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State’s largest labor union says SupCo decision not a knockout blow

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The head of Montana’s largest labor union says Wednesday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down fees paid by non-members will cost the union some money, but won’t cripple it as a political force for workers and the middle class.

“I think we’ve taken a slap upside the face. … We will lose revenue from those fee-payers,” said Eric Feaver of the Montana Federation of Public Employees. “But we are not out of business because we have lost this revenue stream.

“We aren’t going to lose our voice. We’re going to continue to speak out on the issues that we think are important, and support the candidates that we think are good for public employees and the work that we do, and public programs and services.”

MFPE has 25,000 members, including teachers, school employees, university system employees, and state and local government workers.

About 2,000 non-member public employees represented by the union pay “agency fees” to MFPE, a fraction of the full dues, to help cover the costs of running the union and its negotiation and enforcement of labor contracts.

None of that money paid by non-members goes to pay for the union’s activity on political campaigns. But a 5-4 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court said non-members no longer can be compelled to pay the fees, because the money still may be used to support public-policy decisions opposed by the non-members. The ruling applies only to members of public-employee unions.

Brent Mead, CEO of the Montana Policy Institute, a free-market think tank, told MTN News Wednesday that the court decision advances free speech and the right of individuals to choose not to associate with groups they disagree with.

“What we like about this ruling is that it finally recognizes that right for teachers and public employees – that you don’t have to subsidize a private organization with a part of your paycheck if you don’t want to,” he said.

But Mead agreed with Feaver that the impact on unions in Montana may be lesser than in other states, because of Montana’s strong labor tradition.

Mead said in states that have adopted the policy of forbidding such fees, public-sector unions have lost 10 percent to 20 percent of their membership.

“I would expect Montana to be at the lower end of that range, just because of the strength of our labor history,” he said.

“This is a union state,” Feaver said. “And it will continue to be a union state, no matter what the Supreme Court said.”

Feaver did say that MFPE and other public-sector unions will have to work harder to recruit and maintain members, because those represented by the union’s bargaining units now have the option of not paying any fees – even though they benefit from the union’s negotiated contract.

He also pointed out that in Montana, the agency fees paid by non-members have not been mandated by law, but rather negotiated in each contract – both the amount, and whether to have them at all. The fee averages about 75 percent of full union dues, Feaver said.

Total union dues for local, state and national affiliates of MFPE can be as high as $700 a year, but are often lower, depending on the size and nature of the bargaining unit to which the employee belongs.

Dues don’t support the union’s campaign activity – that’s a separate fund, financed by voluntary contributions.

However, Mead and others argue that much of the union’s work is inherently political, such as lobbying the Legislature on various bills and bargaining for higher pay, which is financed by taxpayer dollars.

“The act of collectively bargaining for a 2 percent pay raise for all public unions necessarily means diverting resources away from other public programs or increasing taxes,” Mead said. “And that’s a highly political decision.”

Feaver said the main job of unions is to bargain for its members – and, non-members. But the union also acts as a political force to press for policies it believes help the middle-class, he added.

“Organized labor is all that’s left to defend what’s left of the middle class,” he said. “If we want to grow the middle class in America, we have to reassert the influence of labor unions, clearly.”

About Mike Dennison

MTN Chief Political Reporter Mike Dennison joined MTN News in August 2015 after a 23-year career as a newspaper reporter covering Montana politics and state government. While some may believe that politics are boring, Mike firmly believes that's not the case if you tell the story with pizzazz and let people know why the story is important.
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