Union members and their allies rallied at the Montana State Capitol in Helena on March 2. Later that day, the state house squashed a right-to-work bill by a 62-38 vote, with 29 Republicans joining with Democrats to vote No.

Anti-union lawmakers and their out-of-state corporate backers are working to revive a right-to-work effort in New Hampshire. But the state’s working families and union activists hope to deal the effort a similar fate as to the recent one in Montana, where right-to-work was beaten back in the Legislature in early March after a wide bipartisan vote.

New Hampshire Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, a right-to-work supporter who is expected to sign a bill currently being considered by the state House if it passes.
Flickr/Creative Commons photo by New Hampshire Public Radio.

In New Hampshire, the IBEW and allies worked with Democrats and a hand­ful of Republican state House members, many of whom were union members, to defeat a right-to-work bill in 2017. But the Republican-controlled Senate passed a new version this year and Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has indicated he will sign the bill if it makes it through the House.

In Montana, far-right members of the state’s Legislature introduced a right-to-work bill early during the current session, the first in 16 years in which the GOP controlled both the statehouse and the governor’s mansion. But after being passed out of committee, the full House voted it down 62-38 on March 2, with 29 Republicans joining Democrats to vote no.

The victory affirmed the importance of working families in Montana, where unions and labor were integral in building the state’s legendary copper-mining industry and have long had greater respect than in most Western states. That proved true even after former President Donald Trump won Montana by 16 points and the state elected its first Republican governor since 2005.

IBEW leaders in Montana said it was obvious from the start the proposed right-to-work law was being pushed by groups like the National Right-to-Work Committee. Eighth and Ninth District Regional Organizing Coordinator Bob Brock noted that a lawmaker who supported right-to-work mentioned “Indiana” instead of Montana when listing the reasons for his support during floor debate – an error he made because he was reading talking points submitted by out-of-state corporate interests.

“I guess I’m not really surprised but just relieved that Montana is the Montana I know and love,” said Brock, whose family has lived in the state for five generations. “We still don’t like out-of-state money flowing in here from out-of-state big money interests.” 

In the northeast, right-to-work advocates long have viewed New Hampshire as an attractive target because it would give them a presence in New England and the Granite State is the most conservative in the region.

They’ve come close a few times, including in 2017, but about two dozen House GOP members voted against the bill, backing workers instead of political party. New Hampshire has an unusually large 400-member House, especially for a state of just 1.4 million people, and the final vote was 200-177.

This time around, IBEW officials throughout the state began taking part in weekly calls with other unions in the New Hampshire AFL-CIO after the November election in which Republicans regained control of the House and Senate, Second District International Representative Ed Starr said. They figure they need to convince 12-13 House GOP members to vote no if the bill comes to a vote.

Union members have been sent online toolkits with instructions on how to contact their representatives. The state’s building trades set up a New Hampshire Families for Freedom website to counter falsehoods spread by right-to-work supporters.

Starr said IBEW members are engaged and contacting their legislators, regardless of political party affiliation. They understand that right-to-work laws are designed to suppress wages. Many IBEW members living in New Hampshire work in neighboring Massachusetts because wages are higher. A right-to-work law might convince even more to do so.

“We’re just trying to remind people it’s a worker issue,” Starr said. “A majority of union members in New Hampshire, never mind the IBEW, are registered Republicans or unaffiliated. It’s not a political issue.”

Peggy McCarthy, Manchester Local 2320 vice president and a former Republican House member, said she has encouraged members to send thank-you notes to current GOP House members who have stood against right-to-work laws.

They face considerable pressure to change their minds from outside the state in terms of campaign contributions but they also only have about 3,000 constituents apiece. Getting even a handful of appreciative notes from those voters is powerful, she said.

“Your constituents are your neighbors,” McCarthy said. “You’re going to run into them at church. You’re going to run into them at the supermarket. You don’t have that separation or detachment that politicians have in other states.

Members of Helena Local 233 were among the Montana residents who contacted legislators and spoke out against the right-to-work bill in the state.

“New Hampshire is like no place else,” she added, echoing a theme in Montana. “You can be a great lobbyist in another state and not so much here. People push back. We don’t like legislation coming in from anywhere else.”

Tiler Eaton, another Second District International Representative, pointed out in a letter to the Portsmouth Herald newspaper that right-to-work undermines the IBEW’s highly-respected apprenticeship programs.

