Let the refineries, sawmills, freight trains and mines of Montana be silent. Workers, put down your tools for a moment of remembrance and thanks. Labor leaders and progressive politicians, pause and acknowledge that you stand squarely upon the shoulders of a blue-collar visionary from the South Side of Laurel. Jim Murry, long-time head of the Montana trade union movement, firebrand for economic and social justice, and principal architect and driving force behind the progressive political coalition that shaped our state for the past half century, is dead.
Jim was born on February 6, 1935, to Boyd “Curly” Murry and Athleen Cowan Murry and was raised in the tough railroad and refinery town of Laurel. He claimed he was conceived on the Crow (Apsaalooke) Reservation and recalled as a young boy extended stays in Crow encampments at the Red Lodge fairgrounds. He was mostly Irish but also was a descendant of the Cherokee, Sioux and Blackfeet Nations. His white ancestors migrated to Montana from Texas, Georgia and Kentucky and his mother’s family, the Cowans, were some of the original gold miners along Last Chance Gulch in Helena. He graduated from Laurel High School, where he was a football standout, and he wryly noted he was asked to leave Eastern Montana College because of his fighting and drinking. He quit drinking in 1969, but probably acquired a black eye or two after that. He was later adopted into the Blackfeet Tribe and given the name “Chief Bull,” an honor that left him gobsmacked.
He was lucky that Arlene Rowlan agreed to marry him, and they tied the knot on August 29, 1954, when they were both 19 years old. She was the perfect foil for Jim, putting up with his late hours and constant travel while she nearly single-handedly raised their five children. They grew up without their Dad’s daily presence, and he always recognized that they gave him the room to be what he was called to be. Arlene, too, was committed to the ideals of fairness and social justice. She was president of the Ladies Auxiliary of OCAW Local 2-443, treasurer of the Yellowstone County Democratic Central Committee and treasurer for St. Anthony’s Catholic Church. They celebrated their wedding anniversaries by eating hot dogs, to remind themselves where they came from.
Their youngest son, Kieran, had asked Jim and Arlene if they had any special plans for their anniversary, which was on August 29. Arlene replied they would go somewhere to have a hot dog as they do every year on their anniversary. No big steak dinners. No night out dancing. Just hot dogs. She couldn’t remember how long they had this tradition but “forever” seemed like a good fit. It was a day for Jim and Arlene to reflect back to their very humble beginnings. They never forgot where they came from and their anniversary was a great day to celebrate their journey together – with hot dogs. Five years ago Kieran and his wife Sherri decided they would follow suit and now they celebrate Jim and Arlene’s journey together every August 29 – with hot dogs.
Jim Murry’s commitment to the rights of working people, people of color, the poor and the forgotten, was bred in the bone. His father Curly was a founding member and president of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, Pioneer Local 2-443, CIO. The OCAW reflected the progressive, even militant ideals of the industrial union movement which took root in the tumultuous Depression years of 1930s.
Jim and Arlene boomed out to follow pipeline work throughout the Midwest for two years, then returned to Laurel where Jim began work at the refinery. A wild and impetuous young man, Jim decided to run for president of the local union and received 4 votes (or maybe 8) out of 178. He always maintained that drubbing taught him two invaluable lessons: the virtue of humility, and that you can’t run a union from a barstool.
In 1966, Jim and his family moved to Helena when he was named Political Director of the Montana State AFL-CIO working under the federation’s Executive Secretary, Jim Umber. His impact on Montana politics was immediate, and his groundbreaking efforts in organizing an effective volunteer grassroots field program was widely acknowledged to have provided the margin to reelect U.S. Senator Lee Metcalf. Two years later, Jim was elected head of the state AFL-CIO, making him, at the age of 33, the youngest state labor federation director in the U.S.
Thus began his 23-year tenure as head of the state AFL-CIO, during which time Jim made organized labor one of the most potent political forces in Montana. Directing the political arm of the trade union movement, Jim was central to the election of three Democratic governors, four members of Congress, five United States Senators, dozens of other statewide officials and literally hundreds of members of the Montana legislature.
