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Guest view: Defeat right-to-work bills so Last Best Place continues to exist

Guest view: Defeat right-to-work bills so Last Best Place continues to exist

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From Ohio, I have been watching the extremist anti-labor bills that have been introduced in the Montana Legislature with great concern.

I am an Anaconda native and a twice-graduate of the University of Montana. I now teach at the University of Cincinnati but I grew up in the shadow of the Big Stack where I learned first-hand the value of the labor movement.

Besides the beauty of Big Sky Country, its union workforce is one of the factors that makes Montana different and better than the states around it, leading to a higher standard of living and a broader middle class. My father worked for the Butte, Anaconda, & Pacific Railway for 42 years. Both my grandfathers and generations of my family worked at the smelter in various union trades. Without the unions, the Anaconda Company would have left far less behind when it departed.

And now this legislation is proposed to undermine that heritage and try to turn Montana into Mississippi with ice. Montana Senate Bill 68, House Bill 168, and House Bill 251 are part of this broad-based attack on working people. They contain various strategies to cripple efforts to improve the lives of workers, including right-to-work language. As Martin Luther King said about such legislation: “Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone.”

A decade ago here in Ohio, we faced a similar politically motivated attack on the labor movement, targeting the public unions. Against widespread opposition, 500-page Senate Bill 5 passed the Ohio Senate by one vote. A central piece of Gov. John Kasich’s extreme legislative agenda, he quickly signed SB 5 into law. A sweeping attack on the middle class, SB 5 contained many of the same union-busting components now being considered in Helena.

Our unions created an independent organization, We Are Ohio, representing all the public and private unions as well as faith groups, civil rights groups, and community organizations. We pushed a petition drive to put the bill on the ballot. We shocked the advocates of this union-busting effort by collecting a record 1.3 million signatures. I was president of the faculty union at the University of Cincinnati, Ohio’s largest faculty union and a chapter of the American Association of University Professors, during this bitter struggle. Special language in the bill would have eliminated faculty unions like mine.

Let’s be clear. The primary motivation behind such legislation is to create a muzzled, weak, and poorly paid work force so that employees are simply cogs in a machine that maximizes revenue for CEOs and plutocrats.

It is an attack on workplace democracy. Every union is established by a carefully and legally monitored vote to produce a just outcome. Every union elects its leaders. Democratic structures are created to allow for self-government of the union. These structures allow the workers to have a say in how work is done and projects are accomplished, from staffing, to class size, to safety equipment. In every union workplace, the membership exercises their hard-won freedom by voting on important issues confronting the workers. They vote on accepting or not the contract that is negotiated with the employer. If you want to change the rules or participate in leadership, you have to win a majority vote. What could be more democratic than that? Obviously, freedom and liberty thrive in union workplaces.

No state Legislature should orchestrate such an attack on American values as we are seeing in Helena. We know the public doesn’t support this. In the general election in 2011, the people of Ohio defended the unions by crushing SB 5 by a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent.

Right-to-work is wrong for Montana as are the other aspects of these bills that aim to cripple the ability of the middle class to advocate for itself. Montanans who value democracy should reject these attacks on decent and secure jobs so that the “Last Best Place” continues to exist.

John T. McNay, PhD,  is a professor of history at the University of Cincinnati. Among his books is Collective Bargaining and the Battle of Ohio: The Defeat of Senate Bill 5 and the Defense of the Middle Class (New York: Palgrave, 2013). 

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