For an excellent example of how Boilermakers and politics mix to serve working men and women, look no further than Jason Small, Montana’s Republican state senator from Local 11 (Helena, Montana). Small, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Nation, serves the 21st district which includes Busby, Montana. He also served as the president for L-11 at the time of his election to office in 2017.
Serving constituents for the last six years has been a balancing act of trying to serve the people and fund his own life. His pay working in the legislature is $13 an hour as opposed to working the tools in the field making much more.
“It’s probably cost me $350,000 in lost wages,” Small says. “Everybody here is retired or they have a business that’s successful enough to step away from. Some have jobs online so they can work during the day.”
But that’s not how Boilermakers roll. The legislature in Montana is a part-time “citizen’s legislature,” which aims to ensure that the voices of ordinary people are heard and that their needs and interests are reflected in the laws and policies enacted. That doesn’t always pan out, though, since often only those who can afford lost income are the people who run for office.
That’s not the story for Small. In his short time in the state Senate he’s had a big impact that will be felt for years to come. And it all started because of the state of energy, particularly fossil fuels, during the Obama Administration.
“The Democrats were getting ready to take over everybody’s life that wasn’t living in a city,” he says. “They were over every area of your life, including your water.”
Small had done some contract work helping the United Mine Workers and, of course, was worried about Colstrip Power Plant, which was slated to be closed, ending work for him and others in his local and his tribe. Through work in the legislature, Colstrip remains open, although only two of its four units are still in operation.
“About the same time I was running [for Senate], there were eight to 10 people sitting in the house and everybody was out of work,” he says. “You either worked at a coal plant or a mine. Half of my extended family were out of work at that time.”
As Small works his last stint as senator due to term limits, he has reason to be proud of what he’s accomplished while he’s been in office.
“I carried Medicaid expansion. It’s a $2 billion boost to the economy. If you like your teeth, you can thank Jason,” he says with a chuckle.
His work helped to fund Indian Health Services policy and through that, managed to keep small town health clinics and rural clinics open.
In 2019, Small worked on the biggest labor bill in the state in several decades, securing prevailing wage remediation for coal-fired facilities. He helped to wipe out harmful right-to-work legislation as chair of the state business and labor standing committee.
“I could have run for a different role but wanted business and labor,” he says.
Small’s advocacy is evident in more than politics. He also has helped his local and his tribe through his work in the Boilermakers.
“At one point, we were building a training center,” he says. “We were training on the reservation to get people into the apprenticeship 10 to 12 years ago when almost no one wanted to do trades because of the push for college.”
After his term ends, what’s next for Small? He’ll get back to travelling as a Boilermaker. And as far as advocacy and possibly politics, he says: “I’ll stay involved in one form or another.”