Lament for a True Labor Leader

HM: My old union buddy Dave Smith wrote the following thoughts about his colleague Jim McGarvey of Montana.  McGarvey passed away this week, and Smith remembers him as the kind of labor leader in short supply these days.  Jim was the builder of the Montana Federation of Teachers (and anyone else who wanted to organize), and an early proponent of merger.  The successful MEA-MFT merger could not have happened without Jim.


Jim McGarvey was the very best of the labor movement. No union leader was more committed, more selfless, or tougher in his pursuit of a stronger, bigger voice for workers. He was a fighter, as anyone could tell immediately on meeting him.

While building his own unions, he remained fully dedicated to growing and strengthening the entire labor movement. He built and led the Montana Federation of Teachers (from scratch), he organized state workers, he built the MEA-MFT merger, and he led the Montana AFL-CIO.

He put the union above all else, including politics. With him it was the union first, not the party. He was truly committed to a non-partisan labor movement; if too few Republicans ever accepted his outstretched hand, it was not Jim’s fault.

Admittedly, Jim was not an easy man to work with or for. He had his quirks, to say the least. His “tough-guy” exterior covered an even tougher interior. It sometimes seemed that half of all Montanans knew this from first-hand experience.

His commitment to labor took the form of an obsession with organizing above all else. He could be a bore on the subject, showing little interest in anything unconnected with organizing. He would organize anyone, because he believed that anyone would benefit from being part of a union. On this he was a relentless, exasperating perfectionist. No victory was ever big enough. And no defeat was anything but a temporary setback.

During all the long years of competition between MEA and his MFT, Jim was thinking merger. And when the opportunity arose, no one pushed harder for it. He set no pre-conditions. In his mind no obstacle could be allowed to derail the process.

Because to him, merger meant organizing; building a bigger, stronger, more united union. Building the AFL-CIO. Building the labor movement. That was all that mattered.

Today, across the nation, there are other unions that should merge. Many of them are competing NEA and AFT affiliates in the same state, as MEA and MFT once were. Today they are fighting for their lives, and they know they should merge. There are no serious doctrinal or policy differences to prevent them from merging.

Yet they do not merge. They talk about organizing, about growing stronger. But they do not organize. They do not grow.

Why not? Turf. Prestige. Personal power. Because two organizations have two leaders, but one organization only has one leader. And all those beneath the top leaders have smaller turfs to protect. And none of these “leaders” are willing to jeopardize their positions.

Jim had been the full-time leader of the MFT for 28 years, from its inception in 1972 to the 2000 MEA-MFT merger. But MFT was the smaller of the two unions, and the logic of democracy dictated that MEA President Eric Feaver, not Jim, would be the leader of the new merged entity.

Jim understood this, and accepted it. He stepped down, and became the vice-president. He voluntarily took a back seat, because the merger required it. In that role he and Feaver worked as a tireless team to make MEA-MFT the success it is today.

Selfless leadership. That is what it took. That’s what Jim provided.

I worked with Jim for 20 years, and I saw it every day. I miss him as a friend. Montana will miss him as an example of real leadership.

By David Smith

MEA and MEA-MFT Executive Director, 1993-2007


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