In a move intended to strengthen organized labor and the middle class, Montana’s two largest public employee unions merged Saturday to form the 24,000-member-plus Montana Federation of Public Employees.
The new entity is now the state’s largest union.
“We made history today,” said Eric Feaver, president of MEA-MFT, whose membership voted to merge with the Montana Public Employees Association.
“This is one of the most significant events in Montana labor history,” Feaver said.
The unions’ members met separately (but simultaneously) in Helena to vote on a proposed constitution for the merged organization. Both votes were nearly unanimous.
The new Montana Federation of Public Employees represents public K-12 teachers and support staff; state, county and municipal workers; higher education faculty and support staff; Head Start employees; health care workers; Montana Highway Patrol staff members; probation and parole officers; and city police department employees.
“We have members in every community across the state, working for Montana’s people,” said Quinton Nyman, executive director of MPEA.
Leaders of both unions said the move was two years in the making, and necessitated by attacks on Montana workers’ right to be represented by unions and by the diminishment of the American middle class in recent years.
“Unions created the middle class in America, and unions keep it alive,” said Amanda Curtis, a math teacher in Butte and an MEA-MFT state officer. “Coming together makes us far stronger and more effective.”
The merger was a natural progression for the two unions, Nyman said.
“MEA-MFT and MPEA have worked together for decades to improve and defend public services in Montana, protect workers’ and voters’ rights, raise the minimum wage, and fight for fair funding for schools and higher education,” he said. “We have jointly stopped efforts to privatize and profitize public services and schools and we’ve fended off so-called ‘right to work’ bills.”
In 2016, delegates to MEA-MFT’s annual representative assembly and the MPEA annual meeting voted to direct their respective leaders to explore a possible merger.
In 2017, delegates at both conventions voted overwhelmingly to merge the unions. Officers of the two groups then met at length and wrote a constitution for a new union.
Saturday’s ratification of a new constitution by each union’s membership officially gave birth to the Montana Federation of Public Employees.
MPEA’s leadership told members in advance of Saturday’s meeting that the merged union would not only defend, promote and enhance Montana’s labor movement, but expand it as well — and not just MEA-MFT and MPEA, but also the AFL-CIO.
“BIG is better,” MPEA leaders said in a bullet-point list for its membership.
In the years to come, the merger will provide public employees with “the ultimate opportunity to rethink, restructure, and repurpose what we do, with and for whom, and why,” MPEA’s Nyman said.
No longer, he said, will there be any doubt about who speaks for public employees in Montana — or what those workers’ wishes are on important statewide issues.
“The time is right for a new, larger union,” said MEA-MFT’s Feaver. “Public employees are under attack from forces that want to take away our freedom to form unions and make a better life for our families and communities. This merger is a major step in defending, promoting, and growing the Montana labor movement.”
Sherry Devlin is a longtime Missoula journalist who writes occasional stories for Missoula Current, where this story originally appeared.