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Ochenski: Divide and Conquer

Montana’s newest labor group shifts the balance of power


Only weeks after an education-led coup ousted longtime labor leader Don Judge, leaders of nearly one-third of the AFL-CIO’s member unions have decided to form a new group called the Progressive Labor Caucus. Why? Because shortly after he took over Judge’s job, former Billings legislator and corporate lobbyist Jerry Driscoll announced that labor’s long opposition to a sales tax was no longer a sure thing.

“I think you might see a change in our philosophy on taxes somewhat,” Driscoll told reporters, “because everything is open. We’re not saying no to anything.”

Contrary to Driscoll’s statement, it is apparent that the new labor organization decided a “change in philosophy” on the sales tax is not what it is looking for—and it is definitely saying no to Driscoll’s leadership.

Joe Dwyer, business manager of Teamsters Local 190 in Billings and the president of the new labor group, believes the move was necessary because of the undue influence exerted by the merger of the Montana Education Association and the Montana Federation of Teachers (MEA-MFT).

“They’re the 800-pound gorilla at the state convention now, and we’re not sure any other voice can be heard anymore,” said Dwyer in a bluntly worded press release. “When it comes to the sales tax, we know that MEA-MFT leaders Eric Feaver and Jim McGarvey both want a sales tax. We know that Feaver and McGarvey handpick the MEA-MFT delegates to the state convention. So what decision do you think the delegates will make on a sales tax? In contrast, we believe that the majority of traditional trade unionists still oppose a sales tax. We will fight for the funding required to provide a quality education for our kids...but not from a sales tax which just amounts to a wage cut for workers while corporations get off without paying their fair share.”

In response, Driscoll called the organizers of the new group “bad losers,” saying, “Montana has changed and they cannot change with it.” While Driscoll says he is “sorry that they could not get along with the new Montana,” he pledges that “we’re not going back to the dinosaur age.”

We’ll see. Driscoll’s bravado can’t cover some harsh realities. For one thing, the member unions of the new Progressive Labor Caucus number close to 10,000 people—a significant chunk of the AFL-CIO. For another thing, many would argue that under the current leadership in the state, we are, in fact, well on our way “back to the dinosaur age” already. With energy corporations reaping record profits on the backs of Montana citizens and businesses, a governor who calls herself “a lap dog for industry,” and the destruction of our environmental laws while polluters go wild, there’s a damn good argument to be made that things are a lot more like they were in our past than how we hoped they might be in a cleaner, more equitable future. Meanwhile, for the new robber barons who are plundering Montana again as it has been plundered so many times before, this split in organized labor is nothing but progress.

On the bright side, as Yogi Berra quipped, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over”—and the current travails of Montana’s organized labor community are far from over. In the coming months, the Progressive Labor Caucus will be drafting position papers on taxation, education, energy policy, social services, the environment, and human rights. My hunch is that they may well find themselves some new allies who are equally disenchanted with the AFL-CIO’s direction. As power bills take a bigger and bigger chunk out of Montanan’s low-end incomes, more and more people are going to find Driscoll’s pro-power company positions harder to swallow. Likewise, as more dollars go to pay for utilities, who in their right mind could believe that there will be growing support for a new sales tax? And finally, as the frenzy of energy development wreaks havoc on our landscapes, a significant proportion of Montanans who cherish the natural environment are going to find it tougher and tougher to support Driscoll’s vision of a development-gorged future.

Importantly, remember that most Montanans are not members of any organized labor group. Most Montanans will not understand the internal politics that led to the current state of affairs in the AFL-CIO—or the Progressive Labor Caucus. But we are plenty savvy enough to know whether we will or we won’t lend support to organizations that we think might be trashing our future. It’s too early to tell just what the Caucus will come up with, but I’d say there’s a very good chance a more progressive platform could cause some big changes in the current balance of power.

The coming months should be lively as these competing interests vie for the hearts and minds of Montanans. For the members of the unions themselves, a painful tug-of-war is about to ensue for their loyalties, their dreams, and their dues. The Republicans and their corporate buddies have virtually nothing to lose and much to gain from both the struggle and the outcome—they can’t be anything but happy. As for the Democrats, they are undoubtedly crying in their beer as they watch the division—and perhaps conquest—of one of their oldest and most faithful allies.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski contributes to the Missoula Independent as its political analyst.

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