The late Jim McGarvey

By MEA-MFT Member Rights Director J.C. Weingartner, a close friend of Jim McGarvey’s since their childhood in Butte and a colleague of Jim’s for more than 40 years

Jim McGarvey had a one track mind. Even as a child hawking the Butte Daily Post in uptown Butte in his tattered overalls and scuffed shoes, Jim was unwittingly formulating his career path. He observed the lopsidedness of the distribution of wealth in the Butte community and reasoned that everyone, regardless of the cards that were dealt, deserved to enjoy a quality life and the resources to support a family.

The expression “growing up dirt poor” epitomized Jim. To make ends meet, Jim began working on The Hill at age 14 and joined the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers Union that year. He continued working on The Hill during high school and college. His earnings, together with him lugging a football around for Carroll College, enabled him to be the first member of his family to receive a college degree and, at the same time, help support his family.

After a stint as a teacher at Butte High beginning in 1965, Jim’s strongly voiced opinions caused him to pursue his vocation to address the issues he first formulated as a news boy. He had to ORGANIZE! He had to enable people get a fair shake and the respect they deserved. Jim McGarvey’s legacy was born.

And organize he did. Oh sure, during any conversation with Jim the terms “nesting and spading,” “lay the pipe,” and “get the first contract” usually surfaced, but the conversation was replete with “organize, organize, organize.” He was consumed and obsessed with this word. Frankly, these conversations became repetitive, but the conversations still continued. Jim always got his point across. He practiced what he preached.

Becoming the helmsman in 1971 for the Montana Federation of Teacher’s ship, Jim navigated that small vessel through charted and uncharted waters. Beginning with a single education local, MFT rapidly grew to three locals. Jim continued to organize those who were not organized and raided locals that were already organized. Not satisfied with simply representing education employees, Jim spread his net to include public employees and those engaged in health care work. He packed over 6,500 shipmates on his once tiny boat. Even while organizing feverishly, he served as vice president of the American Federation of Teachers for over 30 years.

For years, a battle raged between the Montana Federation of Teachers and the Montana Education Association, with each having the same goal—securing a living wage for all workers and giving all workers job protection. It was Jim’s vision to cooperate rather than compete. As Jim would often proclaim, “Just get the job done!”

In the 1990s, Jim and Eric Feaver, president of the Montana Education Association, planted the merger seed. Although it took many years of care, negotiations, compromise, and nurturing, the seed finally blossomed. In 2000, the state’s largest and most progressive union, with over 18,000 members, came into fruition as a result of the McGarvey/Feaver coalition. MEA-MFT was born. The job got done.

After the merger, McGarvey and Feaver agreed that because MEA had more members, Feaver would serve as president of the newly created MEA-MFT. Jim assumed the role of vice-president and became president of the Montana State AFL-CIO. In 2005, he relinquished the vice-presidency of MEA-MFT and became executive secretary of the AFL-CIO. During his tenure with the AFL-CIO, membership increased from 26,000 to over 44,000 members.

Fifty-six years as a union member. Forty years as a labor leader and labor organizer. Never afraid to fight, never opposed to compromise, and never accepted defeat. Guided by the principal that everyone must do the right thing, Jim McGarvey was relentless in his quest to attain justice and fairness for everyone. To use his Butte vernacular, “He done good.”

Jim looked rough and tough on the outside but was a gentle and compassionate giant on the inside. Never intimidated by political ideologies, Jim offered his hand to everyone. Most took advantage of his frank discussions, few declined. Some agreed with Jim while others did not—but everyone respected him for what he did and what he stood for.

Jim McGarvey is one of the first three inductees into the MEA-MFT Hall of Fame. He was the face (not a pretty one, by his own admission) of organized labor for the last 40 years. In nominating Jim for this prestigious award, Eric Feaver noted: “Jim McGarvey was a colossus. He was one of the great labor leaders in the state of Montana. He grew the labor movement in this state for 40 years. Without him, there would be no MEA-MFT.”

In recognition of Jim McGarvey, let’s all pledge to build on and grow his legacy—let’s continue to ORGANIZE.