HELENA — Nearly 60 union leaders and workers appeared at the state Capitol Tuesday to oppose a bill that would make Montana a “right-to-work state.”

Right-to-work laws prohibit unions from collecting dues from non-union workers. House Bill 251, sponsored by Rep. Caleb Hinkle, R-Belgrade, would establish those laws in Montana, joining it with 27 other states with similar laws, including many of Montana’s neighbors.

Justin McEwen was one of the crowd of union men and women who spoke against the bill. He spoke on behalf of Bricklayers and Allied Craft Workers Local 1, which represents bricklayers and masons in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.

“[The bill] is about supporting corporate America,” McEwen said. “It is about destroying the stopgap between middle class and poverty: our right to unionize.”

The bill’s committee hearing drew 13 supporters.

Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, was one of the supporters, although he said for the purposes of the hearing he was acting outside of his role as a legislator.

“Unions are critical,” Skees said when giving public testimony in support of the bill. “I love unions. I have nothing against unions. I agree that unions should not be compulsory. There should not be a force to join the union.”

Union members said if people don’t want to work union jobs, they are free to take a non-union job. Almost 90% of workers in the U.S. do not belong to a union according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Current law allows workers to make what is called a “closed shop” where union membership is required for new hires. HB 251 would require “open shops,” Where unions must let non-union members in.

Others said passing the bill would force unions to act under free-market pressures. If they want to maintain membership, and therefore funding, they would have to better represent their members.

Randy Pope is the executive director of Montana Citizens for Right to Work.

“Without right-to-work protections there is little incentive for union officials to offer good service to their members because they can compel people to pay them either way,” Pope said.

Union leaders also raised concerns over the fate of Montana’s apprenticeship programs, many of which are funded by union dues.

Others raised concerns over infringement on their first amendment rights to assemble. One section of the bill would make picketing, boycotting, or other actions to make employers come to the bargaining table illegal.

James Bradley is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.

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