Labor's champ 

Jim McGarvey's battered fists are stilled

On a chilly Labor Day morning at St. Ann's Catholic Church in Butte, men and women paid their respects to one of the most influential labor leaders in Montana history. Former AFL-CIO Executive Secretary Jim McGarvey died Aug. 27 of a heart attack. He was 70.

"His life's work has made it better for working people in Montana. And that is no exaggeration," Missoula Area Central Labor Council President Mark Anderlik said in an interview before the funeral.

McGarvey was charismatic. He didn't do things in half measures, making him a polarizing figure. In his early years, he drank heavily and liked to fight. Even as he aged, the hardscrabble Butte native often wouldn't walk away from a battle.

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Photo courtesy of Eliza Wiley AFL-CIO
  • Jim McGarvey and his wife, Suzanne Sevalstad McGarvey, at his retirement dinner last year

"Every worry, victory and fist fight showed in his face," says Pat Williams, a nine-term U.S. Congressman, lifelong union member and friend of McGarvey. "I swear Jim had more broken bones in his face than Evel Knievel."

McGarvey's father was a boilermaker. In a 2010 interview with the Independent, McGarvey recalled hearing mine elevator doors crash through the night from his childhood home on North Main Street in Butte. At 14, the strong young man went to work as a laborer hauling refuse and machinery from the mines. He joined the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers that year. It foreshadowed his decades-long career in organized labor and his lifelong commitment to expanding it.

"Jim saw, like I did, enormous unfairness between corporations and their workers," Williams says. "And it angered the hell out of him. He was easily angered. He could carry a grudge. And I think it was that grudge that made him constantly want to get even."

McGarvey was also loyal, Williams says. "If someone did him a favor, they were a friend for life. He seemed like this big burly broken-faced labor leader. And I suppose all of that's true—but underneath it was a very soft-hearted, gentle guy."

McGarvey was the first member of his family to graduate from college. After landing a job teaching sociology at Butte High School, he quickly become a leader in the Butte Teacher's Union. That was more by accident than design, he told Dan Golodner in a 2007 interview. "I shot off my mouth back in those days in the teacher rooms."

In 1971, McGarvey became executive director and president of the Montana Federation of Teachers. He grew the union through a combination of an unflappable belief in the right of working people to earn good wages and fierce competitiveness. Those qualities, coupled with his penchant for blunt speech, earned him enemies not just among management and administrators, but also from inside union ranks. In 1990, Eric Feaver presided over the Montana Education Association. "He raided other unions, he raided us," Feaver says.

Despite their skirmishes, Feaver and McGarvey found common ground in the 1990s, and in 2000, they joined forces, marrying MEA with MFT to create a powerhouse of state, county and municipal employees along with teachers and health care providers. The MEA-MFT now has about 18,000 members. During McGarvey's 10-year tenure with the Montana AFL-CIO, first as president and later as executive secretary, the organization grew from 28,000 members to 44,000.

Despite waning union membership in the private sector in the state and across the country, public sector organizing in Montana under the leadership of people like McGarvey and Feaver has remained relatively strong. But Feaver points out those public sector gains could be threatened by a tide of anti-union sentiment washing over the country. Notably, Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin pushed a law through the state's legislature in 2011 that stripped public employees of a range of collective bargaining rights.

Such strategies are taking root in other states. And last week, the national Republican Party adopted a platform plank that reads, "We salute the Republican Governors and State legislators who have saved their States from fiscal disaster by reforming their laws governing public employee unions," and urges other elected officials to do the same.

The kinds of lawmakers elected this November will shape labor's battles in coming years, Feaver says, adding, "I expect to see the full package—the Walker package, if you will—brought to the Montana Legislature next time."

Yet as wages remain stagnant and the cost of living continues to rise, working people are hurting. As McGarvey told the Independent in 2010, "The people that I see today, they want something done about it."

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