When Kathy Milodragovich and her husband returned to their Butte home on Jan. 4 after spending a few days away over New Years, they found an envelope from Montana Citizens for Right to Work waiting in their mailbox.
Enclosed was a newsletter titled “BIG SKY STATE ACTION BULLETIN.” The first page, headlined, “Right to Work Within Reach,” features a photo of Gov. Greg Gianforte. The four-page newsletter extols the benefits of right-to-work laws, which prohibit unions from requiring that union-represented workers contribute to the costs of union representation.
The envelope also included a letter from Randy Pope, the executive director of Montana Citizens for Right to Work, imploring recipients to send postcards or personal letters to Gianforte, Republican Senate President Mark Blasdel, and Republican Speaker of the House Wylie Galt, urging them to pass a right-to-work law in Montana. To facilitate that request, two sets of pre-written postcards addressed to each elected official were enclosed.
The same mailer has been received by residents in multiple Montana cities.
Originally from Deer Lodge, Milodragovich is a retired public school teacher and a longtime member of the teachers’ union, now the Montana Federation of Public Employees, or MFPE. Her husband, also retired, previously belonged to the Laborers’ International Union.
“So when I read this, my face paled. I thought, ‘Oh my goodness,’” she told Montana Free Press. “I’m very concerned about the road we’re heading down.”
What Right to Work means
Milodragovich’s concern is unsurprising given her union background. The term “right-to-work” broadly refers to laws that ban unions from requiring dues or fair-share fees (a smaller fee for represented workers who don’t wish to be union members) in unionized workplaces. Proponents argue that right-to-work is beneficial to business development, and that employees covered by union contracts should not have to contribute financially to the union representing their workplace. Critics of right-to-work often argue that such laws are aimed at reducing union membership, and point to the effects of right-to-work on wages and workplace protections.
The legality of state right-to-work laws was first affirmed through the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, passed over President Harry Truman’s veto, which broadly restricted the activities of labor unions and was largely considered a backlash to the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.
From 1944 to 1963, 20 states passed right-to-work laws. Then the movement seemed to lose steam. From 1963 to 2011, only three new states passed right-to-work legislation. In the last decade, however, right-to-work has been resurrected. If Montana becomes a right-to-work state, it will be the sixth state to do so since 2012.
F. Vincent Vernuccio, a senior fellow at the Mackinac Center, a Michigan-based think tank credited with playing a central role in the passage of Michigan’s right-to-work law in 2013, explained his organization’s support for right-to-work like this: “We believe workers should have the right to choose whether or not to pay unions fees.”
The Mackinac Center is a member of the State Policy Network, a national umbrella organization of 65 economically conservative think tanks in all 50 states. In line with its overall platform, the network’s member organizations are enthusiastic advocates of state right-to-work laws and, more broadly, anti-union legislation in general.
Pope’s letter echoes Vernuccio’s language, claiming that “tens of thousands of Montana workers are forced to pay tribute to union bosses just to get or keep their jobs” and asking for support in the group’s “effort to fight forced unionism.”
According to 2019 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 52,000 workers in Montana, or 12% of the workforce, are employed in unionized workplaces, where they are represented whether they are union members or not, while 46,000 — 10.5% of the workforce — are card-carrying union members.
As a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, all public unions are effectively governed by right-to-work rules, so a right-to-work law in Montana would affect only Montana’s private sector union members and union-represented workers, the majority of whom are represented by unions affiliated with Montana’s AFL-CIO. As Montana AFL-CIO Executive Secretary Al Ekblad explained, those unions represent a broad range of professions, including electricians, painters, roofers, construction workers and miners. Right-to-work legislation in Montana would specifically affect those approximately 27,000 workers.
Unions are legally required to represent all workers in a unionized workplace, whether individual workers are union members or not. According to Margaret Poydock, who focuses on workplace and labor issues at the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., right-to-work in practice strains unions by creating the so-called free rider problem: “If you decide not to pay your dues, you can be not [a member of] the union, but you’re still getting all the benefits that the union negotiates over.”
Right-to-work laws have been associated with declining union membership in almost every state that has implemented them. As of 2018, union membership in the 22 non-right-to-work states and the District of Columbia was 13.9% — more than double the 6.5% rate in the 28 right-to-work states. Montana is a non-right-to-work state bordered entirely by right-to-work states Idaho, Wyoming, and the Dakotas, all of which have significantly lower rates of union membership, as well as fewer workplace protections.
