A Union of Unions 

Montana teacher unions merge in Missoula

Over the last century, a lesson has been learned in virtually every trade and profession that has adopted the collective bargaining model for its employees, and it’s reflected in the chant you’ll hear at almost any union gathering: “The people united can never be divided.”

Last week, Montana’s two teachers’ unions—the Montana Education Association (MEA) and the Montana Federation of Teachers (MFT)—did just that, merging into a single union, formalizing a relationship that has been more than 10 years in the making. The new union, known as MEA-MFT, now represents nearly 16,000 members statewide, about 78 percent of whom are K-12 teachers and other public school employees. Another 12 percent are state employees, eight percent are university faculty and the remainder are county employees, Head Start employees and health care workers. The two unions legally become one Sept. 1.

The merger of the MEA and the MFT, announced Friday at a press conference in Missoula, makes Montana only the second state in the nation where state affiliates of the historically rival unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), have merged. Minnesota became the first when its two state affiliates merged earlier this year.

“This event is a major milestone in the unification of our two organizations,” says MEA President Eric Feaver. “And our unification is a major milestone in American labor history.”

Although the MEA and MFT traditionally worked at odds with one another, competing for the same employees and often holding deep-seated animosities for one another, 10 years ago they began to recognize that their goals ran parallel. In 1990 the unions teamed up to take on the Montana Lottery for falsely claiming that lottery revenues were being used to shore up the teachers’ retirement system, which was not the case. Then in 1991, when the consolidation of two school districts threatened the lay-off of dozens of teachers, the two unions successfully lobbied as one for legislation guaranteeing hiring preferences for the districts’ teachers and employees.

Such cooperation, now formalized in two states with Florida expected follow suit in May, points toward an inevitable merger of the NEA and the AFT.

“I honestly believe that one day the two national organizations will unite as well, because we share the same mission, we share the same values and the same vision,” says NEA President Bill Chase, who was in Missoula last week for the first Representative Assembly of the MEA-MFT’s 400 delegates. “This merger really is all about kids, and all about public service. It’s about putting differences aside to make things better for the children.”

Chase said the merger represents just another move toward what he calls “New Unionism,” a melding of the traditional union role of negotiating salaries and benefits with more non-traditional roles that give members a more powerful voice in their workplace. For example, Chase spoke about expanding the peer mentoring programs in schools, implementing programs where teachers evaluate other teachers and have a greater role in the direction of their district, and so on.

Despite the Assembly’s otherwise festive mood, few would deny that the new union has a tough row to hoe. Currently, Montana ranks 47th in the nation for public school teachers’ salaries, 48th in the nation for its public employees and 49th in the nation for college faculty salaries, conditions which are largely responsible for the “brain drain” of qualified teachers to other states.

“Salaries are a respect issue,” says Chase. “There is no question about the fact that teachers’ salaries in this country, and in Montana, are abysmally low. And if we’re going to attract and keep people in this profession, that has got to change.

“No one goes into teaching to make money. That was understood when we chose this profession,” Chase added. “But at the same token, I don’t think any gas station or grocery store in this community is going to accept certificates of altruism as payment for their goods.”

The MEA-MFT assembly not only provided candidates for statewide office with an opportunity to press the flesh of hundreds of voters from around the state—statistically teachers vote in higher numbers than the general population—but also allowed union leaders to praise the education platforms of some candidates and criticize others.

“We have to fight hard against those folks who think we can do [education] on the cheap,” says Feaver, attacking proposals by UM law professor and gubernatorial candidate Rob Natelson to offer tax deductions for tipping teachers, and his endorsement of charter schools which require no state accreditation or teacher certifications.

While Feaver and MFT President Jim McGarvey acknowledge that the two unions’ past differences will not dissolve overnight, both expressed optimism for what the future holds.

“We’ve had 10 years to see what can be achieved working together,” says McGarvey. “And we’re not looking back.”

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