Montana Federation of Public Employees President Eric Feaver sat down with John S. Adams last week to discuss his career in the public sector labor movement. Feaver began his union leadership when he became president of the Montana Education Association in 1984. He continued in that role when MEA merged with the Montana Federation of Teachers in 2000, and again when MEA-MFT joined with the Montana Public Employees Association in 2018.
The newly formed MFPE now represents nearly 25,000 members, constituting one of the most professionally diverse public unions in the nation, representing teachers, health-care workers, highway patrol officers, wildlife biologists, and more. Feaver acknowledges the challenges of representing such a diverse group, but he says his principles haven’t changed, and he gauges legislative opportunities according to how they will impact his whole constituency, in both the short and long term. And he says he’s encouraged by a recent uptick in bipartisanship that has led to legislation public sector employees can get behind.
Referring to his position on a public preschool bill, Feaver asks, “Is this a public good that creates a social compact where folks belong to each other and know that the future depends on how well we deliver? …These are the things that matter, and we can make that happen together a whole lot better than if we are sitting at different tables, arguing our own specific point of view, without caring about how it impacts the guy at the other table. I mean, you can’t really operate in a vacuum like you’re the only game in town.”
Feaver was a vocal opponent of HB 755, a failed bill sponsored by Rep. Eric Moore, R-Miles City, that would have created additional funding for public preschool in Montana, a goal long pursued by Feaver and Democrats alike. Feaver says he opposed the bill because it would have also created public funding for private schools.
Feaver says the 2019 session was ultimately his most successful: “This last legislature may well have been the best legislature in which I have ever lobbied. … And I attribute that to just some good collaboration, bipartisan effort, between Democrats and the Solutions [Caucus] Republicans. And so we will do everything we can to reward Solutions Republicans in their effort to be re-elected to the legislature.”
He also says there’s an “anti-union animus” developing in the country, and in Montana, and that ongoing efforts by anti-union forces to pass so-called right to work legislation, coupled with recent high-profile court cases, threaten to undermine unions and public education. In 2018, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling in Janus v. AFSCME that effectively reversed 41 years of precedent by holding that public unions can not compel non-union members to pay fees for union activity. The court has also agreed to hear Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue in its next session; that case could decide whether private schools can be supported by public tax dollars. Feaver noted that he endorses Democratic candidate Melissa Romano for state superintendent of public instruction in the 2020 election. Both Romano and her Republican opponent, incumbent Elsie Arntzen, were recent guests on the Montana Lowdown.