In 1883 Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt attended a fancy-dress ball that outshone any ball New York had seen, wearing her electric light dress. Railroad tycoons like Cornelius Vanderbilt hosted such opulent affairs with profits from their monopoly corporations.
The starvation wages they paid their workers led to the Great Uprising of 1877 and the Pullman Strike of 1894. In the late 1800s, when collective bargaining arose, 10% of the U.S. population owned more than 70% of the nation’s assets. This structural inequality contributed to the upheaval that resulted in the World Wars and the Great Depression of the early 1900s.
Policies of the 1930s and 1940s mitigated wealth inequality. But policies of the last forty years have brought the extreme inequities that existed in the late 1800s around again. Today in the U.S., 10% of the people own more than 70% of the wealth.
Collective bargaining and utility commissions were born at the same time in history, and for the same reason. Labor unions support policies that lift broad-based economic growth. Utility commissions ensure that a monopoly utility’s customers pay fair rates for basic services. No one would pursue “right to stay warm” legislation that would force us to individually negotiate our electric rates. In the same way “right to work” legislation strips workers of the hard-fought and hard-won benefits of collective bargaining.
The first acts of the Nazis abolished labor unions, taking away workers’ rights to bargain for fair wages. The 2021 Montana legislature is considering first acts of the Nazis, soliciting support with flyers that feature a photo of Governor Greg Gianforte. Gianforte, who spent millions of his own money to get elected and who received large contributions from the Koch Brothers, has consistently expressed anti-labor views.
At the same time he is actively undermining workers’ rights to fair pay, Gianforte grandstands about the Keystone pipeline and professes support for coal and fossil fuel resources based on the jobs these industries might create. But if the anti-union legislation being considered is passed, any new jobs in Montana, from any industry, will not go to union workers.
Killing off unions as a ploy to drive a low-wage economy hurts Montana families. In this past year, we’ve learned how critical our teachers are to our communities. They should not fear for their lives when they show up for work. “Right to work” states have lower wages, less safe working conditions, and lower rates of employment.
Montana can choose a future where oligarchs dance at fancy balls while our teachers risk their lives to serve our communities. Or we can support our workers, and their right to bargain for fair wages and fair working conditions. Collective bargaining and fair pay for Montana workers is right for our communities.
Monica Tranel grew up in eastern Montana and represents clients in front of the PSC. She formerly worked as a staff attorney for the PSC and the Montana Consumer Counsel.