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"That's the thing that really drew me to the labor movement," says Roy Houseman, a current Missoula councilman and former president of the United Steelworkers Local (USW) 885.
Houseman's first lesson in how organized labor works came soon after he went to work at Smurfit Stone in 2005. The company shorted him holiday pay that first summer. Houseman talked to his union steward, and the steward ensured he was paid.
Unified workers have more pull, Houseman says. They also make more money, on average, earning $2.23 more per hour than non-unionized counterparts in Montana.
But for a variety of reasons, organized labor's message isn't resonating in the private sector today. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), union membership has slid significantly during the past 20 years. In 1989 (the earliest year BLS has on record), 17.8 percent of Montana's workforce belonged to unions. Last year, membership comprised just 13.9 percent.
Meanwhile, according to the BLS, wages compared to inflation have stayed flat for at least the past decade. Earnings actually decreased 1.3 percent between 2008 and 2009. That same time period marked an increase in productivity of 2.9 percent.
"One can look at any state in the union and, where union representation is declining, wages are flattening," says Williams. "In those sectors where union is increasing, wages are climbing. And benefits are improving. So it's a direct cause relationship. That's the most critical economic boost that Montana could possibly get."
Mark Anderlik isn't going down without a fight. The organizer says he traveled 20,000 miles last year trying to grow Montana's unions.
"We're scrappy. Let's put it that way," he says.
Anderlik devotes much of his time to simply encouraging people to stand up for themselves. Whether it's verbal abuse from an employer or forced overtime, workers don't have to take it. Empowering people gives him the greatest pride.
"Every day we've got little victories," Anderlik says. "That's really the heart and soul of what unions are about."
But little victories have been hard to come by recently because organizers regularly run up against well-funded opposition. He asserts companies in Montana regularly break federal labor laws to keep unions out of the workplace. It's not tough to find examples. For instance, in January, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which investigates allegations of unfair labor practices, accused DirecTV of firing an employee for attempting to unionize its Missoula call center.
"DirecTV, that's a classic example," Anderlik says.
The company settled two days before the case went to trial. As part of the settlement, the terminated worker received nine months of back pay totaling $21,056. The agreement absolved DirecTV of violating the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and mandated the company post notices stating that federal law gives employees the right to unionize.
"What employer is going to go, 'Hmm, well, that's tough'?" Anderlik asks. "There's no downside for them to do this."
According to the NLRB, last year the public filed 22,943 charges alleging that employers or labor organizations committed unfair labor practices that adversely affected employees.
"That's documented," says Anderlik, "so the [actual number of] incidents is probably way higher."
The statistics are part of the reason Anderlik and other organized labor groups are pushing for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier to unionize workplaces. The legislation, now in Congress, would also increase penalties imposed on companies found violating the labor law.
That's just a start. Anderlik estimates that someone is fired roughly every hour in this country for union-related activities, making an already difficult job of recruitment that much harder.
"People are so scared of losing their jobs,'" he says, "even though it's against the law."
Jim McGarvey grew up surrounded by the state's labor movement. From his childhood home on North Main Street in Butte, he could hear mine elevator doors crashing throughout the night. He joined the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers at age 15, making a living as a laborer on highway projects before he earned a teaching degree from Carroll College.
"Back then there was a lot of opportunity for young kids to work union jobs," says McGarvey, now 67. "I made good money. The union was very good to me. I didn't know there was any other way."
McGarvey says that while organizing in the private sector is an uphill battle, unions are successfully making gains among government employees.
"People would like you to think we're dying on the vine, our membership," he says, noting that in the public sector, at least, that's not true.
The AFL-CIO has 38,000 active union members, and 23,000 of them are government employees. That's the highest AFL-CIO membership in Montana history, according to McGarvey, who is the union's executive secretary.
The hardscrabble union man takes pride in the numbers. He says he and MEA-MFT president Eric Feaver have brought in a record number of teachers, health care workers and state and local employees. Since 1980, they've grown from 7,334 members to 17,550 today.
McGarvey and Feaver attribute much of the growth to aggressively putting boots on the ground and offering a valuable product. But McGarvey also says there are significant differences between public and private unionizing.
For instance, private industry is more capable and willing to mobilize resources to subvert union activity, McGarvey says. Another big difference is oversight. In Montana, a state labor board oversees public workplace grievances. That makes the ramifications of union busting more immediate.
"The labor board isn't in Denver or Seattle or someplace across the country," he says. "The labor board is right here in Montana."
Another hurdle for private sector unions is elected officials, says McGarvey. He points out that until recently not one contractor working on the massive Superfund cleanup in Butte Silver-Bow County is union. In light of the area's history, he finds that offensive.
"At one time," he says, "you would have never had a situation in Butte where legislators slept through the fact that it wasn't union people doing the work, where their forefathers had died...to get unions.
"You know," he continues, "a corporation, they want to make money, and they don't want to pay good salaries, and they don't care about safety. But when government officials allow—and this is what's happening—all that cleanup work, with not one union job, Butte legislators ought to be ashamed of themselves."
During the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) annual May Day celebration this year gathered at Caras Park. As they arrived, bewildered shoppers looked up to see people in hard hats and overalls pushing a soggy cardboard boat dubbed the "Lady Ann Magee II."
"We'll get boats, toys, all you have to do is work," shouted IWW's Jay Bostrom from the boat's rickety helm.