By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org
HELENA – Republicans in Montana’s Legislature will likely use their majorities in each chamber to pass right-to-work laws next year, but they’ll send them straight to voters — not the Democratic governor.
The revelation comes about a week after Republicans in Michigan, the most unionized state in the union, rushed right-to-work laws through a lame-duck legislative session, despite the angry protestations of organized labor.
While Michigan lawmakers had a Republican governor willing to sign their bills, Montana Republicans don’t enjoy the same perk. Republicans hoped Republican Rick Hill would replace outgoing Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer in January, but Hill lost this year’s gubernatorial to Attorney General Steve Bullock, also a Democrat.
Throughout the campaign, Bullock vowed a veto for any right-to-work bills hitting his desk.
After the Bullock triumph, conservative hearts statewide wilted, believing they lost the chance to implement their agenda after eight years of Schweitzer’s reign.
Instead of hoping the newly crowned Bullock bends to the Republican will, GOP lawmakers and conservative activists will likely take their case straight to voters, at least on right-to-work laws.
Former state Sen. Joe Balyeat, now the head man for Americans for Prosperity’s Montana chapter, told Watchdog.org on Wednesday he envisions Republican state legislators passing right-to-work laws applying only to public sector unions in the 2013 legislative session, but then sending them to the ballot for a referendum in the 2014 general election.
Balyeat said part of AFP’s 2013 agenda includes aggressively forwarding right-to-work, under the banner that lawmakers “should pass a law giving government workers the freedom to join a union or not join a union.”
Right-to-work laws block unions from requiring workers in certain shops to join their ranks. Democrats and organized labor despise the laws because they believe non-union workers ride for free on union-negotiated perks and benefits.
The shady left-wing MTStreetfigher blog wrote about the coming right-to-work fight, labeling right-to-work laws as “right to freeload.”
“Right-wingers and their corporate allies are looking to spread ‘right-to-freeload’ legislation to every state they can,” the anonymous blog wrote last week. “Montana is at the top of that list.”
Conservatives contend the laws create business-friendly economies.
There might be something to that, too. On the newly released Forbes “Best States for Business” list, nine of the top-10 states boast right-to-work laws. Montana sits at 26 on the annual ranking.
Unlike Michigan, Balyeat expects any right-to-work legislation moving through the Capitol in Helena will affect public unions only, not touching private unions. Public unions use their influence to elect lawmakers friendly to the interests of organized labor, Balyeat contends.That means healthy health benefits and fat pay raises, all at the taxpayers’ expense.
“The taxpayers’ money is being used to extract even more money from taxpayers,” Balyeat said.
Evidence of that trend starts at the top. In closed-door negotiations with union leaders, Schweitzer promised 4 percent raises for state workers through two years just before the 2011 legislative session. When Republicans blocked that plan, Schweitzer tweaked state worker health benefits to cut their out-of-pocket expense.
Earlier this year, Schweitzer promised 10 percent pay hikes over two years, a plan Republicans say is dead-on-arrival next year.
If Balyeat’s plan to chase public unions is one of principle, it’s also a move of practicality. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, only 13 percent of Montana workers take part in unions. That masks, though, the wide imbalance between membership in public and private unions.
Only 5 percent of private workers are unionized, while a whopping 38 percent of public workers fit that distinction.
In essence, Balyeat wants to punch the big dude in the jail lunchroom square in the jaw, though he denies that’s the point.
“We’re not singling them out,” he says, reaffirming that pursuing right-to-work serves only to deliver freedom to public employees who may not want to take part in unions.
AFP’s call will likely find many allies among Montana Republicans.
State Sen. Janna Taylor of Dayton told Watchdog.org on Wednesday she would probably support right-to-work passage in 2013, though she stopped short of guaranteeing her vote. She wants to see the details of any bill before going all-in for the effort.
While she recognizes the historic contributions of unions throughout the years, Taylor sometimes wonders why state workers need representation of that type. She, like Balyeat, contends public unions serve merely to elect lawmakers who will deliver fat perks to state workers, thereby fattening the coffers of organized labor in the process.
“The union lobby is pretty powerful,” Taylor remarked. While she’s generally in favor of right-to-work, Taylor also wants union re-certification votes every three years, as well as public audits of labor organizations.
State Rep. Mike Miller, a Republican from Helmville, emailed Watchdog.org Wednesday voicing his support for right-to-work, though he breaks with Balyeat on singling out public unions. “I do support right-to-work and think Montanans in general support right-to-work,” Miller wrote. “I think any right-to-work legislation should apply to all unions.”
Miller, like Taylor, sought to preemptively dispel the notion that support for right-to-work equals an anti-union stance.
“If a person wants to belong to a union, that is fine by me,” Miller explained. “I just do not think you should be forced to be in a union to get (or) hold a job. I always fought for and negotiated my own salary, benefits and pay raises. I do not believe that every employee in a union deserves the same pay raise.”
Taylor affirmed that sending right-to-work to voters on the November 2014 ballot might be the right move.
“Montanans sure like to vote on stuff,” she quipped.
For his part, Balyeat optimistically envisions 2014 as the year Montanans will have the final say on right-to-work, though a victory there is anything but guaranteed. He believes most Republicans will likely join the effort, but he also predictors some defectors.
“Herding Republicans is like herding cats,” he joked. “It’s the Democrats who vote in lockstep.”
Sending a statutory referendum to the ballot requires simple majorities in the House and Senate.
“I suspect there will be enough Republicans who will support the measures and send them to the ballot,” Balyeat said.
Contact: Dustin@Watchdog.org or @DustinHurst on Twitter.
— Edited by johntrump at firstname.lastname@example.org