When Eric Feaver took the reins of the Montana Education Association, the union had 6,000 members, primarily public-school teachers.
Now, 36 years and two union mergers later, Feaver spent his last day on the job – Friday – as head of the 23,000-member Montana Federation of Public Employees, which represents not only teachers, but also a broad range of public employees, from university faculty to state correctional officers to local law enforcement.
And during that time, Feaver and his members have grown into a potent political force in Montana, working to elect candidates and back causes he says will bolster what the union supports: Public schools, public institutions and good benefits for fair salaries for workers.
“My entire tenure has been one of engagement and political action,” Feaver told MTN News. “And we’ve taken very seriously our role of electing friends to the Legislature and state and federal offices.”
Feaver, 75, is handing over the top job at MFPE to Amanda Curtis, a math teacher and former state representative from Butte who’s been active in the union.
Feaver said he still expects to be involved as a citizen in the political process, and calls 2020 a pivotal election, both for the state and the nation.
Like his union, Feaver is a vocal backer of Democrats for Montana’s top offices, from U.S. Senate to governor to superintendent of public instruction.
While the union’s membership is politically diverse, he said, the union mostly backs Democrats in partisan elections because they are “far more favorable to public institutions and unions.”
But whatever Feaver chooses to do going forward, he leaves behind a legacy of shaping many of the biggest public-policy issues in Montana, such as state funding for schools, tax policy, teaching standards and school accreditation.
He and some of his staunchest political opponents also are awaiting a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on Montana’s constitutional ban on public funds being used for private, religion-oriented school.
Montana is one of the few states with no public funding of private or charter schools – due, in part, to the steadfast opposition of Feaver’s union.
The high court likely will rule this month on the legality of allowing a 2015 state tax credit for donations to scholarship organizations that help pay for kids attending private, religious schools in Montana,
Feaver said he opposes any public assistance to private schools because they discriminate against who will attend their school.
“It’s wrong philosophically and ideologically, and it’s wrong (by) our constitution,” he told MTN News. “Public schools accept everyone. There is no impediment to you going to a public school. One way or another, that public school will take care of your education. That’s not true in the private sector.”
Feaver, who grew up in Oklahoma and served as an Army medic during combat in the Vietnam War in 1969, came to Montana in 1974, after his wife, Ellen, got a job as deputy auditor for the Montana Legislature.
He took a job as a junior high school history and English teacher in Helena – and began his union involvement almost immediately, but unexpectedly.
“It was my first or second day as a teacher there, and a guy came in and said, `You know, folks around here join the union,’ and handed me a membership card,” Feaver recalled. “And I said, `Well, I want to do what folks around here do,’ so I signed the form.”
A few years later he became head of the local education association chapter and in 1982 joined MEA as vice president. By 1984, he was its president.
MEA merged with the Montana Federation of Teachers in 2000 and the Montana Public Employees Association two years ago, becoming the Montana Federation of Public Employees. It’s easily the largest labor union in the state.
Feaver said the last merger made sense because the union already represented so many teachers and other public employees, that it could hardly argue that its members deserved more benefit from public resources than did its fellow public workers represented by another union.
The union took a hit two years ago with the Janus decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that non-union members represented by the union could not be required to pay “agency fees” to help support it.
The union lost about $500,000 a year in fees, Feaver said.
Yet the union has recruited some of those non-members to join and support MFPE, Feaver said, and continues to organize.
Feaver acknowledged that organized labor has been on the decline in America, particularly in the private sector.
But he said he’s hopeful that many of the country’s workers, particularly in the “gig economy” are beginning to realize that if they’re not organized, they’re probably not going to get the benefits and pay they need.
“I believe that ultimately if workers are to have a fair deal in our society, they have to be organized,” he said. “Do I think that’s going to happen overnight? No, I don’t. … We need private-sector unions to grow the opportunity for everyone to have health care and retirement.”