HELENA — Jim McGarvey, one of Montana’s longest-serving leaders of organized labor, died unexpectedly of a heart attack Tuesday morning in Seattle.
McGarvey, 70, had been a union member since he was 14 and a labor organizer in Montana for more than 40 years. He retired last year as executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO, the highest-ranking organized labor post in the state.
McGarvey had been in Seattle to undergo medical tests and died early Tuesday from a heart attack, according to longtime friend and former state Sen. Bob Brown.
Born in Butte and raised in a union family, McGarvey was known mainly for his work as an organizer and leader of the Montana Federation of Teachers, which he helped grow from several scattered locals in the early 1970s to a statewide union with 6,500 members.
The MFT merged in 2000 with the Montana Education Association, creating the largest labor union in the state.
Eric Feaver, president of MEA-MFT, said McGarvey was an aggressive, effective organizer for the unions he represented. The two met in Colstrip, when they were competing to organize teachers to join either the MFT or the MEA. Feaver says he won that contest, but that McGarvey won many other battles.
“He sold himself and he sold his union to just about anybody who would listen to him,” Feaver said. “He organized more people than anyone.”
After the MEA-MFT merger, McGarvey became president of the AFL-CIO, a largely ceremonial post, but then rose to executive secretary in 2005.
Al Ekblad, McGarvey’s successor as executive secretary at the AFL-CIO, said McGarvey was a fervent labor and Democratic partisan to the end.
“If Jim were here today, he’d be telling you this election is one of the most important elections of your lifetime,” he said. “He’d say you have to remember your past, but you’d better be organized for the future.”
U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., called McGarvey an “old-school, no-nonsense leader who had the guts to stand up and demand we do the right thing — he never stopped fighting for fairness, justice and safety for workers.”
Brown said he got to know McGarvey in the early 1970s, when McGarvey asked him to sponsor one of his daughters as a page at the Legislature. Brown said that first favor seemed to cement their friendship for life, and that McGarvey never forgot it.
Thirty years later, Brown invited McGarvey to speak to the state Republican Party convention, and he accepted, becoming one of the first labor leaders to address the convention in many years.