“We have worked for over a century, at no cost to taxpayers, to build relationships with contractors from across New England, who know when they hire workers from us, they are getting highly-skilled, hardworking employees,” he wrote.

 “Advocates for ‘right-to-work’ claim it will strengthen our economy,” he added. “In actuality, ‘right-to-work’ is nothing but a parasitic government attempt into our private business.’”

The Senate passed its right-to-work bill by a 13-11 vote in February with all Democrats voting no and all but one Republican voting for it.

No action has been taken in the House, a possible sign that supporters realize they don’t have the votes. The 2017 attempt had been put to rest by the end of February.

Another potential impact on the vote is the COVID-19 pandemic. New Hampshire’s Speaker of the House died from complications from the virus in December.

In Montana, the IBEW and other allies also got to work in November. Local unions called their members, sent out email blasts and reached out via social media, urging them and friends and loved ones to contact their legislators.

That work was ramped up even more after the House Business and Labor Committee voted on Feb. 26 to send the bill to the full House. Members met with legislators on Feb. 27 – a Saturday – and then showed up at the Capitol to protest on the day of the vote, even though they learned late the previous evening the vote was being moved to the morning from the afternoon.

“Our local unions and our members put the pressure on them,” Eighth District International Representative Marty Wollenburg said. “The IBEW and our affiliates in the Montana AFL-CIO got out there and got our members mobilized to make sure these representatives were hearing from their constituents.”

An estimated 1,000 members of Montana’s unions were around the capital on March 2.

“It was awesome,” said Helena Local 233 Business Manager Jackie McBroom, who spent most of the last few weeks at the capital along with assistant business manager Luke Hoffer. “I’m not going to lie. I was scared to death [the bill would pass]. But everyone just came together.”

Even though it is a huge state geographically and its population is growing, Montana still has just more than 1 million people. That relatively small size worked in favor of the IBEW and other opponents of the bill, Brock said. Hearing from constituents convinced legislators the depth of opposition ran deep.

Kalispell Local 768 Business Manager George Bland called it a “great day in Montana for labor.”

“Unions have fought for what they have today,” Bland told the Missoulian newspaper in Missoula, Mont. “And for legislation to come in and take away their right to fund themselves, how can you tell me that’s not an attack on labor?”

Brock also credited one other thing: Many IBEW members in Montana underwent training in November as part of the IBEW’s “I’m In” campaign, an internal organizing tool developed in the Ninth District that shows members the value of their association with the union. “I’m In” was designed in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2018 Janus decision, which ruled public employees with union representation did not have to pay membership dues – in essence making all those unions open shops.

Even though “I’m In” was originally used for public sector members, it has proven a valuable tool for all IBEW members, especially those in construction. In Montana, it helped galvanize members and encouraged them to fight back against right-to-work, Brock said.

Earlier in February, Helena Local 206 Business Manager James Holbrook testified before the House committee against the bill. So did officials from NorthWestern Energy, which employs members from Butte Local 44. Other IBEW unions who took part in the fight were Billings Local 532 and Colstrip Local 1638.

“We oppose this bill because it represents the sort of government overreach into the private sector that thousands of our members voted you into office to oppose,” Holbrook told the committee.

Eight District Vice President Jerry Bellah thanked all IBEW members for their work in defeating the bill but cautioned a similar effort likely will resurface in the future. They can look east to their brothers and sisters in New Hampshire, who regularly deal with it.

“I am so proud of the work that our Montana locals put in during this campaign to defeat right-to-work,” Bellah said. “The leadership and members of Locals 44, 206, 233, 532, 768 and 1638 met the challenge head on. The win would not have happened without their teamwork and coordinated effort against this attack on Montana’s working families.

“Even though this bill was defeated, we know the battle to keep right-to-work out of Montana goes on. Our brothers and sisters involved in this win had a Zoom meeting the next day to plan for the continued fight and the attack on labor it represents. The Montana labor movement is in good hands with this group of outstanding leaders from the IBEW.”

A less serious attempt at a right-to-work bill also was fought off in Colorado, where Democrats control the governor’s mansion and statehouse. The House Business and Labor Affairs Committee voted 8-5 along party lines to kill a bill introduced during this session.