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Union reps, members bash right-to-work bill


Last updated 1/22/2021 at 12:18pm

With right-to-work legislation pending in the Montana Legislature, discussions of unions and opposition to them is again surfacing in the state and in this area.

In a town and state that has so many jobs that are structured with a union, the term “right-to-work” can be a very controversial subject. Right-to-work broadly refers to laws that ban unions from requiring dues or fair-share fees in unionized workplace. 

People who are for the right-to-work argue it is beneficial to development and that employees should not be forced to contribute to a union to be covered by union contracts. 

Executive director of the Montana Citizens for the Right to Work coalition Randy Pope said that “hard-working men and women of Montana are denied gainful employment” because of being forced to pay union dues to the good paying jobs they wish to receive.

Rep. Ed Hill, R-Havre, said he supports the right-to-work concept but did not specifically address the legislation introduced this session.

Other local legislators had not responded to requests for comment by printing deadline this morning.

The opposition to right-to-work argues that the laws are aimed at reducing union membership and handing freely to non-union members the benefits that the union has worked hard to provide for its members. The laws also target wages and workplace protection.

Retired rail worker and lifetime member of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Jeff Dibblee said, without union involvement, most people would be working at minimum wage or slightly above. 

“You would lose a lot of your good benefits (without a union) like job security. You go into work as a young person and you’re doing a good job and the older you get and soon you’re starting to wear out, and then the company sees that and says, ‘Well we don’t need you anymore. We’re going to let you go.’ Where, with a union you have power and can say, ‘No I’ve worked here 20 years and I’m what they call seniority. You can’t fire me first. You have to fire those with lower seniority.’ That’s one of the benefits,” said Dibblee.

Some of the other benefits are health and welfare, which includes affordable health care, he said. The union keeps the co-payment for insurance affordable for employees that are members. 

The unions also stress safety in the companies, said Dibblee. 

“The companies want you to believe that they provide the safety stuff. That’s a lie. The unions fought hard for safety. When I first started, I didn’t have safety glasses and if you wanted them you had to buy them yourself. You only had to wear hard hats if you wanted to, you didn’t have to. But gloves you had to buy your own. It was terrible. But because of safety concerns raised by union employees the union pushed hard and got a lot of this stuff implemented,” he said. 

Dibblee said that unions also fought for the Whistle Blower Act. This act protects those who speak out about unsafe work environments from retribution. The union also fought for railroad workers to be guaranteed a 40-hour work week. This ensures that the company must pay benefits such as health insurance and paid time off. 

Dibblee was a union representative for 10 years during his career on the railroad. He said, as a union representative, he often stood up for those who were afraid to speak out against the company. He represented cases that included racial discrimination cases and sexual harassment cases.

“I am really worried about how the railroad will turn out for the employees if the union is restricted or abolished all together,” said a current union representative at the railroad who gave an interview on the condition their name was not used. “We represent our union members that have problems with sexual harassment, anyone that was in an accident that is being investigated and various other situations. Who will protect them if the union is gone? Also, without a union health insurance is sure to skyrocket in cost and pay and hours will not be guaranteed. Safety out here is another huge concern if the union is gone.”

Unions also work with companies to establish retirement plans, Dibblee said. The union at the railroad not only established the railroad pension but the also opened the opportunity for employees to contribute to a 401k plan as well. 

Dibblee spoke on behalf of the Amtrak ticket sales employees who were recently let go because their jobs were deemed unnecessary by the company. He said calls were made to Sen. John Tester and the Amtrak union representatives after Amtrak brought in other workers to cover the jobs they had just abolished. Due to the union representatives and help of others speaking out against this the employees are now being returned to their jobs, he said. 

“That’s one thing too that unions have is wrongful termination protection,” said Dibblee. “Most unions also define your job description. It clearly defines what you can and cannot do. So, like a carpenter cannot do a plumbers work.”

Unions are legally required to represent all workers in a unionized workplace, whether individual workers are union members or not. This means non-union members receive all the same benefits that paying union members receive.

State right-to-work laws were first legalized through the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, which restricted the activities of labor unions. The act was considered backlash to the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.

From 1944-1963 20 states passed right-to-work laws. Few states added laws until recently. In the last decade right-to-work laws have been implemented in five states. In total there are 28 states have right-to-work laws. 

According to 2019 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 52,000 workers in Montana, or 12 percent of the workforce, are employed in unionized workplaces, where they are represented whether they are union members or not, while 46,000 — 10.5 percent of the workforce — are card-carrying union members. 

A railroad employee who wishes to remain anonymous said that without a union, they would have been fired almost right after starting their job with the railroad because a manager did not like them. The manager attempted to have this person fired and a union representative saved their job by defending them and showing the fallacy in the accusations made against the employee. 

Another union employee who also wished to remain anonymous said that the union has protected them when speaking out about unsafe work conditions and unfair accusations have been made against the employee. The union also represented this employee when the employee was injured on the job and was under investigation to potentially be fired for the accident. The accident was caused by unsafe working conditions and equipment. 

House Representative Bill Mercer introduced House Bill 168 late last week.

The bill has had major opposition from organized labor.

Montana Teamsters Union representatives bashed the bill in a press release

“This bill is a ruse, plain and simple,” Local 190 Secretary-Treasurer Jim Larson said. “It inserts employers between workers and their union so they can reduce the power that solidarity in the workplace brings. In the end, it’s just an illegal government intrusion on the rights of workers.”

“At a time when many Teamsters and others are working in essential jobs that puts their lives at risk, corporate cronies in Helena are trying to crack down on their workplace freedom,” Local 2 Secretary-Treasurer Erin Foley said. “This attack on Montana’s workers is absolutely despicable.”  

Montana Federation of Public Employees said in a press release that the purpose of the bill is to tell workers what they can and cannot do with their paycheck and forces employers to stand between employees and their union said a press release.

“HB 168 is an illegal government intrusion on the voluntary relationship between unions and their members,” MFPE President Amanda Curtis said in the release. “Every single state and federal court to consider the issues presented in HB 168, including a state court in Montana, has ruled that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus decision does not apply to the voluntary relationship between unions and their members.”

“HB 168 is just another example of a fundamental misunderstanding of established labor law,” she continued. “No one is ever forced to join a union and union members voluntarily agree to pay dues. We shouldn’t be passing legislation that allows the government to tell workers what they can and can’t do with their own paycheck.”

She added that the bill would create chaos in school districts and local and state governments by forcing public employers to negotiate with anyone and everyone.

“The bottom-line is that HB 168 is harmful, unnecessary, and illegal,” Curtis said. ‘Our nurses, law enforcement, firefighters, and teachers who have delivered essential services to every Montana community during a global pandemic deserve better.”


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