Amanda Curtis loves teaching biology at Butte High School. She is passionate about politics, serving twice in the Montana House of Representatives. And most of all, she’s been a dedicated, active participant in her union.
The only problem with that: One woman, three full-time jobs.
“I realized I needed to pick a lane,” Curtis said Tuesday. “That’s why I didn’t run for the state House last time. I decided to devote myself to teaching and union work.”
Tuesday, Curtis got centered in her new lane. The state union juggernaut, the Montana Federation of Public Employees, announced it had elected her as its new leader.
Curtis replaces Eric Feaver, who has held the influential post atop MFPE for the past 35 years.
She said another longtime Butte labor leader, Jim McGarvey, is one of her inspirations. “I’m pleased to try to follow in his footsteps,” she said.
McGarvey, a Butte native, was also a Butte High School teacher. He founded the Montana Federation of Teachers and affiliated it with the American Federation of Teachers and the AFL-CIO. He would serve as a vice president on the national executive council of the AFT for 20 years.
For Curtis, her love of unions came with the understanding, as a youngster growing up in Billings, that the laborers’ union her father belonged to (what is now, after some consolidation, Laborers International Union of North America Local 1686) had a huge role in the family’s well-being.
“When I needed a filling in a cavity, or needed glasses because I couldn’t see the board at school, Dad would give me a colored piece of paper. That orange form from the Laborers’ insurance was my ticket to health care,” she said.
That orange form played one more huge role in her life.
She came to Montana Tech to college — in part, because her father had a union job constructing what is now REC Silicon — and waitressed at the Uptown Café to put herself through school. Sometime close to her 20th birthday, Curtis suddenly suffered a collapsed lung.
“I called my Dad and asked, ‘Am I still on your insurance?’ He checked, and told me, ‘You’re on it for another two weeks,’” she said. “So it paid for the surgery I needed the next day. That made a huge impression on me.”
She got her degree in biology from Tech, and thought about pre-med studies, but she didn’t want to leave Montana. And she already had Butte roots.
“I’d already started substitute teaching,” she said. “I’d met the guy who would become my husband. And I was active with Big Brothers Big Sisters, and was a big sister to a 7-year-old boy. I didn’t want to end that relationship.”
So she taught at Butte Central for two years “for $17,000 a year,” she said, “for five or six different classes. It was super-hard. I did the farmer’s market to help make ends meet.” She applied every year to the Butte School District No. 1 — she wanted to teach high school biology. But it seemed like there was never the right opening.
“So I taught in Helena for four years,” she said. “I wasn’t ready to move to Helena, so I commuted with another teacher.”
Finally, after six years of applying, her (first) dream job came open at Butte High, and she got it.
“Suddenly, I had all this time,” she said. “More than three hours a day when I wasn’t commuting. So I made a considered choice to start going to union meetings — I’d been a member but hadn’t had time to participate much —and Democratic central committee meetings.”
She first won a state House seat in 2012, at age 32. Then, two years later, she took one for the team — the state Democratic Party — when it chose her as a U.S. Senate candidate less than three months before the election after John Walsh was forced to withdraw amid plagiarism allegations. She would run again for the state House seat, and win it again, in 2016.
Now, it’s time for Dream Job No. 2.
She and husband Kevin, an artist and freelance videographer, will move to Helena. But they’ll keep their house in Butte, and she says she expects to be back most weekends.
“When I was commuting before, I used to love coming over the Elk Park hill and seeing the Highlands,” she said. “That’s when I knew I was almost home. Now, I’ll be seeing that again a lot.”
She has no shortage of things to do in her new role.
“Short term, our members’ challenge is the same as everybody else’s,” she said. “All 23,000 of them are dealing with new challenges. Some are working from home, still teaching their students, and others are working in law enforcement, in probation and parole, in the Highway Patrol, in city, county and state governments. Our members are the ones keeping Montana open and running, its kids educated, its people safe and fed and supported.”
Curtis says she’s thankful to be a labor leader in the Montana environment.
“We have people who love us on both sides of the aisle,” she said. “The last legislative session proved that out.” She cited the union’s two primary goals for the session — funding for public education and a state-employee pay plan — that were both passed early in the session.
Longer term, she says, “I have to keep getting elected every two years. I hope they’ll elect me again in two years.”
She said this is the job she’d love to keep until retirement.
“Eric Feaver got this job when he was 40,” she said, “and he’s 75 now.
“I turned 40 last year, so the timing kind of works out.”