A union-led coalition wants to turn the Riverfront Triangle into a rallying point for affordability. Is anyone listening? 

By every measure, the Riverfront Triangle project is audacious. There's the $150 million price tag (the largest planned investment ever in a Montana city), the footprint (four city blocks), the jobs (500) and the "innovative" public-private agreement that has no precedent in the state.

It's saying something, then, that the deal's most audacious figure isn't actually a party to it.

Mark Anderlik is a union man, president of the Missoula Area Central Labor Council. He works in the Union Hall downtown behind a big, L-shaped desk that's solid and sort of shabby, colored a sickly yellow-brown. Most everything in Anderlik's office is that color except the metal filing cabinets, which are gray, like Anderlik's hair, which is stretched over his scalp into a ponytail. His uniform includes jeans and a blue plaid button-up.

The night before, a major unionization vote at the South Carolina Boeing plant had failed. Anderlik blames the company and state politicians, who publicly opposed the effort. They should have stayed out of it, he says. "Just shut the fuck up and let the workers exercise their rights."

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Anderlik has spent 16 years trying "to break the grip of low-wage work" in Missoula, which he sees as the city's biggest problem. He's not wrong. Household earnings have been virtually stagnant for 25 years, while the cost of housing has increased faster than in almost any other metro area in the country, as economists from the University of Montana's Bureau of Business and Economic Research recently told city officials. Anderlik believes unions could help provide a solution, if only the deck weren't so stacked against them. Organizing in Missoula has been an uphill fight, particularly in the service sector. If you haven't heard of Unite Here!, the union for which Anderlik is a regional executive officer, that might be because it counts only 250 members statewide. He says he's tried to organize hotel workers in Missoula, only to have operators quash the employees' efforts.

But if management has made work difficult for Anderlik, he's also been known to make it difficult on himself. Last summer, the MACLC settled a human rights complaint filed by its own political organizer, who claimed Anderlik had created a hostile work environment. Resolution of the case was delayed after Anderlik showed up alone to represent the labor council at a settlement hearing, the Indy reported at the time. He hadn't told his board of directors or, apparently, their attorney what was going on.

There's a sense, outside of his coalition, that Anderlik overplayed his hand on the Riverfront Triangle development.

For those willing to throw punches at the powerful, a certain brashness comes with the territory. The trick is knowing how to make those punches land.

When city officials and businesspeople look at Hotel Fox Partners' plan for a hotel, conference center and commercial and residential complex along the riverfront, they see the transformation of a decrepit former landfill into a shining economic engine that will reshape downtown. Anderlik sees a potential menace: a massive, taxpayer-subsidized instrument of wage slavery that caters to the business class while making Missoula even less livable for the nearly 40 percent of residents who work in service industries. Yes, "slavery" and "servitude" are Anderlik's words for the working conditions of hospitality employees in Montana—at least those whose bosses cross him.

And right now, with respect to the Riverfront Triangle, Anderlik feels crossed.

The project achieved a major milestone earlier this month when the Missoula City Council signed off on its main phase. Under the terms of the master development agreement, the city will sell Hotel Fox Partners the land for its hotel for $2.3 million and commit up to $15.3 million in public financing to purchase the conference center and parking garage once they're built.

Anderlik and his coalition wanted city leaders to condition the deal on a requirement that Hotel Fox Partners sign a "labor peace agreement"essentially, a separate contract between the developer and Unite Here! that would set ground rules for future unionization efforts in exchange for the union's pledge not to disrupt hotel operations. His argument purports to be a practical one: The city's financial stake in the project could be threatened by future labor disputes between employees and the hotel, so the city ought to require the developers to keep the peace.

click to enlarge Missoula Mayor John Engen pushed for a deal with Hotel Fox Partners that creates a city-owned conference center along the Clark Fork. The center is expected to yield economic benefits equivalent to a monthly Missoula Marathon, while a management arrangement will “minimize risk” to city coffers. - PHOTO BY CELIA TALBOT ­TOBIN
  • photo by Celia Talbot ­Tobin
  • Missoula Mayor John Engen pushed for a deal with Hotel Fox Partners that creates a city-owned conference center along the Clark Fork. The center is expected to yield economic benefits equivalent to a monthly Missoula Marathon, while a management arrangement will “minimize risk” to city coffers.

Such an agreement would have ensured that the eventual hotel managers do what Boeing officials in South Carolina didn't: Shut up and let Unite Here! do its work. In other words, it would give Anderlik a fighting chance to turn the Riverfront Triangle into the beachhead for organized labor he's long sought, so he could finally gain ground on Missoula's affordability problem. No agreement, and Anderlik would crack open the union playbook.

City Council wasn't down with Anderlik's demand. They rejected his proposal unanimously, even as each councilmember and Mayor John Engen spoke up in support of the union cause.

In response, Anderlik is balling his fists. "We're going to have a big fight on our hands," he says. "That fight is going to affect the city's finances."

But can he really make the city or Hotel Fox Partners flinch?

Anderlik says his coalition wasn't looking for a confrontation. Under the banner of the Missoula Community Benefits Coalition, they've been trying to shape the Riverfront Triangle project for five years, ever since Hotel Fox Partners was given exclusive development rights to the city-owned portion of the land.

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