About 50 union members took to Russell Street in front of Wells Fargo Bank on a recent overcast afternoon, chanting and carrying signs reading, "Jobs, not banker bonuses" and "You got bailed out, we got sold out." The local protest, which coincided with a simultaneous New York City march that drew roughly 10,000 people, aimed to give Congress notice that organized labor wants wholesale reform of the nation's financial system.
"Wall Street has gambled with our economy, has gambled with our jobs. And they're getting away with it," says Missoula Area Central Labor Council President Mark Anderlik, who helped coordinate the event with Americans for Financial Reform.
Listening to Anderlik, there's urgency in his voice—and for good reason. A series of crippling economic blows have left local unions reeling. Smurfit Stone Container Corp. closed its Frenchtown mill in January, eliminating 417 union jobs, some of which paid as much as $70,000. In 2008, Stimson Lumber Mill's Bonner plant closed after 122 years in business. In its heyday, the plant employed nearly 1,000 people. Even worse, those displaced workers entered a historically poor job market. Missoula County's unemployment rate currently sits at 7.9 percent, the highest it's been since 1991.
For Anderlik, the Wells Fargo demonstration hits at the heart of the problem: As Wall Street receives billion-dollar bailouts, CEOs continue to rake in huge bonuses and industry jobs leave town, financial reform becomes a necessity. He believes fellow union members must come together to form one strong voice, and utilize what they've always counted on to enact change: unity.
"This is the only way workers can have a fair shake in any society," says Anderlik, who wears a hat for the rally that states "Jobs with justice," and a button that reads, "Kicking ass for the working class."
"Through organizing," adds Missoula resident Ruth O' Connor, a member of the American Postal Workers Union at the rally, "it gives a voice, even to the weak...It means that we have some kind of solidarity for decent jobs and decent pay."
While he's heartened by the turnout in front of Wells Fargo, Anderlik admits that his ranks are thinning. In addition to presiding over the labor council, the 51-year-old serves as executive officer for Unite Here Local 427, which represents roughly 500 maids, hospitality workers and dishwashers across the state. Private sector unions, like the Local 427, have seen a significant dip in numbers.
"Here in Montana, we're struggling to maintain," he says.
In fact, the numbers from the demonstration underscore the point. Most of those marching along Russell Street are attending a regional American Postal Workers Union (APWU) convention. Roughly 10 of the 50 demonstrators come from the local APWU chapter, and two attendees—including Anderlik—represent Unite Here. The rest are from out of town.
Anderlik says the local turnout is usually stronger for issues that hit closer to home, and explains that national politicking is still a pretty new push. Nevertheless, the scene sends a strong message: Solidarity only goes so far if there are fewer and fewer workers standing together.
The story of Montana's labor union movement runs deeper than the copper mines that color its early years. The effort started in 1878, when copper barons told miners at the Alice and Lexington silver mines that if they wanted to continue working, they'd have to take a pay cut. Instead of $3.50 per day, he announced salaries would drop to $3. Incensed, 400 miners walked out and took to the streets with a brass band leading the way. That night the miners created the Butte Workingmen's Union.
That first strike proved a success, with miners fending off the wage cut. But the fight was far from over.
At the time, the mining companies paid no benefits to workers. But the Workingmen's Union, later renamed the Butte Miner's Union, did provide a safety net and a voice for laborers.
"It was the only countervailing force for large corporations," says Pat Williams, a nine-term U.S. congressman and lifelong union member who now teaches at the University of Montana.
Williams, now 72, recalls learning about the labor movement by watching his father, a restaurant owner in Butte, negotiate with the Women's Protective Union.
"Although my father was a tough negotiator, because he was on the management side, he would always say to me as a kid, 'I'm trying to protect my profits. But I'm trying to do so in a way that I know there will be a little jingle in the pockets of our workers, because they'll spend in our restaurants,'" Williams says.
That lesson stuck with Williams, who throughout his career has advocated what he calls "percolate-up economics." He believes Main Street stays healthy when employers pay a decent wage. It's a holistic approach to economics that relies on the advocacy unions provide to keep people in power from treading on those who are less powerful.
"They are America's most important institution," he says.
Labor's history in the state is mostly one of large battles waged for small victories. Every so often, though, the movement scores a significant success. Victories gained over the years include implementation of the eight-hour workday, ending child labor, increasing Montana's minimum wage and improving worker safety conditions.
While economic and political landscapes shift over the years, the key to the labor movement—solidarity—has remained the same. Solidarity relies on the basic principle that if one group member is harmed, the rest suffer too. For union members, that's a powerful lure.