And Ekblad cautioned that the impact of a right-to-work law in Montana would be felt not just by unions and union workers, but by all workers.
“Right to work doesn’t just hurt union workers. It hurts workers across the board. Multiple [right-to-work] states have seen dramatic drop-offs in wages and benefits.”
Disparities in working conditions between right-to-work states and non-right-to-work states are consistent. In right-to-work states, average hourly wages are 16% lower, while rates of workplace fatalities are up to 40% higher. In 2019, the median wage for all workers in right-to-work states averaged $6,000 less than in non-right-to-work states.
Using the example of unionized mines and power plants in Colstrip, Ekblad drew a connection between union density and working conditions overall: “The wages and benefits of that mine coming online, of those plants coming online — that has driven the wages and benefits across all the mines in Montana.” When unions negotiate for improved wages and benefits, Ekblad said, that puts pressure on non-unionized employers to compete.
“What happens if they don’t match those wages, in a non-union shop? These are very mobile workers. I know people that are driving and doing their turnarounds in Colstrip from Great Falls [a five-hour drive] because the wages and benefits are so good at the mine.”
An opportunity in Montana
Since 2007, there have been eight attempts at some form of right-to-work law in Montana, some proposing comprehensive right-to-work, and others applying to specific professions or categories of employees. In 2009, HB 625, a universal right-to-work bill, narrowly failed to pass the state House by a vote of 49-50. Of the 49 representatives who voted in favor of HB 625, nine are members of the 2021 state Senate, including Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, who requested one of the two right-to-work bills currently in the drafting process for 2021. Three of those nine are in leadership positions: Republican Senate President Mark Blasdel, Republican Senate Majority Leader Cary Smith, and Gordon Vance, one of three Republican Senate whips.
The 2021 session is the first time the Republican Party has controlled the executive, Senate and House branches of state government since 2004. There’s been plenty of speculation about how Montana’s GOP will act on that power, and party leaders have said they are still developing their priorities for the session. But a document outlining a legislative agenda drafted by members of the party’s conservative wing indicates a desire among hardline Republicans, at least, to leverage that power on labor issues.
In seven pages, categorized by issue, the document outlines a comprehensive list of legislative priorities. It includes a proposal to eliminate Montana’s Wrongful Discharge Employment Act of 1987, which mandates that employers must have a valid reason for firing employees after a six-month probationary period. That act makes Montana the only state in the country where “at will” employment, which allows employers to fire employees at any time for any reason that isn’t illegal, does not apply.
Another agenda proposal would repeal Montana’s prevailing wage law, which requires that companies bidding on state contracts agree to pay their employees according to Montana’s prevailing wage rates, and that at least 50% of employees working on state-granted contracts be “bona fide Montana residents.”
The agenda also forwards several options for cutting state employee pensions.
Any one of the agenda’s proposals could considerably reshape working conditions for thousands of employees in Montana.
There are already 81 placeholder bills in the “labor and employment” category — more than the total number of labor- and employment-related bills (both placeholders and introduced bills) in five out of the last seven legislative sessions. The list includes two right-to-work bills, one requested by Sen. Keith Regier on Nov. 5, just two days after the election, and the other requested by his daughter, Rep. Amy Regier, R-Kalispell, on Nov. 10.
Amy Regier did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Keith Regier did not respond directly to requests for comment, but Kyle Schmauch, communications director for the Senate majority, conveyed that Regier described the bill’s title — “Implement right to work” — as “just a placeholder bill title.”
Gianforte has not signaled a strong stance on right-to-work, but during their campaign, his running mate, Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras, expressed support for right-to-work and claimed that Gianforte “wouldn’t veto” a right-to-work bill. Gianforte’s campaign distanced itself from Juras’ statement, saying Gianforte had made no such commitment. That stance, though, was undermined by a fundraising email sent the following week, in which Gianforte’s campaign criticized Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Cooney for his promise to veto right-to-work legislation, saying, “Just the other day, Mike Cooney promised that he would NOT sign any right-to-work legislation and force hardworking Montanans like you to join unions and pay dues against your will.”