There were two seminal Montana political events where Jim was front and center that bear special mention: the crushing defeat of the 1971 sales tax referendum and the razor-thin passage of the ratification of the 1972 Montana Constitution. In concert with the Montana Farmers Union, low income, senior citizens, women’s and church groups, conservationists along with the Montana Democratic Party, Jim and the labor movement mounted a grassroots effort to defeat the sales tax referendum , which went down in a dramatic fashion. The very next year, this coalition helped to pass the new Montana Constitution, and if not for their efforts it is highly unlikely that almost 50 years later Montana would be governed by a state constitution that is considered the nation’s best, providing the strongest privacy, anti-discrimination and environmental protections in America. In both instances, this grand progressive coalition led by Jim bested corporate interests with unlimited money and resources at their disposal. These victories also brought about campaign finance reform, again with Jim’s fervor in the lead, to level the playing field between wealthy corporations and working people.
Nobody fought harder for his causes than Jim and he savored every victory. But, Jim looked upon his adversaries as opponents, not enemies. Even while licking their wounds in defeat, most of his opponents begrudgingly respected Jim Murry and, unlike today, most maintained a level of combative friendship.
Jim’s leadership during Montana’s progressive period between 1965 and 1980 resulted in major changes in Montana to the benefit of workers and their families, whether they were union members or not. With dizzying speed Montanans benefitted from better laws regarding workers’ compensation, unemployment compensation, job place safety, collective bargaining, educational funding, the social safety net and environmental advancements. Those changes remain an important part of Jim Murry’s footprint on history and his legacy.
The genius of Jim Murry’s political acumen rested on three fundamental principles: the absolute necessity of strong, effective coalitions of progressive interest groups to enact needed social change; a keen understanding that the pro-corporation forces that shaped Montana’s history from its earliest days were still present and in conflict in the second half of the 20th Century; and, that in order to be successful politically, it was essential to work harder than your adversary.
Jim’s belief and commitment to forming strong and lasting coalitions was absolute and unshakable. He understood that coalitions hinged more on personality, loyalty born of friendship and mutual respect, and continuous communication, than rigid structure. He would always contend that the coalition “model” of political action had been around Montana since the pioneer era. But it was in grade school where he learned to forge “coalitions” of kids to foil the bullies waiting to beat them up outside the school building. Banding together with other kids from different ethnic backgrounds illustrated the need to work together to achieve a common and greater good – i.e., not getting beat up. With that background, Jim transformed the progressive coalition in Montana into a truly impressive political force.
Keeping a disparate group of allies together in a huge, sparsely populated state like Montana was a herculean task. It is no exaggeration to say Jim spent about half his tenure as head of the state AFL-CIO as a road warrior, crisscrossing the state by car to meet with fellow supporters; often just a few people in towns like Eureka or Glendive. But in Jim’s mind, that was the cost of staying close to his “friends,” to keep the coalition together, and it was a price he knew he had to pay.
Two generations of Montana political activists can attest to Jim Murry’s work ethic. If you wanted to win, the ONLY way was to work harder than the other guy. Working nights, weekends and holidays was the rule, not the exception. This level of commitment doesn’t come without cost: for Jim and his staff, it was their families who paid the greatest price. Missed birthdays, ball games, graduations and long absences from home. For Jim Murry, the price of victory was total commitment. It’s worth noting that Jim never willingly lost a friend, and those staff members and coalition partners he trained and sent out to make the world better, remained devoted to him to the end.
If one word was sacred to Jim, it was “loyalty.” As a leader who led by action, Jim did not demand loyalty. Loyalty came to him naturally because he was always loyal to his wife and family, friends, his team and the cause of workers and a better Montana. Jim understood the value of that loyalty, however, and never let a friend down, no matter what.
Jim had a raucous sense of humor. He was a brilliant storyteller, and could come up with one for any occasion. He believed in working hard to the best of your ability, but he also believed work should be something that is enjoyed. His office pranks and tricks played on family, staff, friends and frenemies alike often broke tension, giving rise to everything from smiles to roars of laughter. His staff, not to be outdone, often played pranks and jokes on him which would draw great belly laughs from him amid vows to get even. Laughter was a frequent sound in Jim’s presence.
As the progressive period began to close, Jim Murry had risen to a position of state and national political prominence and people knew it. In 1982, the Lee Newspaper chain polled 100 Montana leaders and Murry was named the second most powerful person in Montana, behind only Governor Ted Schwinden, and, much to Jim’s satisfaction, two spots above the corporate head of the Montana Power Company.
