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Montana Lawmakers Reject "Right-To-Work" Bill For Private Unions

Caleb Hinkle speaks into a microphone in front of an antique cushioned bench built into the wall behind.
Kevin Trevellyan
Yellowstone Public Radio
Union members gather on the front steps of the Montana Capitol to celebrate the defeat of House Bill 251 on March 2, 2021.

On the heels of voting down other labor-related bills, Montana lawmakers decisively rejected a so-called right-to-work bill for private unions today.

Opposition to House Bill 251 drew applause from union members packing the House gallery and passionate debate from lawmakers who repeatedly referenced Montana’s storied labor history.

“You can’t think of anything that these people don’t do for you and the citizens of Montana,” said Butte Democratic Rep. Jim Keane.

HB 251 would’ve prohibited private union membership as a condition of employment and barred unions from requiring non-members covered by collective bargaining to pay dues.

Such restrictions are already in place for public unions following the 2018 landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision for Janus v. AFSCME.

The House voted down HB 251 by a 38 to 62 margin, with Democrats and some Republicans saying it would’ve harmed wages and working conditions while moving the state one step closer to killing private unions.

Meanwhile, bill sponsor and Belgrade Republican Rep. Caleb Hinkle said it would’ve made Montana more economically competitive with neighboring “right-to-work” states and bolstered worker autonomy.

“If joining a union is an obvious choice, employees will accept that choice. If the benefits are not worth it to a given employee, that employee should have the right to refuse, ” Hinkle says.

Several lawmakers condemned the out of state interests that supported HB 251. In places, its text closely mirrors sample policy from the conservative nonprofit American Legislative Exchange Council.

After the bill was voted down, more than 100 union members crowded the Capitol front steps to celebrate.

Third-generation union carpenter Morgan Yelvington traveled from Great Falls, motivated by perceived negative labor impacts tied to Idaho’s “right-to-work” law. He said it’s no surprise union members came out in force to oppose the bill.

“In the trades it all starts on the jobsite, anywhere in the field. Solidarity. We take care of each other. We protect each other. Very glad to see the huge turnout,” Yelvingotn said.