House committee approves right-to-work bill


    A right to work button (Flicker via Creative Commons 2.0)

    The House Business and Labor Committee passed legislation on Friday enacting right-to-work in Montana, a key step forward for a proposal that would significantly overhaul labor law in the state.

    The committee voted 11-9 to pass an amended version of House Bill 251, sponsored by Rep. Caleb Hinkle, R-Belgrade. In short, the bill would ban unions from requiring membership as a condition of employment and prevent them from collecting so-called “agency fees,” money that a non-member pays to the union or to an affiliated organization to support collective bargaining.

    Dozens of unionized workers testified against the bill in its hearing earlier in the month, warning that right-to-work would kneecap collective bargaining efforts and result in lower wages and fewer worker protections in the long run. If the bill passes, Montana will be the 28th right-to-work state.

    The proposal is backed by the National Right to Work Committee and other national right-wing non-profits that advocate against organized labor at the legislative level.

    “There’s a good chance I wouldn’t be here today without the union benefits that my grandfather had working in the mines in Butte,” said Rep. Derek Harvey, D-Butte, in voting against the proposal.

    He explained that his grandfather and a partner were in a mining accident that left them severely injured.

    “With my grandfather and partner’s injuries, it was the rights that the union gave to my grandfather that allowed him to keep a roof over my father and his siblings’ heads,” Harvey said. “Right to work cuts wages, kills benefits and makes it harder for Montanans to provide for themselves and their families.”

    An amendment the committee passed on Friday removes language in the original bill that required a county attorney or the attorney general to investigate violations of the bill were it enacted, one of several points of criticism among opponents.

    Some Republicans on the committee expressed reticence about the bill, the most encompassing of several efforts this session affecting the ability of unions to recruit members and collect dues, but said they wanted to bring the right-to-work conversation to the House floor.

    “I think the people around the state want to hear this discussion on the floor,” said Rep. Denley Loge, R-St. Regis.

    Rep. Moffie Funk, D-Helena, pointed out that Democrats had made similar arguments in attempts to move their bills, such as a previous effort to create paid family leave in Montana but with no success.