Melanie Charlson grew up hearing of the struggle of workers against the whims and wishes of managers and owners.

For 42 years, her father - Jerry Buckhouse - worked at the Bonner mill and unionism was often the topic of discussion at home.

"My dad's a union guy," said Charlson, new president of the Missoula Education Association. "And we're a Bonner family."

Charlson, who has taught for 22 years in the Missoula County Public Schools District, recently took over as the union president, representing hundreds of MEA teachers. She replaces Janice Bishop, who has returned to teaching at Big Sky High School. In May, Charlson must run for election to keep her position as president.

Fully committed to the principles of organized labor, Charlson - a University of Montana graduate in education and music - does not practice avoidance when it comes to the language of unionism.

"I will," she said without a pause, "do everything I can to ensure that seats (in the Legislature) will be filled by pro-education individuals."

And by "pro-education," Charlson means pro-public education, and politicians who will fund Montana's schools at a level beyond that approved by the 2011 Legislature.

All politics aren't local, said Charlson. It was Missoula voters who passed two levies totaling nearly $7 million to ensure there would be few school job losses in the next biennium. But it was the state Legislature that forced MCPS' hand, and that's unacceptable, she said - especially since the state's surplus as of July 1 is $340 million.

***

On April 1, teachers joined administrators and others in a rally at the Capitol in Helena, a massive display of frustration. Charlson was there and inspired by the show.

"It was an amazing display of an across-the-state, broad spectrum of union solidarity coming together with a common voice," she said. "It was phenomenal to march around the Capitol. The line totally encircled it."

Charlson first took an assignment in MCPS as a middle-school choir and general music teacher. A former tour actor-director - or TAD - for the Missoula Children's Theatre, her interest in and love for musical theater is still quite alive. She is an educational consultant for MCT to this day.

Yet it was mathematics that she ultimately pursued in MCPS. She taught mathematics at Rattlesnake Middle School until the school closed in 2004, and then moved to teach elementary school at Chief Charlo, where her children Annika and Ben attended. Charlson called that a "cool blend of home and profession," but it also taught her just how hard elementary teachers work.

"It's the whole enchilada," she said. "They work far beyond anything close to an 8-to-4 day. All teachers do, but I had a much better appreciation for what they do."

That level of commitment only solidified in Charlson's mind the commitment to organized labor, unions there to protect the interests of workers. It's a lesson she got from her father, and she'll never forget it.

"I think pretty early on I got the sense that this is a core group of workers coming together for a common cause to benefit all of them," she said. "It was a crucial piece to his well-being at his job.

"And there was never a question to not be part of that. That was ingrained in what we were about."

Reach reporter Jamie Kelly at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

 

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