What’s the matter with Montana? Deindustrialization and political reaction

Why has the ruling class in Montana become so hateful? Transphobic bigots in the legislature banned Rep. Zooey Zephyr from speaking or even entering the chamber of the state’s House of Representatives.

Montana Gov. Gregory Gianforte signed the anti-transgender bills that Zephyr objected to, despite pleas from the governor’s son. “These bills are immoral, unjust, and frankly a violation of human rights,” said David Gianforte, who is non-binary.

The vicious legislation denies gender-affirming care to minors and endangers legal protections for transgender people. Drag shows on public property or anywhere young people might be present will be prohibited. That’s canceling everybody’s First Amendment right to free speech and could even threaten Halloween parades.

Gov. Gianforte is a super-rich thug who should have been jailed for body-slamming Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs in 2017. Jacobs had dared to ask Gianforte, who was running for Congress, a question about health care policy.

Even though Jacobs was hospitalized, Gianforte was sentenced to just 40 hours of community service and 20 hours of anger management therapy. Nobody on Fox News said the judge was “soft on crime.”

Gianforte sold RightNow Technologies, in which he had a large stake, to Oracle in 2011 for $1.5 billion. That made Gianforte the richest member of the House of Representatives for a while.

Montana Sen. Steve Daines, who was then a RightNow executive, also made millions from the deal. The 100 employees who had their jobs shipped to Texas weren’t so lucky.

The dynamic duo of Gianforte and Daines then pushed in Congress for “cybersecurity” legislation that could result in megabuck federal contracts for Oracle. 

Even though Gianforte has a degree in electrical engineering, the moneybags bully is no supporter of science. On the contrary, his tax-exempt family foundation is a big benefactor of the Glendive, Montana, Dinosaur and Fossil Museum.

This misnamed museum claims the dinosaurs and human beings lived together and even shared space on Noah’s ark. Apparently, none of the humans were eaten or died of the smell.

This junk is being fed to schoolchildren nearly 100 years after the Scopes “Monkey Trial,” in which Tennessee teacher John Scopes was fined for teaching evolution. Yet it’s Drag Queen story hours that are being banned.

Militant history of struggle

Plenty of people in Montana are disgusted by the bigots in the state legislature. In a state with a population that’s less than half that of Brooklyn, N.Y., a quarter-million people voted against Gianforte in the 2020 election for governor.

The bigots running the state certainly don’t speak for 75,000 Indigenous people living in Montana. State representative Johnathan Windy Boy, a member of the Chippewa Cree Tribal Council, defended Zooey Zephyr. He schooled the legislature about transgender people in Indigenous nations who are often called two-spirit.

The Mountain State’s lurch to the right betrays the militant history of the working class there. The Butte Miners Union was founded in 1878. Butte was known as the tightest union town on earth.

These unions, including the Western Federation of Miners, the Industrial Workers of the World, and the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, waged strikes for decades.

IWW organizer Frank Little was lynched in 1917 for organizing a strike against Anaconda Copper. Future communist leader William F. Dunne carried on the struggle and founded the socialist Butte Miner, which became a daily newspaper.

Dunne, like Zephyr, was elected to Montana’s House of Representatives but was arrested on state sedition charges because of his opposition to World War I. His attorney was future U.S. Senator Burton K. Wheeler. Dunne was convicted, but Montana’s Supreme Court threw out the charges.

Havre, Montana, was the center of the American Railway Union’s 1894 strike against the Great Northern, forcing James J. Hill to rescind wage cuts.

When the former locomotive fireman and ARU president Eugene Debs ran for president in 1912, the Socialist Party candidate got nearly 14% of the vote in Montana. In 1932, Communist presidential candidate William Z. Foster and his running mate James W. Ford got nearly 18% of the vote in Sheridan County, in Montana’s northeastern corner.

Foster had been the organizer of the 1919 steel strike. Ford had been a Black postal worker in Chicago.

The Sheridan County sheriff’s office was decorated with a poster calling for the freedom of union organizers Tom Mooney and Warren Billings. The two were framed for a bombing in San Francisco and sentenced to death by hanging.

There was worldwide outrage and protests. Lenin and the Bolsheviks surrounded the U.S. embassy in 1917. President Woodrow Wilson was compelled to beg California Gov. William Stephens to commute their sentences to life imprisonment. The labor movement finally forced California to free Mooney and Billings in 1939.

Dispersing the working class

The ruling class always tries to poison public opinion. As late as 1959, Anaconda Copper owned seven daily newspapers in Montana. All of them parroted Anaconda’s lies.

A big reason for the rise of political reaction in Montana is the dispersal of the working class. Many of the mines have closed. Unions have shrunk.

Only 1,500 people in Montana still have mining jobs. Butte has a smaller population today than it did in 1920.

Anaconda is exploiting copper miners in Chile instead. The corporation celebrated the bloody overthrow of elected President Salvador Allende on Sept. 11, 1973, in which thousands were killed.

With the help of the CIA and Henry Kissinger, the corporation took back the mines that the people of Chile had taken over.

The massive 90% drop in railroad workers since 1947 particularly hurt states like Montana, which are large in land area with thousands of miles of track but sparsely populated.

The Northern Pacific, now part of Warren Buffet’s BNSF, closed its shops in Livingston, Montana. The tracks of the old Milwaukee Road line to the Pacific Northwest were largely abandoned.

Montana and neighboring Idaho have also attracted a certain number of racists and neo-Nazis. They have a nightmare vision of creating an all-white state in western Montana, northern Idaho, and nearby areas.

Idaho is even more in the grip of reaction than Montana, but it, too, has a history of labor struggles. U.S. troops were sent to crush miners’ strikes in the 1890s.

In the 1940s, Idaho Sen. Glen Taylor was the running mate of Presidential candidate Henry Wallace in the 1948 elections. They ran against racism and the Cold War. 

For defying segregation laws during the campaign, U.S. Senator Taylor was clubbed by Bull Connor in Birmingham, Alabama. As a result, Taylor was arrested and convicted for violating the segregation laws. Connor would later use dogs and fire hoses against Civil Rights Movement demonstrators in 1963.

We look forward to future struggles in Montana and Idaho as part of an upsurge of workers and oppressed peoples. Walmart employs nearly 5,000 employees in Montana. Organizing drives will win union contracts for Walmart’s workers and thousands of others in Montana and Idaho. 

Solidarity with Zooey Zephyr!


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