Asked for clarification on Gianforte’s stance on right-to-work, Brooke Stroyke, a spokesperson for the governor, said Gianforte’s priorities “are laid out clearly in his Montana Comeback Plan. As governor, he will work to enact those policies, and he will carefully review and consider any bill the Legislature sends to his desk.” The Montana Comeback Plan makes no specific mention of right-to-work legislation.
But if Gianforte has been publicly noncommittal about right-to-work, he has also kept his distance from organized labor.
According to Amanda Curtis, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, or MFPE, Gianforte did not invite feedback from union members or representatives prior to recent hirings in state agencies including Montana’s Department of Labor.
“Normally, in a healthy labor-management relationship, when folks are being hired who will be supervisors, there’s at least one labor representative in that process somewhere, even if it’s just a token. We have not had a single invitation to participate in any of that process,” Curtis said in mid-November.
Curtis emphasized that even before the last 16 years of Democratic governorship in Montana, the state’s unions have always had an open dialog with governors and their offices, noting that MFPE’s current executive director, Erik Burke, worked in the administration of Marc Racicot, Montana’s Republican governor from 1992 to 2000.
“So now to be just completely shut out and not even thought of when it comes to hiring, it’s a different world,” Curtis said at the time. Still, speaking to Montana Free Press this week, Curtis emphasized MFPE’s desire to develop a good working relationship with the governor.
Who’s behind the push
Montana Citizens for Right to Work’s mailers have attracted attention before. As reported by MTFP in 2018, former staffers said the organization sends surveys to candidates running for office. It then sends mailers attacking candidates who don’t respond or don’t support the organization’s agenda.
Montana Citizens for Right to Work is, according to the available evidence, a front group for a larger national organization: the National Right to Work Committee, or NRTWC, an advocacy group founded in 1955 by a small group of businessmen and lobbyists.
In its 2013 filing with the Montana Secretary of State’s office, Montana Citizens for Right to Work lists the name and mailing address of the “applicant/owner” as the Western States Right to Work Committee, with a P.O. box in Belgrade.
As it turns out, the Western States Right to Work Committee operates under a number of names — all, like Montana Citizens for Right to Work, designed to appear organic to the states in which they operate. On its 2017 IRS 990 form, the Western States Right to Work Committee noted that it was “also doing business as Montana Citizens for Right to Work; New Mexico Right to Work Committee; Colorado Citizens for Right to Work; Nevada Right to Work Committee.” The same form lists the president of the Western States Right to Work Committee as Randy Pope.
Pope did not respond to multiple phone messages and emails requesting comment. Attempts to contact Pope through his lawyer were also unsuccessful.
Public records suggest that these state organizations are less citizen-led grassroots efforts than localized branches of a coordinated campaign by a national network of policy lobbyists.
According to 990 forms filed by the National Right to Work Committee, the Western States Right to Work Committee has received at least $50,000 from the NRTWC in each of the last 10 years. NRTWC gave the Western States Right Work Committee $217,600 in 2010, $502,000 in 2012, $100,000 in 2013, $380,5000 in 2018, and $170,000 in 2019. In 2018, Sarah Arnold, a former Montana Citizens for Right to Work staffer, told MTFP she was paid directly by the national committee.
In 2019, the NRTWC gave grants ranging from $53,000 to $210,000 to the Mid America Right to Work Committee, the Mid Atlantic Right to Work Committee, and New England Citizens for Right to Work. In 2018, it gave $765,000 to Missourians for Freedom to Work. Missouri passed a right-to-work bill in 2017, which was subsequently blocked via referendum in 2018.
Those state-level efforts are just part of NRTWC’s decades-long effort to promote right-to-work legislation nationwide, not just by drumming up support for legislation, but by electioneering. Since 1999, the group has spent $46 million on federal lobbying. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the NRTWC violated campaign finance laws. It has also hired private detectives to infiltrate the AFL-CIO and been accused of improper involvement in election campaigns in multiple states, including Montana.
The majority of right-to-work advocacy nationwide can be traced back, in one way or another, to two organizations: the National Right to Work Committee and the State Policy Network (SPN). Over the last decade, the two organizations have aggressively fostered the spread of a right-to-work agenda. As a result of their IRS classifications — SPN is a 501©(3) and NRTWC is a 501©(4) — they are not required to disclose their donors. Much of their activity is equally opaque. The few documents that have leaked, however, indicate an extensive and sophisticated advocacy network.
