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Time for Montana AFL-CIO to evolve

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A recent guest column by Montana AFL-CIO Executive Secretary Al Ekblad disparages I-186. The initiative would require the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to deny permits for any new hard rock mines if the mine’s reclamation plan does not “contain measures sufficient to prevent the pollution of water without the need for perpetual treatment.”

While I appreciate Ekblad’s concern for good-paying union mining jobs, he’s missing the big picture. Current mining jobs will not be affected, and if future mining jobs depend on despoiling Montana waterways then Ekblad is wrong.

It’s time for the Montana AFL-CIO to look to the future.

It can be difficult to peg the percentage of hard rock mining jobs relative to the entire Montana workforce because statistics usually include all forms of mining, and some combine mining and logging in one statistic. Still, one state government chart from 2013 has mining jobs at two percent of total Montana employment.

In a guest column from Chris Schustrom, chair of Trout Unlimited, he compares outdoor industry jobs to mining jobs:

• 1,896 metal mining jobs in Montana (Source: Montana Department of Labor)

• 71,000 outdoor recreation and tourism jobs (Source: Outdoor Industry Association)

The same holds true in revenues:

• $25 million in tax revenues from metal mining (Source: Montana Department of Revenue, Biennial Report, July 1, 2014-June 30, 2016)

• $7 billion per year in consumer spending and $286 million in state and local tax revenues from outdoor recreation and tourism (Source: Outdoor Industry Association)

Then there are the 67,900 jobs in health care and social assistance, 66,200 in leisure and hospitality services, 54,100 in accommodation and food services, and 58,500 in retail.

This is where the AFL-CIO needs to organize. This is the future of unions in Montana. On the other hand, if we trash the streams, rivers and lakes that attract tourists to Montana, a lot of those leisure, hospitality, accommodation, food service and retail jobs go away.

Ekblad’s role in the AFL-CIO is to defend any and all union jobs, and I respect that. I’ve butted heads with Ekblad before over environmental issues, though. Montana Progressive Democrats advanced a plank at the Montana Democratic Platform Convention ” …to accelerate the shift to a clean energy economy that works for all (and) a rapid phase out of fossil fuel projects in Montana to be replaced by alternative and sustainable union energy jobs.” It was Ekblad and others in AFL-CIO leadership who spoke against it, and the plank went down.

The AFL-CIO needs to look forward, and coal and other fossil fuel jobs are not in Montana’s future, unless we want to charbroil the planet. The AFL-CIO should be actively training existing workers who are in the dirty energy industry for jobs in solar and wind technologies, and in the infrastructure that supports clean energy and sustainability. And it should be making sure current and future jobs in environmental clean up are good paying, union jobs. There will a lot of those jobs in Montana after a century of hard rock mining and decades of drilling for oil, and mining and burning coal.

Don’t get me wrong, the AFL-CIO has a long (and colorful) history in raising the standard of living for working-class Americans and protecting their rights. I’m a strong supporter of organized labor, always have been. Back in my advertising and marketing days, MEA-MFT, the forerunner of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, was one of my favorite and best clients.

I was deeply disappointed when Lee Enterprises shut down the Missoula Independent in part, I believe, because the newsroom attempted to unionize. I actively back the union workers locked out at the Imerys talc processing plant in Three Forks.

That last sentence may seem like a bit of a contradiction as the plant relies on a mine for its existence. But it’s an existing mine and I-186 wouldn’t affect it. As mentioned earlier, the initiative will not have an impact on any existing mines. It also wouldn’t affect any new mines unless they spew toxic wastes into streams and rivers in perpetuity.

It’s time for other unions, both within and outside the AFL-CIO, to pressure leadership to evolve. It’s also time for AFL-CIO leadership to meet with the major players in environmental organizations to craft a relationship that benefits both.

If the Montana AFL-CIO wants the continued support of those outside the extractive industries, and the numbers in those industries are getting smaller-and-smaller as a percent of the workforce, it is going to have to change.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

About the author

Pete Talbot

'Papa’ Pete Talbot is first and foremost a grandfather to five wonderful grandchildren. Like many Montanans, he has held numerous jobs over the years: film and video producer, a partner in a marketing and advertising firm, a builder and a property manager. He’s served on local and statewide Democratic Party boards. Pete has also been blogging at various sites for over a decade. Ping-pong and skiing are his favorite diversions. He enjoys bourbon.

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