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'Right To Work' Groups Target Montana Public Employee Unions

A screen capture from the "My Pay, My Say" campaign website, August 28, 2018, which provides a form for public employee union members to opt out of their union.

Out-of-state conservative free market groups have set up campaigns offering Montana public employees a guided path to abandoning organized labor.

This following a June U.S. Supreme Court decision favoring so-called “Right-to-Work” policies. The ruling said that public unions could no longer require non-union employees to pay what’s known as agency fees. 

Montana Union leaders say those fees help cover the cost of negotiating raises, benefits, and working conditions for all workers, union and non-union alike.

Without those fees, which are about 75 percent of standard union dues, union members say there will be freeloaders profiting from the efforts of their peers in organized labor.

But the Supreme Court ruled those fees unconstitutionally step on public workers’ right to free speech. It was a blow to the revenue and bargaining power of public unions across the country. And while the court ruling did not specifically deal with union membership, groups are attempting to use it to incentivize union members jump ship.

“Some of our members have been targeted by anti-union groups to encourage them to drop their membership,” says Eric Feaver, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, which represents some Montana Public Radio employees.

Feaver says MFPE lost a large number non-union fee payers as a result of the Supreme Court decision, but did not give a specific number. He doesn’t expect many union members will leave the labor group, even though that’s what the campaigns celebrating the court's ruling are seeking.

One of those groups is the Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which is now including Montana in its national campaign called “My Pay, My Say." It offers a website and call center to streamline the process of opting out of a public union.

The organization didn't respond to Montana Public Radio’s request for an interview.

The Mackinac Center describes itself as advocating for free markets and limited government.

A tax filing analysis by the website Conservative Transparency says its major backers include organizations that receive significant funding from the conservative billionaire Koch brothers.

The same analysis says U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ family foundation has also donated to the Mackinac Center.

The Freedom Foundation, with offices in Washington, Oregon and California, is also offering help to Montana public employees drop their union memberships. 

It shares some of the same major conservative backers as the Mackinac Center, including the Donors Capital Fund whose mission is promoting private initiatives instead of government programs.

June’s Supreme Court decision overturned 40 years of precedent that mandatory agency fees were different than regular union dues because the fees couldn’t be used for lobbying or political activity.

However, public union opponents say when it comes to organized labor in government, all dollars used to try to influence worker contracts is political because those contracts deal with public money.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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