Labor Day 2006 is truly a time to celebrate in Montana, as efforts to improve the lot of the state's working families gain momentum. In one such effort, hundreds of union members donated time to gather signatures and helped qualify Initiative 151 - which will raise Montana's minimum wage by $1 if approved by voters in November. The Raise Montana petition drive gathered more than 40,000 signatures, nearly twice the number needed to place the initiative on the ballot.
Yet another positive omen is Gov. Brian Schweitzer's commitment to an economic development plan that encourages collaboration among unions, industry, communities and universities. For example, these diverse interests met, talked and worked together at the recent Governor's Restoration Forum, finding common ground in projects that would restore Montana's land, water and air quality resources while providing good wages and benefits. Forum participants stressed the need for more local workers trained in restoration practices - similar to the intensive, highly developed training already available through union apprenticeship programs.
These concerns reflect a growing awareness in the private sector that skilled, well-trained and well-paid workers are essential for continuing economic growth in the state. Unions, particularly in the building trades, provide excellent, long-term apprenticeship programs that provide the skilled workers essential in a surging economy. This is particularly important in Montana, where many contractors on both housing and industrial projects are struggling to find and retain the type of workers needed for high-quality construction.
More good news comes in the form of the many legislative candidates who support issues important to working families. This year, the Montana AFL-CIO endorsed a record 90 legislative candidates eager to work for labor-friendly, progressive issues (the endorsement list is available at www.mtaflcio.org).
All of these positive developments need statewide support to become reality. I believe the biggest priority for all Montanans is to pass I-151, raising the minimum wage in Montana, which ranks dead last among the 50 states in average annual wages. As the saying goes, "Everyone does better when everyone does better."
It is also essential to defeat CI-97, a corporate-sponsored constitutional amendment that would severely restrict the state's ability to budget for improved infrastructure and economic development programs.
Most important of all, we need to elect candidates who care about working families - about their working and living conditions, their wages and benefits, their right to union representation, and their right to an effective legislature that represents Montanans rather than large corporations and out-of-state interests.
Jim McGarvey is executive secretary of the Montana State AFL-CIO.