Longtime labor icon Eric Feaver, the retired president of Montana’s teachers union and one of the state’s most profound political influencers over the past four decades, died unexpectedly in Helena Wednesday. He was 77.
Fellow labor leaders, education stakeholders and elected officials remembered Feaver Thursday as a tireless devotee to his members’ interests, a persistent advocate for a high-quality and fully funded public school system, and a fearless, intelligent shaper of Montana’s public policy.
“He spent his entire life setting the example for all of us and teaching all of us how to accomplish good for our neighbors, our communities and ourselves, our professions,” said Amanda Curtis, who succeeded Feaver as president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees after his retirement in 2020. “His death has left us an absolute vacuum that now it is up to each of us to fill.”
The scope of Feaver’s legacy in Montana was reflected in an outpouring of public statements from leaders across the political spectrum Thursday, noting Feaver’s work both in state policy debates and at the municipal level in Helena, where he had been elected to a city commission seat last year. Gov. Greg Gianforte called Feaver a “committed public servant and veteran” whose “unmistakable voice” will be missed.
Democratic congressional candidate Monica Tranel referred to him as an “insightful leader” who dedicated his life to “standing up for the working people with a deep conviction of what is fair and what is right for our families and communities.” Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen said in a statement that Feaver’s “passion as an advocate for our Montana teachers” will be missed throughout the Capitol and the state’s public schools.
Eric Feaver and the changing of Montana’s labor guard
Eric Feaver’s retirement this week as president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees marks the end of a nearly four-decade career during which Feaver became the most powerful labor organizer in Montana. His tenure oversaw the consolidation of rival teacher’s and public-sector-worker’s unions into the largest union in Montana, a new-model labor movement built…
“Eric was a fixture in local and state politics for decades and he leaves behind an incredible legacy of public service and advocacy for worker’s rights,” Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins wrote in a statement shared Thursday on Facebook. “I am proud to have served the City of Helena alongside him. I grieve with his friends and family, whom he spoke of fondly and often in our Commission meetings. Our Helena community will not be the same without him.”
In a statement extending condolences to Feaver’s family and to MFPE members, the Montana AFL-CIO recognized Feaver as “a labor leader with courage and conviction, who believed that workers deserve a fair deal and wasn’t afraid to speak his mind.”
Feaver grew up in Oklahoma, was sent to Vietnam as a conscientious objector and U.S. Army combat medic in 1968. He came to Helena in 1974, where he landed a teaching job at Helena Junior High School — now Helena Middle School. That position also ushered Feaver into the state’s labor movement, setting the stage for a career spent shaping education policy and the union landscape in Montana.
“A guy comes in and he lays a membership card in front of me and said, ‘folks around here join the Helena Education Association,’” Feaver told Montana Free Press in a 2020 interview. “And I said, well I want to do what folks do. So I joined.”
Feaver’s tenure in the Helena school system also put him in early proximity to former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, who attended Helena Junior High School. He never had “Mr. Feaver” as a teacher, Bullock told MTFP Thursday, but his wife Lisa did. To this day she refers to Feaver as the most passionate and driven teacher she had, Bullock said.
Bullock eventually witnessed Feaver in action both on the union front, as an attorney for the Montana Education Association, and in state government, as attorney general and, from 2013 to 2021, as governor. He described Feaver’s presence in the Capitol as “a bulldog, and determined,” someone who garnered respect “even from people he disagreed with.” Bullock occasionally found himself at odds with the labor leader, such as when Feaver criticized Bullock’s decision to close the Montana Developmental Center due to the loss of unionized state jobs there.
“He’s also someone, though, that you could get into a yelling fight with on a Thursday and have beer with on Friday because you respect the work that he’s doing, you respect his position,” Bullock said.
That respect, even from sometimes adversaries, was a quality that stretched across the political aisle. Feaver’s advocacy for education spending didn’t always find natural allies among the Republican lawmakers who have often been in the driver’s seat with the state budget. House Appropriations Committee Chair Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, who has dedicated much of the past decade to shaping education funding in Montana, said via a text message that while he and Feaver weren’t always in agreement, he recognized the union leader as “a force in the education arena.”
“While Eric and I sometimes found ourselves on the opposite side of issues, I held him in the highest regard and considered him a friend,” Jones wrote. “Montana lost a true character and education lost a friend.”
Former Gov. Marc Racicot, a Republican who held office from 1993 to 2001, similarly described a constructive but occasionally oppositional relationship with Feaver. There was nothing soft about him, Racicot said. Feaver was a “tough negotiator” and a “principled” champion for teachers and for public education as a whole.
“He advocated for education, proper funding for schools, and he advocated for teachers, and as far as he was concerned, that was a nonpartisan mission,” Racicot said. “None of our conversations ever focused upon anything that reflected partisanship.”
Feaver’s gradual ascent in union leadership culminated in 1984 with his election as president of the Montana Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association and then-rival to the state’s other major teachers union, the Montana Federation of Teachers. It was in that context that former state Sen. Dick Barrett, a now-retired University of Montana economics professor, first got to know Feaver.
