A bill to raise the minimum wage in Montana to $10.10 has stalled in the Montana Legislature and will likely never see the light of day. This was not unexpected. The same thing happened during the 2015 Session. In fact, the Montana Legislature has a long and storied history of refusing to raise Montana’s minimum wage. That is why the Montana Labor Movement has looked to the ballot to raise the minimum wage in our state.
In 2005, the Montana Legislature predictably rejected a minimum wage increase. Following the session, Governor Steve Bullock, who at that time was a private citizen, sat down with labor leaders to devise a plan to raise Montana’s minimum wage. They chose a ballot initiative (I-151) as their vehicle. The Montana Labor Movement agreed to support and resource the effort.
In fact, the successful passage of I-151 in 2006 owes much of its success to the Montana AFL-CIO and MEA-MFT. Labor unions put a great deal of resources behind getting the necessary signatures to get the initiative on ballot. Montana AFL-CIO’s staff coordinated and gathered signatures in major cities and MEA-MFT used ground-breaking direct mail strategies to collect signatures from members and tirelessly to get signatures.
Labor’s efforts terrified anti-worker corporate conservatives. In fact, right-wing special interests went so far as to take union leaders to court over their efforts to raise the wage. These efforts were led by Travis Butcher, son of former Senator Ed Butcher. Several labor activists were accused of fraudulently gathering signatures, including now Montana AFL-CIO Executive Secretary Al Ekblad and were deposed by lawyers representing Butcher.
When Butcher’s own lawyers told him that there was no basis to challenge how signatures were gathered on the ground, he then had them challenge MEA-MFT’s method of mailing petitions to its members. They foolishly put Eric Feaver, President of MEA-MFT on the stand in Great Falls.
“It was a classic ‘don’t ask a question you don’t know the answer’ situation” according to Feaver.
“I was put on the stand, because we were being sued for having ‘violated’ signature gathering laws. The question to me was, ‘Mr. Feaver, how did you know that your members knew what they were signing when they signed the petitions you mailed them?’ I said, ‘well, the vast majority of our members have bachelor degrees, many have masters, and some have Ph.D.s and we thought they could very easily understand, ‘do you think there ought to be a one dollar increase in the minimum wage? If so, sign here and return envelope to sender.’ To which their lawyer responded, ‘thank you, Mr. Feaver. You can sit down.’
That took maybe 30 seconds.”
Those challenging labor’s signature gathering efforts were laughed out of court and the initiative remained on the ballot. However, that didn’t stop a conservative legislature from outlawing such methods in 2007.
Ironically, the same far-right conservative outfit that targeted unions had three of their own initiatives removed from the ballot in 2006 because they themselves did in fact violate signature gathering laws. They violated the law by hiring non-Montanans as signature gatherers and by tricking citizens into signing onto all three of their ballot initiatives unknowingly.
Not only did Labor do much of the leg work necessary to getting the initiative on the ballot, Labor leaders took the lead on messaging the need for a raise in the minimum wage to Montana voters.
Jim McGarvey, then Executive Secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO summed the situation up perfectly in an op-ed:
“Both Congress and the Montana Legislature have consistently refused to raise the minimum wage, so Montana’s lowest-paid workers need the help of their friends, neighbors and fellow workers, give hard-working Montanans a raise, and improve your local economy. Vote YES for I-151.”
More than that, the Montana AFL-CIO and MEA-MFT contributions made up 72% of Raise Montana campaign war chest. Contributions from other labor groups brought the total to nearly 80%.
In case you’re curious, fast food chains invested the most money in defeating the initiative. They claimed that raising the minimum wage would cause massive layoffs and a spike in the cost of food. Neither happened and neither has ever happened when the minimum wage is raised. That’s why the vast majority of Montanans didn’t buy their scare tactics.
In 2006, I-151 passed with an astounding 73% of the vote. The initiative successfully
raised the minimum wage and added an annual cost-of-living adjustment to the state minimum wage (an important aspect of the initiative that was pushed by Labor). This effort was made possible because our now Governor Steve Bullock and because of hardworking union members.
The Legislature has failed and will likely continue to fail to raise the minimum wage. That’s why Labor looked to the ballot in 2006 to make real and lasting improvements to Montanans’ pay checks.
“The Montana Labor Movement will always support serious efforts to assure workers make a living wage. If workers want to stand up and fight for better working conditions, in the workplace or politically, we will be there with them” said Al Ekblad.