Locked out

Past Issues

Locked out: Key moments in Montana’s labor past

A timeline of Montana’s labor disputes


IMERYS TALC AMERICA INC. locked its doors to 35 International Brotherhood of Boilermakers union employees in Three Forks, Montana, on August 2, 2018. Randy Tocci, the talc mill’s lead warehouse worker, stood next to the mill’s entrance gate on that hot summer evening. He watched his fellow union workers be escorted off the property in the middle of the afternoon shift. A picket line formed immediately.

Imerys Talc America Inc. and the union workers began negotiating a new contract in May 2018. The company issued a series of final offers to the workers. These terms were rejected four times, leading to one of the most prominent labor disputes in Montana in the last three decades.

The picketing workers stood outside the gates fighting for fair contract terms. Their protest was met with widespread support from the community and local government officials. Government pressure does little more than encourage negotiations with the company and its workers. But Tocci saw the support as a morale booster on the line, and as a way to reach national news outlets.

The locked-out workers sacrificed some of their original terms in search for a compromise so they could return to work. Imerys Talc America Inc. wasn’t as willing to bargain.

“We offered up some supposals and moved from our position to try and get the company to move at all, and really, they showed no movement,” Gary Powers said. Powers was the union representative leading the negotiations.

Tocci has worked at the talc mill for 38 years. He’s seen several changes in ownership during his time and was part of a strike in the 1980s that led to an agreement in only three weeks.

Imerys swept into Montana talc operations in 2011, buying another mill in Sappington, Montana. They also purchased the nation’s biggest talc mine, the Yellowstone Mine, near Ennis, Montana.

The company says its desire to make changes is based on the uncertain future of the talc industry. However, the union found that the company’s books show little to no evidence of future financial problems.

The strike ended after three months, with the company and the union workers reaching an agreement for three-year contracts. The new contracts give the workers some of their terms, with a seniority system, overtime and health insurance coverage after retirement. Union workers returned to work November 5.

Bluebird Incident

June 18, 1887

Bluebird Mine workers were the last holdouts to join a union in Butte, Montana. Butte was the origin of much of Montana’s early labor movement. It was known as the “Gibraltar of Unionism.” On June 13, the Bluebird workers shut down mining operations and marched to the union hall to be initiated into the Butte Miners’ Union. This created a “closed shop” in Butte’s mines that lasted 27 years.

The IWW Timber Strike in the Kootenai Valley

April 12, 1917

Industrial Workers of the World, also known as “Wobblies,” organized loggers who were fed up with low wages and poor living conditions. The strike started in northwest Montana’s Kootenai Valley, six days after the U.S. officially entered World War I. The strike eventually spread to include Washington, Idaho and Oregon. At the height of the dissent, approximately 50,000 men refused to work and almost half of them stood in picket lines. The federal government sent troops to run the timber mills and arrest Industrial Workers of the World leaders. The arrests effectively ended unionization in the West’s timber industry for more than 10 years.

“Bloody Wednesday”

April 21, 1920

At around 4 p.m., hundreds of picketers staged a strike on Anaconda Road in Butte, Montana. They were protesting the poor working conditions in the Neversweat Mine. This protest followed several days of unrest. The Industrial Workers of the World led the strike. Law enforcement persuaded picketers to start leaving, but they later returned. Shots were fired into the crowd, injuring 16 and killing at least one person.

Copper Mining and Refining Strike

July 1, 1977

Montana copper mining and refining workers joined workers from eight other states and more than 10 different unions in a strike lasting 68 days. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a total of 23,000 workers joined the strike nationally. It ended when workers entered into a three-year agreement giving them incremental wage increases of 85 cents per year. The agreements also guaranteed increased pension, life, medical and accidental death insurance.

Mining Strike in Three Forks

August 2, 2018

Imerys Talc America Inc. locked out 35 International Brotherhood of Boilermakers union workers at a talc mill in Three Forks, Montana. The workers wanted a seniority system that requires pay and personnel decisions to be made based on how long the employee has been with the company. A compromise was reached after three months. Union workers returned to work November 5.