When union members and supporters showed up in Butte to picket U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale, Montana’s only member of the U.S. House of Representatives, they said they wanted answers about his lack of support for unions and the massive $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill.
They got answers, but not the ones they expected.
At least four different people who spoke with the Daily Montanan on Tuesday told similar stories: Before he went into a meeting inside Pioneer Equipment and Supply, he yelled at the members. As he left, two of them said they saw him make an obscene gesture.
When contacted by the Daily Montanan on Tuesday, Rosendale’s spokesman Harry Fones said the Republican congressman had spoken to some of them, but denied their account, and said Rosendale never gave the middle finger to the crowd.
The incident was first reported on the liberal site The Montana Post. A video of Rosendale’s remarks inside Pioneer Equipment and Supply in Butte was posted to YouTube by Tim Ravndal. Rosendale’s remarks touched on the protest outside, but as of yet, no video or photos of the encounters have surfaced.
The Daily Montanan talked to four different crowd members who were there, all of whom said they saw the interaction and two of whom said they saw the congressman make the explicit hand gesture.
The crowd watched as Rosendale’s vehicle pulled into the parking lot. The witnesses said he walked toward them and engaged with the crowd, estimated at from 50 to 75 people. Rosendale is reported to have said, “Go cry to Tester,” referring to Montana’s senior senator, Jon Tester, a Democrat. He also told them to “get a job.”
“He could have just went inside, but he directly made the comments,” said Erin Foley, the secretary-treasurer of the Teamsters Local No. 2 in Butte. She saw Rosendale yelling.
Fones, who was not in Montana last Friday, said he spoke to Rosendale and the staff after the event.
“We knew this was coming. We knew they were exercising their First Amendment right, which we support,” Fones said.
He said that Rosendale told the crowd, “You guys are protesting the wrong guy. Go protest to Jon Tester and the death of Keystone. There’s a loss of 10,000 jobs there.”
Fones denied that Rosendale told anyone to get a job.
Foley described the crowd as honking but respectful and said the members had gathered to ask Rosendale questions about COVID-19 relief and what she described as his efforts to hurt the unions.
“He voted against the PRO-Act and COVID relief,” she said (the PRO-Act is a labor bill). “He needs to start helping the workers start the recovery and we believe he’s not listening to our side.”
She was also chagrined that he told the crowd to get a job when almost every person in attendance had a job or was a retired union member.
“He’s a politician. He should be used to this. Having protesters or picketers is nothing new,” Foley said.
After the meeting concluded, Mike Kenison approached a fence that separated the private property and shouted questions at Rosendale. It was there that he and a few others said Rosendale extended his middle finger.
Fones denied Rosendale made the gesture.
“Honestly, anyone who has covered Matt knows he wouldn’t have done that,” Fones said.
Kenison, a teacher and local union president, had come to the rally to get answers. He said he was disappointed to see the car pull into the lot with California license plates and staff members not wearing masks.
“They were openly defying the Butte-Silver Bow orders,” Kenison said.
He said when he asked what the deal was with not protecting workers, Rosendale “shot me the Butte Salute.”
“And I shot right back,” Kenison said. “He’s a sitting U.S. Congressman and he’s not able to talk. I mean, I am a union president and my members can yell, scream, hoot and holler all the time, and I don’t run away. Why did he?”
Mickey Boysza, a retired union worker, said she was shocked to witness the same thing as Kenison.
“I was there as a grandmother who doesn’t want to see her grandchildren leave the state because of the right-to-work legislation,” Boysza said.
“When he gave (Kenison) the bird, I was a little amazed,” Boysza said. “I expect that from a teenager, but that’s how he conducts himself? We were not being violent. They were trying to get answers from him, but he wouldn’t give them. I can’t believe it.”
Inside the event, Rosendale spoke on a number of topics, captured by Ravndal’s video. In the background, horns can be heard periodically honking, likely at signs the protestors were carrying that urged people to honk if they support unions.
Rosendale also addressed the throng of protesters while inside, when an employee of Pioneer Equipment asked what Rosendale was doing to support states’ rights.
“I work on states rights every day,” Rosendale said. “As they people are yelling right now, quite frankly that’s what this is about — states’ rights because I won’t pass legislation at the federal level to empower unions. That’s all that is about. I also won’t pass legislation at the federal level to weaken unions. These are things that need to be done at the state level.”
Fones said Rosendale has been supportive of unions and said that is part of Rosendale’s support of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would keep and bring more union jobs to the state.
Still, union members said this behavior has to be spotlighted.
“I just feel like he feels empowered,” Foley said. “They can treat us however they want to treat us, and that’s fine because they get voted right back in.”