State Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, strikes a distinct profile as the new executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO.
Small, who was elected to the position at the union’s annual convention in June, is a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, making him one of the first Indigenous people to lead the AFL-CIO in Montana, a federation of 38 unions in a variety of trades and professions. And while the executive secretary spot is nonpartisan — so it’s hard to say definitively — he also appears to be the first Republican to hold the job.
“I’m glad that people don’t see me as an issue — and they see me as beneficial to the cause, even though I’m not the same as everyone else politically,” Small said in an interview with Montana Free Press this week. “A lot of folks feel like [the AFL-CIO] is a big Democrat organization, and it really necessarily isn’t. It’s a nonpartisan, pro-worker type deal.”
Small, a comparatively moderate pro-labor member of the GOP, came to the Legislature in 2017 and said he plans to finish the interim duties of his current Senate term.
(Incidentally, that will forestall any official lobbying Small does on behalf of the union as the state’s revolving-door law forbids lawmakers and other state officials from acting as a lobbyist until 24 months after the end of their government service).
But he had a long history in organized labor before running for the Legislature, including as a boilermaker in Colstrip. Though Small has a reputation for sponsoring bipartisan legislation, he also carried two bills this past session to prohibit “local governments from banning or limiting energy choices” and to prohibit local governments from banning petroleum-based fuels.
“I’ve been around [unions] my whole life,” Small said. “My mom was a United Mine Workers union member; she was secretary for their local at one point. Probably the week I turned 18, I got a job as a union laborer. I did that for several years, got into the boilermakers’ union, started an apprenticeship, worked my way through that, up through the ranks, and I was president of the [IBB Local 11] for a while. All said and done, I think I got about 25 years, 26 years in the union. I’ve always been a worker advocate.”
Small’s nomination for executive secretary of the state AFL-CIO was unopposed. The previous officeholder, James Holbrook, chose not to run for re-election.
Small said he’s focused on growing union membership, electing pro-union officials to pass pro-union bills — and, in the inverse, defeating so-called right-to-work and related legislation — and bolstering the AFL-CIO’s statewide reputation, especially in reservation communities.
“When I was growing up, pretty much all the work on the reservations was union,” he said. “Ironworkers, laborers. And that’s changed over the years. That’s unfortunate. When union trades were doing work on the reservations, they were accruing benefits, insurance, retirement. I’d like to see that again, some of these younger folks on the reservation leave them with something at the end, not just a paycheck today. The labor movement in general, we need more participation. We need to start developing a name again.”
And he’s aware of how his political history might factor into those ambitions.
“I have a pretty good contact list,” he said. “I’ve got a pretty good understanding of how Montana politics works, tons of relationships, experience. And probably a different viewpoint than a lot of people.”
The Democratic Party and Montana labor have a long relationship. As former Montana AFL-CIO executive secretary Al Ekblad put it in an interview this week: “Historically, I’ve never seen anything in their platform or legislative agenda about taking away collective bargaining rights.”
But the unions are organizations driven by a politically diverse membership.
“I would argue most [members] are independents,” Ekblad said. “You have to be representative of that. If people perceived Jim Murry as a huge strong Democrat 30 years ago, and he was, if they viewed me as a moderate from 2011 to 2021, if they see Jason as a Republican — at the end of the day, all three of us make our decisions for what’s good for the workers.”
Montana unions and the lawmakers they support have reflected that in different ways. Ekblad noted that, for example, right-to-work legislation hasn’t succeeded in Montana, despite successive attempts in increasingly GOP-dominated legislatures. And in 2022, the membership of both the AFL-CIO and the Montana Federation of Public Employees endorsed independent wealth manager Gary Buchanan in the race for Montana’s eastern congressional district over Democrat Penny Ronning and incumbent Republican Matt Rosendale.
“Although we get accused of other things, we are actually blind to party, and it is my dream that all of the candidates would want to interview with us, would want our endorsement and would support our values,” MFPE President Amanda Curtis, herself a former Democratic legislator, told MTFP at the time. “Recently many more Democrats have answered [our] questions correctly, which has led us to maybe have our reputation as something other than what we are.”
In an interview this week, Curtis applauded Small’s election.
“I’m relieved to see that he didn’t stick to what has been the Republican Party line on labor,” she said. “He’s been a giant in protecting workers’ rights in the Senate. The only place I’d rather see him than AFL is in Congress. I think we’re lucky to get him, and it should be the nail in the coffin in any messaging that labor is partisan.”
Shortly after taking office, Small said, he assembled his staff and delivered a message: “I think we need to keep our eye on the ball, not get distracted by all the peripherals,” he recalled saying. “And I think the eye on the ball is getting good pro-labor people, good legislation and protecting our work and our well-being.”
He clarified that he means the union should stay focused on key issues of collective bargaining, training, wage rates and so forth — not wade into either side of the social conflicts that consume so much of the Legislature.
That’s a big dilemma that the labor movement in the increasingly conservative Montana has to wrestle with, Curtis said, adding that MFPE intentionally tries to avoid the perception that it is a liberal political group. The union’s membership is majority female and features as many LGBTQ+ people as any other segment of the population, she said, but its legislative program doesn’t speak to abortion access or bills to restrict gender-affirming care. MFPE’s official health care plank opposes legislation to “create or implement public health policies that lack support of health care professionals,” but doesn’t get more specific than that.
“That’s hard for a lot of our members to swallow,” she said. “We have a membership that considers all of those issues to be union issues. But we’ve chosen to stay away from that. It’s a heated debate.”
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