U.S. Senator Jon Tester walked up to the union picket line in Three Folks Saturday for the second time since the local Boilermakers #239 were locked out of the Imerys talc plant in early August, amid a bitter labor contract dispute.
“Fighting the good fight. How you doing? You’ve set up for the winter,” Tester said as he walked toward the crowd at the picket line.
A dusting of snow had fallen overnight, and by noon, when Tester arrived at the line, it wasn’t much warmer than freezing.
It’s less than three weeks until election day, when Montanans will elect either Democrat Jon Tester or his Republican challenger, Montana State Auditor Matt Rosendale. Most recent polls call the race a toss-up. Libertarian Rick Breckenridge could be a factor.
Both Tester and Rosendale made campaign stops in Three Forks over the weekend.
A couple dozen supporters of the locked-out workers gathered around Tester at the picket line.
“All you want is fair wages and good benefits for good work," Tester said. "And that's all this country is all about. So I just want to say thank you for what you’ve done so far, and for whoever is manning the tent, thank you guys very, very much. Like I said, you're on the right side. We just have to work to prevail. ”
Earlier this month, Tester introduced the so-called “Picket Act” that would reduce tax breaks for “corporations participating in labor lockouts." Tester is the legislation’s lone sponsor, it’s currently before the Senate Finance Committee.
Tester’s brief visit to the union line was campaign stop. But the two-term Democrat didn’t say much about the upcoming election. He let the state’s union leaders do that.
“We’ve never heard from Rosendale,” Al Ekblad, the head of the Montana AFL-CIO, said. “This country is going to hell and it's about greed. And these workers standing the line here are saying ‘you're not going to do it in Montana.’ This is the lifeblood of a community. We have one Senator standing up for Montana, and we’ve got a guy running around like a lap dog for the President, who won’t say a word. But what’s important you have 24 days to make a difference. Twenty four.”
The clear right and wrong, hard line choice labor leaders say exists in Montana’s Senate race isn’t as clear to some of the union workers taking turns on the picket line around the clock.
It was quiet when I stopped by two days before the rally with Tester. Three union guys were sitting inside a canvas tent set up alongside the back entrance to the talc milling plant. A small wood stove was going.
Ferguson Gammon is one of the locked out workers. I talked to him and two other guys sitting in the tent for about an hour.
“We’re not going to vote Democrat because they gave us our jobs back," Gammon said. "I think when a candidate comes out here they’re representing themselves, and not in a selfish way. When Jon Tester comes out here he’s speaking for Jon Tester about how my family is important, too. And those actions do have an effect on how I vote, or how I view them. But I don’t see them as a candidate at that time.”
Gammon and the other union workers I spoke with say they vote for the individual, not the party that individual candidate belongs to.
Scott Welter, a union worker I also spoke with in the tent, ended up coming to the Tester rally Saturday. Welter voted for Trump in 2016, but has some buyer's remorse now because of what he calls the president's “temper tantrums.”
“That was a, whoops, mistake on my part,” Welter said, chuckling.
Welter says he appreciates Tester coming to the visit them on the picket line but is still undecided if he’ll cast a vote for him.
“I’m still going to do some more research. I’m interested, I heard through the rumor vine in Three Forks that Rosendale was down at the Iron Horse, downtown," Welter said. "So I kinda want to go and see what he has to say”
Not long after Tester left Three Forks, Republican Matt Rosendale showed up, but not at the picket line. Rosendale had his meet-and-greet with local voters at the Iron Horse Cafe, on main street. About a dozen people showed up.
“Thanks everybody for coming out, we are really on the countdown now,” Rosendale said.
Rosendale railed against Tester for voting against Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the US Supreme Court and said Montanans needed to elect a more conservative voice to represent them in Congress. Rosendale didn’t mention the labor dispute going on on the other end of town.
“We need somebody who is going to represent our timer industry, our agriculture industry and our way of life, which certainly includes our Second Amendment rights," Rosendale said. "We are going to replace Jon Tester and send him back to Big Sandy.”
The voters I spoke with at the cafe said the number one reason they are backing Rosendale is because of how vocal he has been in supporting the agenda of President Trump.
Neither Tester nor Rosendale stuck around Three Forks much longer than an hour. The small town visit was just a pit stop for the campaigns entering the final sprint in their high-profile race. Both campaigns say it’s going to be a close finish.