Jonathon Ambarian

HELENA (KPAX) — The Montana State Capitol was packed Friday, for a hearing on a bill to establish “right-to-work” in the state. The bill’s supporters said it would protect workers’ freedom, but opponents said it was an attack on Montana unions.

Rep. James Bergstrom, R-Buffalo, is sponsoring House Bill 448. He told MTN he knew it would draw a lot of attention – and he was right. Union representatives and members lined the hallways of the Capitol ahead of the hearing in the House Business and Labor Committee.

HB 448 would say people cannot be forced to join or pay dues to a union as a condition of employment, and require that they give written approval to have any money for the union deducted from their paycheck.

Supporters said workers should have the right not to pay money to a union whose policies they may not agree with.

“Freedom to associate is meaningless without freedom not to associate,” said John Kalb, vice president of the National Right to Work Committee.

A 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling said public employees can’t be forced to pay a fee to a union if they’re not a member. HB 448 would essentially extend that policy to private-sector workers.

Bergstrom, a first-term representative, told MTN he didn’t see the bill as anti-union. He argued this change would require union leadership to be more responsive.

“The unions, if they're doing good things for their members, then their members are going to stay with them,” he said. “But on the other hand, if they're not doing good things, the members are going to go away.”

However, dozens of union members and advocates testified Friday that they did see the bill as an attack. They argued allowing workers to opt out of paying dues would inevitably weaken their ability to effectively bargain.

“What 448 does is it starts to erode and defund unions,” said Mario Martinez, lead representative for Montana Carpenters Local 82.

After the hearing, opponents gathered on the Capitol steps for a rally. One of those in attendance was Brandon Colwell, an organizer with the Mountain States Pipe Trades, which represents workers in the plumbing and pipefitting industry.

“If you look at all the T-shirts out here – all the stickers, everything – it all includes brotherhood,” he said. “Every one of us stands to do better when we all do better. We all want to stand together and we want to push that, but that’s the biggest thing for a lot of us – is that we come together as workers, united in the message and the movement.”

Colwell said he had worked in states with right-to-work laws and those without, and he often found lower wages and less motivated workers in right-to-work states.

The House Business and Labor Committee took no immediate action on HB 448 after Friday’s hearing.

Unions also rallied at the Capitol in 2021, when the nearly identical House Bill 251 was proposed. That bill was voted down on the House floor, and advocates credited the strong show of opposition for that result.

Bergstrom said he saw right-to-work bills as preserving a fundamental right, and that it’s a discussion he believes should keep happening.

“I just think it should be brought up every session, and I think it should be brought up next session if it doesn't pass this session,” he said.

Those against the bill said they will also keep talking about the issue.

“We’re here, fired up and ready to go, and we're going to be back here every single time these folks try to battle us back,” Martinez said during the rally.