This post is for those of you who ever knew, or worked with, or were driven crazy by, or tried to understand the obscure locutions of Jim McGarvey. Jim, who became a legend in the history of organized labor in Montana, died unexpectedly this past Tuesday. He will be buried this coming Labor Day, Monday, September 3, in Butte, Montana, and nothing could be more fitting. Over the years, he became a much admired and dear friend of mine, and I will miss him.
Since Tuesday people who knew and worked with Jim - Eric Feaver, Al Ekblad, Bob Brown - have said a lot nice things about him, and I don't know that I have much to add. But it's hard to see him go without saying something. Back when Jim retired as vice president of MEA-MFT and moved on to become the executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO, I was asked to write a message for the union newspaper, saying goodbye and wishing him well. Here's what I wrote then, and still feel.
Most of us can look back at some seemingly random event that changed our lives in a significant and unexpected way. For me, that event was meeting with Jim McGarvey at the 1975 Montana State AFL-CIO convention.
I was at the convention because my local had elected me president and petitioned for a representation election. I knew nothing - about running a local, about organizing for an election, about collective bargaining - nothing. And Jim was executive director of the Montana Federation of Teachers (MFT) at the time and the guy who was supposed to bail me out.
That meeting was my first step in becoming a labor activist, a role that would consume a good part of my life for the next 25 years. Jim was responsible for that.
Through teaching, cajoling, leading, and arm twisting, he dragged me into the life of the union. With his help, we eventually won our election and began to bargain. Jim recruited me to be MFT’s treasurer, to lobby the legislature, and to represent Montana on a Program and Policy Council for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).
We also became friends, floating Montana rivers, exchanging news about our kids, and as time went on, comparing notes about our various aches and pains.
Through all this, I learned a great deal about what made Jim tick and what made him such an effective and highly respected labor leader. I believe that following his example allowed me to do things well that I might otherwise never have done at all.
Jim was, first and foremost, an organizer. He believed that organizing new locals, signing up new members, and securing bargaining rights for more teachers and state employees were the heart and soul of the union.
He was convinced, of course, that there were all sorts of people out there who badly needed representation. But he also wanted to make the MFT as big, inclusive, and powerful as it could be. And that’s what happened.
In 1975,MFT had about 300 members. By the time we merged with the Montana Education Association (MEA), that number had grown more than tenfold. For several years, MFT was the fastest growing state federation in the AFT. Now, merged with MEA, we represent educators, public employees, and health care workers across Montana. We are the largest union in the state.
I also learned from Jim to never stop talking, to never close the door on negotiations, to never turn your back on the possibility of reaching an agreement.
As we all know, feelings can run pretty high at the bargaining table or at the state capitol. But getting mad and taking your marbles home rarely gets you anywhere. Negotiation does.
Sometimes, Jim’s willingness to keep the door open got him into trouble. Democrats didn’t like his willingness to deal with Governor Marc Racicot. Some MFT members couldn’t understand his willingness to merge with MEA after the bitter raiding of the ‘70s and ‘80s. But Jim believed, and I think he was right, that these relationships would serve the union’s best interests, and he persevered.
Finally, Jim showed everyone around him that there was never enough energy and dedication that you could give to the union. Weekends, holidays, nights, days - it didn’t make any difference, he was thinking about the union.
This too, could cause problems: he would occasionally forget that other people had other lives and needs. Sleep, for example. The telephone could ring any time, although 5:30 a.m. and midnight seemed to be his favorite hours. Local officers everywhere shuddered when he got his first car phone.
Jim now leaves MEA-MFT after serving as vice president since merger. He should leave proud of his contribution and aware of the gratitude of thousands of union members. But he will still be working on your behalf at the state AFL-CIO. So don’t be thinking those midnight calls are finally over. God speed, Jim.