Yellowstone County Courthouse in downtown Billings, Montana (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick for the Daily Montanan).
The state’s largest county may have more than 100 of its employees going on strike, meaning that on Jan. 23, courts, vehicle registration and even tax processing will grind to a halt unless a new contract can be negotiated next week.
Currently, Yellowstone County employees represented by the state’s largest union, the Montana Federation of Public Employees, have “overwhelmingly” authorized a strike, and the MFPE alleged “union busting” tactics.
The action also comes after an arbiter ruled that the county violated the Unfair Labor Practices Act when it hired new employees at wages higher than current, longer tenured employees were making without adjusting pay. The county had said that rising wages and inflation forced them to make those decisions without first conferring with the union. Still, the hearing officer sided with the union.
After that decision, both the county and the union seemed certain that ruling was a momentary incident that would likely not affect negotiations for a new contract. However, union members who spoke with the Daily Montanan said the issue seems to linger.
For example, MFPE President Amanda Curtis said that the county seems insistent that it has the right to hire employees at whatever rate it deems fair without having to consult the union. She said this practice not only goes against the history of the cooperation, but also against the very purpose of the union. Curtis also said the impetus to strike seems to be directly tied to Yellowstone County’s refusal to acknowledge that it violated the federal union law.
“They want to unilaterally pay people what they want,” Curtis said. “But they were already told not to do that.”
She said that she believed the county would have learned from the recent unfair labor practices decisions.
“The county commission’s refusal to bargain in good faith and stop their illegal hiring practices has led to this strike authorization,” Curtis said. “MFPE members stand ready to back Yellowstone County employees for as long as it takes. If commissioner are worried about retaining their workers, as every smart manager in the state should be, then their illegal activity must stop now.”
Dwight Vigness, Yellowstone County Human Resources Director, told the Daily Montanan the issue boils down what the county may do to manage its employees. His statement to the Daily Montanan was:
“Yellowstone County is looking forward to meeting with the Union on Wednesday January 18th to continue efforts in reaching an agreement for our dedicated employees. The issue seems to have boiled down to Montana Code Annotated 39-31-303 and to what extent the County is willing to negotiate away management rights, in which the union has every right to negotiate. Nobody wins during a strike and Yellowstone County will do all it can to come to a mutual understanding with the union this coming Wednesday.”
The portion of Montana law that Vigness referenced is a portion of state code titled, “Management Rights of Public Employers.” That portion said that public employers, like Yellowstone County, may hire, manage or assign work to employees. However, that portion of the code is silent on issues of pay.
Curtis said part of the challenge is also trying to counteract the misinformation that the county officials are promoting.
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“They are being less than honest or transparent because they’re trying to mislead the public,” Curtis said.
For example, she said that Yellowstone County officials are trying to tell the public the county has negotiated a raise package, but are stopping there – making it sound less important than it is. She said what the leaders are not saying is that they’re trying to strip the union of its right to confer about wages, something that has been a part of the working relationship between the employees and management for decades.
“We’ve always been a part of wage issues on a case-by-case basis,” Curtis said.
But the county seems intent on ending that practice in the contract, she said.
“It’s made the employees feel like (county officials) are being dishonest, not transparent and manipulative,” Curtis said. “It’s union busting.”
She said even though the employee union could have likely bargained for higher wages, it was adamant that the language of the contract be kept in tact, possibly trading away more money in the deal. Curtis said it appeared they had finally had enough.
A mediation is set for Jan. 18, and if that session doesn’t result in an agreement, Curtis said the union will exercise its right to strike beginning on Jan. 23.
Yellowstone County Employees President Katie Cosby confirmed that the language in the contract, not the wages is the sticking point. Though the previous expired contract took longer to bargain four years ago, she said the county had pushed for language to be included in the contract that made union employees sign that they were giving up their First Amendment rights. Cosby said the county eventually relented and dropped the issue.
However, she said this time, it’s continuing to engage in “union busting” tactics like insisting wages are the right of the employer.
Cosby said 80% of the 120 members voted to authorize the strike, a remarkable number. She said it’s even more impressive because the issue isn’t about pay, but the ability to maintain a unified voice through the union.
“We actually see it as exercising our First Amendment rights,” she said. “Language in the contract is just as important as the wages.”
She also said that with many public-sector employees being hired away at private companies for more money, there’s a growing concern about wage compaction, so if the union loses its ability to control wages, the conditions could get worse.
“And the employees here in Yellowstone County want it to be the best courthouse in the state,” Cosby said. “We don’t want to interfere with their right to hire and fire so long as they’re doing it fairly. But bargaining and negotiation are what we want. This feels like a tactic to dissolve the union.”
That could mean the state’s largest court system and its eight state district court judges would come to a near halt as all court staff are members of the union. Also, those handling motor vehicle registration or some tax collection would also be affected.
“The union has exhausted all other alternatives and is left with no other option to settle a fair contract. The coming strike is of the commissioners’ making,” the MFPE said in a press release.
Curtis said that while the Yellowstone County employees number more than 100, they’re not the only part of MFPE in the county. There are hundreds of other union members, including teachers, highway patrol and police officers who may be called on to decide how to support fellow union members during the strike.
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