How Montana Unions Defeated a Right-to-Work Bill

Labor has suffered defeat after defeat in recent years, especially when it comes to the steady expansion of state-level right-to-work bills. But earlier this month, the state of Montana bucked that trend — by defeating right-to-work.

Workers from across the state protest the right-to-work bill in advance of the floor vote on March 2 in Helena, Montana. (LiUNA Northwest / Twitter)

The US labor movement has been in dramatic decline for decades, and the steady march of state-level right-to-work legislation in recent years is a clear reflection of this. Right-to-work laws passed in Indiana and Michigan in 2012, Wisconsin in 2015, West Virginia in 2016, and Kentucky in 2017. A right-to-work law also passed in Missouri in 2017, but failed in a referendum in August 2018.

These anti-labor laws are designed to drain unions’ financial resources by allowing workers in a workplace where a majority have voted to join a union to opt out of membership and paying dues. But unions still have to provide all the benefits and representation to (and expend their limited financial resources on) those members that opt out of paying dues. Enemies of the labor movement had their dreams fulfilled in 2018, when the Janus Supreme Court decision put “right to work” in effect for all public sector unions.

But there are encouraging signs that labor’s enemies’ right-to-work campaigns can actually be defeated. The labor movement in Montana scored a big victory on March 2 after digging in its heels and halting a right-to-work bill and a “paycheck deception” bill (designed to starve unions’ resources for political efforts) in the Montana legislature, by a 62-38 vote and 28-22 vote, respectively. Republicans were among the legislators that voted against both bills.

The legislation was supported by lobbying groups like the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity and the National Right to Work Committee. Montana is the first state in the country with a Republican-controlled legislature and governorship where a right-to-work bill has made it out of a committee but didn’t pass.

The defeat of this legislation was by no means a given. A broad spectrum of unions in Montana lobbied hard and mobilized their membership to make their opposition impossible to ignore. The November Republican landslide in the state jolted some unions to start preparing for the inevitable attacks.

Amanda Curtis, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, began reaching out to unions in neighboring states that had recently been through this: “We started meeting with labor leaders in Iowa and Wisconsin, and we asked them, ‘What do you wish you would have done?’ They really laid out the bills that passed in their states and what they wished they had done differently.”

Montana’s labor movement also avoided divisions that hampered other states’ efforts to beat back right to work. State representative and former union firefighter Derek Harvey explained, “In Wisconsin, [then governor Scott] Walker tried to separate out the police and fire unions. In Montana, knowing that history, we vowed that labor is labor in the state of Montana, and we’re all going to stand together.”

Union members were mobilized for a consistent presence at the state capitol, both physically and digitally. Workers gave testimonies detailing their unions’ impact on their ability to provide for themselves and their families.

Greg Ferguson, a member of the Ironworkers Local 732, testified that the union has “given me medical care, given me wages that allowed me to go on vacation and put away money for my children, for their college. . . . It’s just about being able to have a better life.”

Scott Dunlap, trustee for the Steelworkers Local 11-0001, explained why even many of his conservative members opposed right to work. “Being able to organize and remain organized is a tool and benefit to many of us conservatives. We just want to be able to get up and be productive. We want to handle our business without help or a handout and raise our families to the best of our ability.”

Teamsters Local 2 and Local 190 used technology to involve members. They held weekly legislation updates through Zoom and texted members to make calls and emails to legislators. They also created digital content to get the message out to the public.

Even some employers were mobilized to defend the unions that represented their workers. Northwestern Energy employs 644 unionized workers in the state. David Hoffman, the director of NorthWestern’s Government Affairs division, explained, “Our workers strive to keep your lights on and the gas flowing safely and reliably. I can’t think of one example where right-to-work would improve our workforce.”

Union members crowded the floor of the Capitol to watch the results of the vote live on a television and celebrated when the bills were defeated. The number of Republicans that voted on the side of labor shows the pressure unions were able to exert on those legislators representing districts with a high percentage of union members.

The defeat of right to work in Montana proves that it’s possible for the labor movement to learn from the series of grueling defeats it’s suffered over the last few decades. Through preparing in advance and refusing to let themselves be divided, workers were able to build a coalition too broad and powerful for the right wing to topple.

This battle was won, but of course the war is far from over. Anti-union forces will quickly regroup to test their power in other states. With private sector union density at below 7 percent, labor can’t afford the spread of any more right-to-work bills. Union members across the country should learn from Montana and start laying the groundwork now to defeat similar bills in their own states.