A U.S. Supreme court decision expected in the coming weeks could deal a big blow to Montana’s public sector unions. The decision could make Montana a so-called ‘Right-to-Work’ state in the public sector, costing the state’s biggest union membership, revenue, and bargaining power.
“A union only works or only works well when the majority, if not a vast majority, of the members in a bargaining unit are members of that union," Montana Federation of Public Employees Eric Feaver says. "When some people decide for whatever reason they just don’t want to participate in the work of the union and they don’t even want to pay dues to the union, because what, it doesn’t mean anything to them?”
Feaver says public union membership here could fall by 10 percent if labor groups are no longer allowed to mandate union fees.
Feaver and other union leaders expect the conservative leaning Supreme Court to rule that mandatory union fees, sometimes called fair-share fees, are unconstitutional.
Unions say the fees that nonunion workers pay are required to help cover the costs of negotiating raises, benefits, and working conditions for all workers, union and non-union alike.
But if the court rules they’re not mandatory, it opens the door for workers to get the benefit of collective bargaining without having to pay for it.
“Sometimes we call them freeloaders,” Feaver says.
The Montana Federation of Public Employees represents about 24,000 people in the state, including some staff at Montana Public Radio.
Feaver says that until the Supreme Court rules, union organizers are working to convince as many people as possible that it’s important to stay or become a union member.
“I think our job is to explain that it does mean something to you, it is why you are paid what you’re paid, it is why you have the benefits you have from healthcare to retirement. And when it comes to working conditions and issues you have with your employer, that’s your union,” he says.
Agency fees can only be used to support bargaining with employers, and not for political lobbying, or union donations to political candidates.
But some say bargaining over government employee wages is by nature political, because it deals with public money.
Republican State Senator Steve Fitzpatrick says using union fees for political lobbying is one of the main arguments against public unions, and is at the core of this Supreme Court case.
Fitzpatrick, who sits on the state legislative labor committee, says public unions spend money to elect public officials who, once elected, bargain with the unions on worker benefits that are funded by public tax dollars.
“There is some concern that people, when negotiating wages with the unions may not necessarily have the same interest in getting the best deal possible for their side. And I think that’s where you get concern about public sector negotiations,” he says.
Fitzpatrick expects public union membership to dip if the court strikes down agency fees, but he’s unsure how much. And, he doesn’t expect the 2019 Montana Legislature to pick up the issue. He says it’s too politically charged to make much progress, especially if the executive and legislative branches are controlled by different parties.
Still, the federal court’s decision would be a landmark event in a state where much of America’s early union roots took hold.
“This is going to put us back 40 years,” says Rich Aarstad, the senior manuscript archivist at the Montana Historical Society. He’s also the treasurer of the Montana Federation of Public Employees.
In the basement of the historical society, just past his office, there’s a blue door with a keypad entry that opens into the vault of Montana historical manuscripts. Montana’s constitution is stored there, in a cardboard box, kept on a shelf at about chest level.
Aarstad says he’s found old newspaper clippings from the 1900s saying that at time, Montana was the most unionized state in the country.
And he says Montana's labor laws look the way they do now, because of the power of organized labor then.
“Like an eight-hour day for miners and smelterman at the turn of the 20th century in 1900, the establishment of a Labor Day on the first Monday of September, two years before the federal government did it, child labor laws, safety regulations, workers compensation, which came in in 1912. A lot of that is because of the strength of organized labor has wielded at the ballot box,” says Aarstad.
In January, Governor Steve Bullock asked the U.S. Supreme Court to not reverse its stance on union fees. Bullock’s brief said Montana has sovereign authority on this issue and the current collective-bargaining system has been “crucial to ensure labor peace in the State’s public sector.”
Union leaders say it’s almost a foregone conclusion that the Supreme Court will deal a blow to organized public labor in their upcoming decision. They say public unions can survive the hit, but they say public unions’ footprint in Montana, at least in the short term, will shrink.