Jessica Wicks, a representative for Teamsters Local 2, which covers western and northern Montana, offered this diagnosis of the money and motivation behind right-to-work advocacy: “It’s about how they can make more money and pay their employees less. And every day we get up and go to fight for these middle-class people, so that they can have a living wage and retire. The truth of it is [right-to-work advocates] are out for themselves and they don’t care about the working people of Montana. Period.”
Grassroots or astroturf?
A Google search for Montana Federation of Public Employees, or MFPE, consistently returns, as the second or third search result, a link that reads “MFPE — MT — Opt Out Today.”
The link leads to a tailored MFPE page on optouttoday.com, a website encouraging union members to opt out of paying dues. The website is run by the Freedom Foundation, a think tank in Olympia, Washington, and a member organization of SPN. The page is designed to look like an official MFPE communication, adorned with a header that reads “Montana Federation of Public Employees” in the same shades of green, white and blue as MFPE’s official website. Just beneath the header, the page offers instructions on how MFPE members can opt out of paying dues, and even presents an electronic form to initiate the process. Opt Out Today hosts similarly tailored pages — all designed to appear affiliated with their respective unions — for unions and local chapters in all 50 states.
While SPN does not appear to have as active an interest in Montana as NRTWC, Opt Out Today demonstrates that both groups’ goals are national, though the level of focus and resources expended varies state by state.
As originally reported by the Guardian, Tracie Sharp, SPN’s president and CEO, described how SPN members coordinate efforts in a leaked fundraising letter from 2016.
The letter laid out SPN’s modus operandi, describing a sophisticated model of coordinated efforts to pass right-to-work and other anti-union legislation in multiple states. SPN “united behind” and provided “winning messaging” for right-to-work campaigns in Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana. They “constantly reach out to elected officials” and “arm them with pro-market, limited-government answers to tough public policy issues.” Sharp also highlighted the dollar amounts and membership percentages unions have lost as a result of SPN’s legislative victories, as well as SPN’s plans to expand its campaigns in “15 key battleground states.” Framing the Democratic Party as “The American Left,” one of the letter’s themes is the electoral impact of weakening unions as a base of support for Democratic politicians. A 2019 study found that right-to-work laws reduce Democratic presidential vote shares by 3.5%.
In 2012, the Texas Observer reported on a leaked list of 2010 donors to SPN member the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Donors included such household names as Koch Industries, AT&T, Verizon, State Farm, Exxon-Mobil, TimeWarner Cable, Chevron and Coca-Cola. TPPF received $49,306 from SPN itself, confirming that SPN organizations share funding across the network. The list also included two donations totaling $495,000 from the “State Think Tank Fund” and the “Government Transparency Fund,” two sources about which next to nothing is known. The contact listed for both funds is SPN President and CEO Tracie Sharp.
Although 501©(3)s and ©(4)s are not required to disclose their donors, a percentage of their funding is trackable. According to the Center for Media and Democracy, which tracks such funding, 83% of the trackable $41 million donated to SPN between 2014 and 2019 came from five donors: Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund (two primary funding vehicles of the Koch network), the Walton Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, and the Searle Freedom Trust. In 2018, Donors Trust gave SPN $7.5 million and dispersed an additional $12.1 million across 46 of SPN’s 64 affiliates.
Additionally, Donors Trust, Donors Capital Fund, the Walton Foundation, the Bradley Foundation and the Scaife Foundation all donated to the legal foundations that represented plaintiffs pro bono in the series of Supreme Court cases leading up to Janus v. AFSCME in 2018. Two of those three foundations were the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (the legal arm of NRTWC), and the Liberty Justice Center (the legal arm of the Illinois Policy Institute, an SPN member).
From 2011 to 2013, Greg Gianforte’s charity, the Gianforte Family Foundation, gave $36,000 to the Montana Policy Institute, SPN’s affiliate organization in Montana.
The mailer that Kathy Milodragovich received earlier this month claims that “nearly 80% of Montanas agree” with right-to-work. The mailer names no source for that number, but the claim — along with the group’s name, Montana Citizens for Right to Work — suggests an organic and homegrown constituency of Montana residents demanding right-to-work legislation.