In an interview Thursday, Barrett characterized Feaver and his then-counterpart at the Montana Federation of Teachers, Jim McGarvey, as “quintessential union guys” who understood the art of negotiating, worked diligently to advance their members’ interests and weren’t “blinded by irrational political obsessions.”
“They swept all that stuff off the table and they just understood you get down to brass tacks and you get the job done,” Barrett said.
By the early 1990s, Feaver and McGarvey had reached an understanding that competition between their respective unions was counterproductive. In 2000, MEA and MFT executed a landmark merger.
The process wasn’t easy, and Barrett recalled that when it came time for the duo to decide who would serve as president of the new MEA-MFT union and who would serve as vice president, he ultimately had to pull them aside and tell them to settle the matter privately. They did, with Feaver being named president. Barrett added that the two managed to pull off one of the only successful mergers of that kind in the country, a feat even their national affiliates failed to accomplish.
“Although they started out as rivals, they ultimately developed a very, very close, mutually respectful relationship that allowed them to achieve a merger and then continue to move the organization forward,” Barrett said.
In 2018, Feaver led yet another major union consolidation effort when MEA-MFT joined with the Montana Public Employees Association to create what’s now known as the Montana Federation of Public Employees — a juggernaut on the state’s labor landscape representing more than 25,000 public sector workers. But Feaver’s efforts weren’t exclusively targeted at his own organization’s membership.
Former AFL-CIO Executive Secretary Al Ekblad said Feaver worked to maintain strong ties to other labor groups in the state. The two both worked on a 2005 ballot initiative to increase Montana’s minimum wage, Ekblad recalled, and Feaver was instrumental in raising funds for the effort. For Ekblad, there was no other way to describe Feaver than a “force of nature.”
“He was willing to challenge and fight for all sorts of social issues and use the resources of his union to do that,” Eklab said. “He was loved by some and hated by others and some people love and hate him at the same time. But the general population of Montana will never really understand the impact he had on their lives.”
When Dennis Parman, executive director of the Montana Rural Education Association, first arrived in Helena in 2008 to take a position as deputy superintendent at the Office of Public Instruction, he recognized immediately that Feaver was someone to pay attention to. Feaver’s status as a powerhouse in Montana politics was already well established, and Parman said Feaver taught him more than anyone else about how to work within the Capitol’s political machinery. Whenever Feaver pulled out all the stops advocating for his members’ interests in the Legislature, Parman said, those who knew him saw it coming.
“A signal from Eric that he was all-in on his position on an issue is when he would stand at the lectern and take his tie and throw it over his right shoulder,” Parman said. “That was the signal.”
Their respective work advancing public school interests in Montana brought the two close, and Parman admired Feaver’s candor. It wasn’t easy to earn Feaver’s trust, Parman said, but when you did, “it was meaningful.” And the passion Feaver brought to the lectern in legislative committee hearings spilled over into all his other efforts, Parman continued, driving a legacy that touched every corner of public education.
“His handprint on public education in Montana is immense,” Parman said. “Funding for public schools, quality of educators and quality of educational programs — he touched it all. Certainly not everybody agreed with them, but in the end, we are better than we ever could have been without him.”
Curtis echoed Parman’s comment, saying that there isn’t a section of state law affecting public schools that doesn’t have Feaver’s fingerprints on it. That sense of admiration is shared widely across Montana’s public education associations, which Feaver helped to bring together under the shared banner of the Montana Public Education Coalition. Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association, said Feaver’s influence made Montana’s education laws more logical and more sustainable, for example by giving schools greater ability to cope with enrollment-based budget issues and by crafting a basic definition of what a free quality education is in Montana — the latter a guarantee made by the Montana Constitution.
Despite the scope of his contributions, Melton said, Feaver would “never take credit for it.”
“The older that he got and the more seasoned in his career, the more thoughtful, reflective and collaborative he got as well,” Melton said. “Even when I disagreed with him, I always admired his integrity and his unbelievable energy.”
Former Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who held office from 2005 to 2013, said in an interview Thursday he looks no further than Feaver’s military service record to measure what he meant to Montana.
“He was in Vietnam and he served other people who were carrying guns, but he didn’t have one in a warzone,” Schweitzer said. “That tells you a lot about who and what he was. He passionately worked for other people. This was never about Eric Feaver.”
Sources interviewed Thursday applied many more descriptions to Feaver as well, gleaned from past policy skirmishes, union debates, even fly-fishing excursions on the Big Hole River. Feaver was “pithy,” he was “cordial,” he “never stopped” and he was determined to be “the last one standing at the end of every legislative session.” More than anything, though, he was remembered as a constant presence in Montana politics, one whose sudden absence many are finding difficult to process.
“There’s a lot less positive energy in the world today than there was yesterday,” Ekblad said. “I think we all expected him to be here forever.”
The Montana Federation of Public Employees’ said Thursday that condolences can be sent to Feaver’s family at 901 Flowerree, Helena, MT 59601.
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