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THREE FORKS — Sen. Jon Tester climbed up onto the bed of a pickup, grabbed a bullhorn, and began to rally the crowd of a couple hundred people supporting locked-out union workers at Imerys Talc.

But after a minute or two, he got so worked up that he dropped the bullhorn and switched to lung power.

"It's time to get pissed off!" he roared, and the crowd roared back.

"We're here on Labor Day to celebrate what men and women workers have done for this country," he bellowed. "We can see what has been sacrificed so that we have a 40-hour work week, so that we have weekends. So, damn right we ought to be here... The whole state of Montana should be here."

A bipartisan group of officeholders including Tester and Gov. Steve Bullock on the Democratic side and Republicans Sen. Steve Daines, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, and Montana Attorney General Tim Fox has called on Imerys Talc America to resume talks with the workers the company locked out Aug. 2. after its "last, best, and final" offer was soundly rejected.

Much of the crowd was from around the state. Matthew Hirsch, a retired special education teacher, came from Livingston. Shannon Wilson came from Great Falls. Beth and Rick Cottingham came from Helena.

Why?

"Because I believe in unions and what they do," Wilson said.

"Because this sucks," Hirsch said. "This company has frozen these workers out, and they haven't bargained in good faith. It's been 'take it or leave it.'"

The workers themselves were heartened at the turnout. "This really makes our guys feel good," said Randy Tocci, president of the Boilermakers International Union Local 239.

Wade Horsley of Butte has worked at the plant only a year and a half. Mark Allen has worked there a decade. And Chuck Patritti of Whitehall has been there 15 years.

All three said it's a great place to work -- or used to be. And while each said he was encouraged by the coming resumption of negotiations, they sounded hopeful but not particularly optimistic.

"They've lied to us so much," Patritti said. "So now..." he shrugged. "I just don't know how it's going to turn out."

Tester, meanwhile, was just getting warmed up.

"This company (Imerys) is from France," he said. "I don't even expect them to know where Montana is.

"But they don't understand Montana values. They don't understand that, in any business, the most valuable thing you have is your employees.

"This isn't about the rich getting richer, and it isn't about selling the workers downstream. It's about good workers needing good-paying jobs."

Tester, who is flying back to Washington Tuesday for a Senate session, said he would do everything he could on the federal level to get the company to present a fair offer when talks resume, "and I know (Gov.) Bullock will do the same thing on the state level."

Kathleen Williams, the Democratic candidate for Montana's sole congressional seat, followed him, saying it was the fourth time she had been to the plant during the lockout to show solidarity with the workers.

"The day after the lockout, I was here," she said. "But it took my opponent (Republican incumbent Greg Gianforte) 20 days to say anything about this lockout, and only then because the press was pressing him."

Rex Renk, Democratic candidate for the clerk of the Supreme Court, also spoke, saying, "I stand with you."

The issues keeping company and workers from an agreement do not center around wages. Rather, says union president Tocci, they are concerned with things like the company's proposal to phase out the retiree health care plan and freeze pension benefits and eliminate overtime rules that were in the old contract.

Last week, the company and the Boilermakers International Union Local 239 agreed to resume talks with a federal labor mediator participating. Those talks are scheduled to begin Sept. 11.

On Aug. 9, Bullock visited picketing workers and called for the company to end what he said was the first lockout in the state since the 1980s. Since the lockout began, the company has been operating at reduced capacity with replacement workers.

Tocci said health insurance has run out now and the union is trying to secure COBRA or other stopgap insurance. "You know that's not cheap," he said.

Some workers, he said, have had to take temporary jobs to make ends meet.

"But people have been so generous. We've had many donations.

"We need some more."

A few moments later, someone slipped up and handed Tocci a check for $100 then melted back into the crowd.

Turns out it was Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins.

"These people don't have income right now," the former Liberian refugee said simply when asked why he made the contribution. "I support the union, and this is about fairness."


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