Our history: not to be forgotten

Our Point of View

by MEA-MFT President Eric Feaver


December 2011


As we struggle with Tea Party/Republican assaults on our union and what we do, it is imperative that we take a moment, step back in time, reconnect with, and honor our past.


Come the New Year, we will be 130 years old! Our frontier founders created the Territorial Teachers Association seven years before statehood. They believed as we believe today that public education makes all things better and must be a primary purpose of good government.


In 1924, we located our state office in Helena, employed an executive director, and named ourselves the Montana Education Association. In 2000, we merged AFT and NEA state affiliates and became MEA-MFT. 


For 40 years, we have enlarged and diversified our membership, an ongoing endeavor. Throughout we have remained true to our mission: to serve our members, work communities, and state and provide all

Montanans quality PUBLIC programs and services.


Now we must remind ourselves that what we did years ago still resonates today, or put another way, what we have done lately we may have actually done a long time ago. For example:


In 1913, at our behest, the Montana State Legislature established teacher tenure. Nearly 100 years ago, legislators correctly decided that teachers deserved what they demanded then and have demanded ever since: just cause and due process.  When folks tell me—occasionally teachers—that we don’t need tenure, one thing is for sure: no one today in Montana has ever stood before a classroom or served on a school board without it. Meanwhile tenure critics cavalierly discard the due process amendments to our tenure statutes we helped them make in the 1997 legislature…and cynically ignore that teacher performance is not about tenure but preparation, professional development, supervision, mentorship, and evaluation. 


In 1917, the University Faculty Association became the first AFT affiliate in Montana. Today, faculties at every Montana public higher education institution are MEA-MFT. No other NEA or AFT state affiliate can make this celebratory claim.


In 1935, the Butte Teachers Union negotiated the first public employee labor agreement in American history! Forty years before the Montana Legislature empowered public employees and k-12 school teachers to organize for collective bargaining purposes. Collective bargaining is what we do in this state. Dare we give this up to look like Wisconsin or worse join Idaho in its demented plunge to the bottom of educational common sense and employee rights?


Seventy-five years ago, MEA and the BTU convinced the legislature that after classroom careers at modest pay, teachers had earned a guaranteed annual pension to help see them through their retirement years. Hence the Teachers Retirement System, in which the legislature mandated all teachers be enrolled. In 1945, the legislature established a similar defined benefit pension system for public employees generally.


In concert with others concerned about the sanctity of our retirement systems, we pushed through the 1993 legislature and the 1994 election a constitutional amendment that requires our defined benefit retirement systems be actuarially funded.


In 1997 and 1999, we worked with two different legislatures to establish inflationary increases in public employee and teacher pensions so that the first retirement check a retiree receives would no longer be the best.


For sure, economic changes have come with blunt force and discolored political speech with pension envy. But we must address our retirement systems’ unfunded liabilities. In so doing, however, we will not surrender to insecure private savings accounts that defy the definition of a pension.


For more history, visit www.mea-mft.org/Uploads/files/Downloads/History.pdf.


Then read this admonition:


If any one of the nine Republican candidates for governor is elected and the next legislature looks like the last, we are in for furious battles over public school privatization, tenure, retirement, and the right to organize and bargain collectively.


Ready to kick our history to the curb?


I’m not.