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'Right-To-Work' Bill Draws Lengthy Public Testimony

Montana Republican Rep. Caleb Hinkle introduces House Bill 251 to the House Business and Labor Committee on Feb. 16, 2021.
Montana Republican Rep. Caleb Hinkle introduces House Bill 251 to the House Business and Labor Committee on Feb. 16, 2021.

A bill that would prohibit forced private union membership as a job condition in Montana drew lengthy public testimony Tuesday. Republican Rep. Caleb Hinkle of Belgrade told lawmakers his adamant support for "right-to-work" legislation comes from his time working at a unionized grocery store in 2013.

Hinkle said he had to pay a $500 union initiation fee or leave his job, which led him to seek work elsewhere and endure what he called the most difficult financial situation of his life. He says other employees shouldn’t have to make a similar decision.

“The right choice is to let workers decide for themselves the benefits and how their hard earned money is spent. This is the definition of workers’ rights,” Hinkle says.

House Bill 251 would make Montana the 28th "right-to-work" state.

If passed, employers would also have to post so called “freedom of choice” notices that summarize the state’s updated union laws, and employers would have to get individual employee consent to deduct union dues from a paycheck.

A legislative fiscal analysis finds several of the bill’s provisions could violate the Constitution.

Thirteen people testified in favor of the proposal, including state and national right-to-work advocates, business owners and rank-and-file union members. But many more organized workers spoke against it, a 60-person group that also included representatives for NorthWestern Energy and the Stillwater and East Boulder mines in southern Montana.

Heather McDowell with Sibanye-Stillwater said having a unionized workforce has improved safety, employee engagement and performance at the mines.

“We think that HB 251 would impair this collaborative and this really productive relationship,” Mcdowell says.

Union leaders say "right-to-work" provisions would impact union bargaining power and depress employee wages. They’ve similarly challenged other Republican-led proposals this session that would impact public union dues-paying procedures.

Union members made up 12 percent of Montana’s workforce last year, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The House Business and Labor Committee hasn’t yet taken action on House Bill 251.

Copyright 2021 Yellowstone Public Radio

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