Darrell Ehrlick

(Daily Montanan) Employees of Yellowstone County, who mostly work at the courthouse, ratified a new contract on Friday, averting a possible strike the union membership had authorized but postponed in order to vote on a new contract proposal.

The employees, which number around 150, voted “overwhelmingly” to approve the new contract. No vote counts were released by the union that represents the employees, the Montana Federated Public Employees. MFPE is the state’s largest union and Yellowstone County is the largest county in the state.

The contract will go through 2027, and employees in the bargaining unit will receive salary increases through the contract’s terms.

However, salaries were not the main sticking point of the contract dispute. Instead, union members had balked at language the county wanted to add that it characterized as “union busting,” or language that allowed it to hire new employees without adjusting the rates of other members. Late last year, a hearing officer ruled against Yellowstone County and found the practice was creating a pay inequity, the union said.

County officials had said that Yellowstone County was simply exercising its management rights, which included salary and wage, an argument the MFPE disputed.

The Yellowstone County public employees had authorized a strike to begin on Jan. 23, which would have shuttered many county services, including its eight state district courts, as well as two justice courts. It would have also halted functions like car licensing and tax collection.

The county and the union had one final bargaining session last week that produced the contract union members ratified by vote on Friday.

MFPE said in a news release that “if the county deems it necessary to raise starting salaries to fill vacancies, existing employees below the new wage will be brought up to it. This contract promises to keep talent on the job and county operations running.”

“There is strength in numbers,” said MFPE President Amanda Curtis. “Everyone should take note of how much progress is possible when we flex our union muscle. The bottom line is that Yellowstone County Courthouse Employees want to keep serving the public, and they went to the mat to get the dignified wages they deserve to get their jobs done.”