with a three-fifths majority vote, said Rep. Derek Harvey, D-Butte, who made the motion to table Wednesday. 

“I think labor has built good inroads and had good conversations with [lawmakers] to be able to stop the bill the way we did today,” said Harvey, himself a union firefighter. “I hope that this sets the precedent for the rest of the session on these anti-labor bills. But time will tell as crunch time comes down and the chess pieces start moving around. I can see ‘em try to hold this over our head for other stuff.” 

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Raised in Arizona, Arren is no stranger to the issues impacting Western states, having a keen interest in the politics of land, transportation and housing. Prior to moving to Montana, Arren was a statehouse reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times and covered agricultural and trade policy for Politico in Washington, D.C. In Montana, he has carved out a niche in shoe-leather heavy muckraking based on public documents and deep sourcing that keeps elected officials uncomfortable and the public better informed.