To Lift All To a Higher and Better Condition

A Brief History of Progressive Reform and the MT AFL-CIO

It would be difficult to find an organization that has had a greater influence on progressive labor reform and politics in Montana than the Montana AFL-CIO.  For well over a century it has been the standard bearer for not only the working men and women of Montana but also the major stakeholder in pushing a progressive political agenda to “lift all to a higher and better condition” under the Big Sky.  

The MT AFL-CIO traces its history to a November day in 1895 when the Butte Industrial Conference and the Helena State Trades and Labor Assembly merged their efforts at a joint meeting in Anaconda, MT for the sole purpose of uniting the political voice and might of labor.  The Montana State Trades and Labor Council believed firmly in organizing all workers regardless of craft skill, race, gender, or ethnicity.  As such, for over a decade the state federation refused to affiliate with the national AFL-CIO because of its conservative stance on labor issues and its narrow focus on only organizing skilled craftworkers.

In the first decade of its existence, the MSTLC lent its support to the successful passage of an 8-hour day for hard rock miners and smeltermen, passage of child labor laws, and the implementation of initiative and referendum by the people.  In 1908, Alex Fairgrieve, president of the newly christened Montana Federation of Labor, pursued affiliation with the national AFL-CIO after several statewide strikes drained the state coffers, impacting their ability to organize new locals and effectively lobby the legislature.  

The Montana Federation of Labor followed up these early successes by throwing its support behind Montana women’s suffrage (1914), Little Davis-Bacon Act (1931), 8-hour day for all (1936), and the merger at the state level of the Montana Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Montana State Industrial Union Council (CIO) in 1956 that established the current Montana AFL-CIO.  With the political voice of Montana labor unified progressive reform expanded in the state with the implementation of the Montana Minimum Wage Act of 1971, passage of the 1972 Montana Constitution, enfranchisement of public employees with the Collective Bargaining Act for Public Employees (1973) and two years later its expansion to include professional educators, teachers, and para-professionals.  

The MT AFL-CIO continues its work as an advocate for Montana’s working families.  With the dawn of the 21st century it is apparent that Montana unions and the state workforce need a voice that understands the challenges of work-place safety, the economics of a living wage, and the need for progressive legislation to keep our lands public and our environment healthy.  

Learn more about the history of the Montana Labor Movement

at the Montana Historical Society