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Legislative bills attacking Montana's essential workers
Guest column

Legislative bills attacking Montana's essential workers

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Like most Montanans, I have friends among the checkers and baggers at the grocery store where my wife and I do our shopping. We touch base weekly about everything from high school sports to the pandemic.

I have no idea about the politics of these essential workers, most of whom continue to work despite significant health risks. I care about them and they, along with every nurse, doctor, CNA, educator, teaching assistant, janitor, firefighter, EMT, police officer and many more, should be treated like the heroes they are.

That is why I’m very disappointed that some extremist members of the 2021 Montana Legislature have put forward bills attacking the very workers who put their lives on the line every day. Without these workers, the rest of us could not continue our own lives.

Several damaging anti-worker bills are currently making their way through the Montana Legislature, including: Senate Bill 89, sponsored by Sen. Keith Reiger (R-Kalispell), House Bill 168, sponsored by Rep. Bill Mercer (R-Billings), and HB 251, sponsored by Rep. Caleb Hinkle (R-Belgrade).

These bills have deceptive names, but the truth is black-and-white. These bills fundamentally attack our freedom to organize for safe working conditions and fair pay. HB 251 would enact so-called “Right to Work” legislation, a law which confers no rights at all but results in lower pay for everyone who works for a living in Montana. The others are gratuitous attacks on public sector workers and nurses. Alarmingly, these laws also make jobs more dangerous. Even before the pandemic, workers were 50% more likely to die on the job in "Right to Work" states, according to a comprehensive new national study.

Safety isn’t a partisan issue and during a pandemic it should be a primary issue. We need to do better and the best way to start would be to reject anti-worker laws like HB 251, HB 168 and SB 89. These bills endanger Montana’s workers and make life worse for every family in our state by telling us what we can and can’t collectively bargain for.

“Right to Work” is fundamentally about values, and what kind of state we want to live in. Attacks on working people’s collective voice results in unsurprising social and economic impacts. “Right to Work” states have higher poverty levels, lower income, more consumer debt, higher infant mortality rates and less access to medical care. Numerous independent studies have shown companies aren’t looking to move to right-to-work states and there is no positive impact on employment levels when a state adopts these laws. These laws don’t create jobs, they make jobs less safe and suppress wages, health insurance and retirement, so that out of state corporations can make more money.

Throughout our history, workers have been active and positive collaborators with every significant organization in our state. Workers built Montana. Union workers provide the bedrock to Montana’s middle class.

Why would anyone want to pass “Right to Work” laws and undercut Montana workers? The experiments are all around us, and the evidence is clear. Wyoming’s workplace fatality rate is always far and away worse than Montana’s. Pay in Idaho is lower. For instance, construction workers earn nearly $9,000 less on average in Idaho when compared to the same workers with the same skills in Montana. Is that really the future we want for our children?

I don’t think so. It’s time for us to stand up for the working people who continue to risk — and even give — their lives, so we can eat food and receive the medical care we need. It’s time to stand up for Montana values and let this legislature know that we care about each other. I urge all Montanans to reject anti-worker corporate legislation that hurts Montana workers and our communities.

Al Ekblad is the executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO, representing 38 unions and over 500 locals across Montana.

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