The creation of fake constituencies appears to be standard practice for right-to-work advocacy. In her 2016 book “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right,” author Jane Mayer documents the strategy’s history as revealed in a private letter written in the mid-1900s by a staff member of the Wichita-based Demille Foundation for Political Freedom, an anti-union group founded in 1945, and a predecessor to the anti-union organizations of today. The letter described how big-business industrialists would be the “anonymous quarterbacks” who “call the turns” of the anti-union movement:
“He said that they needed to sell the ‘yarn’ that the group was ‘composed of housewives, farmers, small businessmen, professional people, wage earners — not big business industrialists,’” Mayer wrote. “Otherwise, he admitted, the movement was ‘almost certainly doomed to failure.’”
The 2010 leaks indicate that the real constituency behind right-to-work is a small crowd of powerful people who don’t want their activities — or their identities — made public. That’s how Al Ekblad described the forces behind the right-to-work push:
“Go look at all those think tanks and figure out who’s supporting them. You know, 20 years ago, I’d tell people, in this state, and this country, we got a bunch of millionaires that want to be billionaires. Well, greed has no end. So now you’ve got a bunch of billionaires that want to be trillionaires.”
“It’s almost guaranteed we’re going to be a right-to-work state by the end of the Legislature. I’d almost bet money on it.” That’s the forecast from Hayden Lohr, an organizer with the International Union of Operating Engineers’ Local 400, the IUOE local that covers all of Montana.
But right-to-work is just one labor-related measure that could be in the GOP’s sights during the 2021 session. Lohr stressed the pocketbook impacts of other proposals embedded in Montana’s Republican agenda memo, like a repeal of Montana’s prevailing wage law, on Montana workers. It’s difficult to estimate such a law’s potential impact on wages in Montana, but a study of Wisconsin’s 2017 repeal of its own prevailing wage law found a corresponding 6.4% decrease in annual incomes for construction workers in Wisconsin.
Lohr also underlined the importance of the prevailing wage law’s requirement that 50% of employees working on state-awarded contracts be Montana residents.
“Say a company out of Texas, for example, [wins a state contract to] come up and build water tanks. They can’t bring in their crew of 20 people and not hire a single resident from Montana.” The 50% rule, Lohr said, ensures that a portion of the income generated by taxpayer-funded projects goes to Montana residents and circulates in Montana’s economy.
“You take that away, I guess it’s pretty clear what happens,” he said.
Another proposal, which was recommended in the legislative agenda drafted by members of the GOP’s conservative wing, is already moving along in the legislative process. Senate Bill 89, introduced Jan. 8 by Sen. Keith Regier, would reaffirm the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus decision in Montana law, but its main effect would be prohibiting public unions from subtracting dues directly from workers’ paychecks, requiring public unions to devote more resources to accounting and dues collection. On Jan. 13, MFPE released a statement condemning SB 89, saying the bill would create a “bureaucratic nightmare.” MFPE President Curtis called the bill the “very definition of government overreach into the lives of frontline workers like nurses, educators, police, and state troopers who protect, serve, educate, and care for Montana citizens.”
equired to collect employees’ money and give that money to the public union. The public union often then spends that money on political causes.”
In response, Curtis said Regier’s statement mischaracterized the issue: “Senator Regier’s claims make it clear that he does not understand labor law or how unions work at any basic level. No union dues are used in political campaigns, period.”
A drafted bill by Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, would go even further. While the bill, LC 1616, has yet to be introduced, it would require that public union members submit written consent each year actively confirming that they wish to remain a member of their union. Failure to do so, the draft states, “must be construed to mean that the public employee has chosen to disassociate with the labor organization.”
Lohr noted that such labor-targeting proposals almost never appear in candidates’ messaging to voters.
“Look at their campaign pages. They’re saying, ‘We’re going to fight for the middle class, we’re going to create more jobs.’”
Keith Regier doesn’t appear to have a website. Amy Regier’s website makes no mention of right-to-work or the word “union.”
Gianforte’s campaign likewise said that right-to-work is not a priority. If recent history is any indication, that stance will likely be little comfort to Montana’s unions. Governors Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Rick Snyder in Michigan were both similarly noncommittal in public statements about right-to-work for years — until both signed right-to-work legislation into law.
“You say one thing, then as soon as you get elected, you turn around and do another. You know, it’s disheartening,” Lohr said. “Unfortunately, that is politics in America.”