That decade was one of tremendous economic upheaval: Atlantic Richfield’s surprise closure of the old Anaconda Company mine, smelter and refinery dealt a crippling blow to thousands of workers and their families. Thousands of other workers in the timber industry and railroads were laid off. The economic recession was brutal and protracted. Entire communities were shaken to their foundation.
In the face of these unprecedented challenges, Jim Murry and the state AFL-CIO put together one of most innovative and successful worker retraining programs in the nation. “Project Challenge: Work Again” trained thousands of displaced workers in new skills they needed to find employment in the rapidly changing economy.
Jim’s influence was felt beyond Montana – regionally and nationally. At numerous Democratic Presidential Conventions he ensured workers’ voices were heard, and helped write the charter for the modern National Democratic Party. His fire-brand style of leadership for workers was recognized in the western and Rocky Mountain region and at national AFL-CIO meetings where he set the standard for labor leaders in other states, most of whom were swept into Jim Murry’s coalition for the people on the margins.
Jim also made his mark internationally. In 1988, Jim was named as the national AFL-CIO’s representative to an international committee to work on revision of an International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention on indigenous persons. When questioned about what Jim Murry knew about international affairs, Lane Kirkland, then president of the national AFL-CIO, said that it did not matter because “Jim could handle himself anywhere.” And he did well, working for parts of two years with international and sovereign indigenous governments, and the revision was adopted.
In 1991, Jim stepped down as head of the Montana State AFL-CIO to take a job with the United Steelworkers Union in Chicago, focusing on workforce training. He was succeeded by Don Judge, who by then was the state AFL-CIO’s political director, and had been with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union. After eight years in the Midwest, Jim finally said goodbye to working for his beloved trade union movement, and he and Arlene returned to Montana to enjoy their retirement. Which in Jim’s case, didn’t last long. He served for a number of years as a board member of the Helena Indian Alliance; his heritage and deep connection with Montana’s Native Peoples made his time working on behalf of the HIA especially meaningful and fulfilling.
In 2005, Governor Brian Schweitzer appointed Jim to the Board of Trustees of the Montana Historical Society, where he later served as chairman. In a life filled with accolades, Jim felt that serving on this board was one of his greatest honors. He relished the opportunity to preserve and expand the epic story of the state he loved above all others. It is a tremendous blessing that Jim passed knowing a new Montana Historical Heritage Center was finally being constructed.
In 2012, Schweitzer appointed Jim as Commissioner of Political Practices, following some tumultuous times with that office. Murry’s ability to get along with Republicans surprised those who didn’t know him well, and he was able to move the office forward as the “dark money” episode erupted around the state’s campaign finances.
Until the time of his death, Jim continued to be active in Democratic Party and union affairs. He served as informal advisor to numerous elected and union officials, as well as other progressive leaders and activists. Jim possessed an extraordinary political mind. His perspective and institutional knowledge was in constant demand and his wisdom treasured.
Jim was preceded in death by his rock and his wife of over 60 years, Arlene, his parents Curly and Athleen, his brother Phillip (Po) and his in-laws James and Helen Rowlan. Jim is survived by his children Patrick (Georgia), Cathy (Dan Jenkins), Timothy, Michael (Cindy) and Kieran (Sherri), his sister-in-law Audrey and her and Po’s children Julie, Shannon and Jim, and Arlene’s brother Jim Rowlan and his wife Amy. Grandchildren are Brian (Beth), Toby, Meghan (Jason), TJ, Sara (Thomas), James, Dillon and Nicholas, G W and Crystal Alexander, Kimberly and Kurt Ernstes, Dereck and Tia Alexander and Janice Alexander. Great-grandchildren are James, Ayla, Dakota, Rozlyn, Clayton, Elizabeth, Aspen and Jaxon. He is also survived by the trade union movement, by friends and coworkers around the world, including former Governors, Congressmen, Senators and political leaders – and by those who are proud to say, “I work for Jim Murry.”
For Jim Murry, the shift whistle has blown. The lunch bucket is empty; toolbelt, hardhat and boots sit quietly in his locker. He’s back in Laurel, on the southside of town. Work’s over, Jim. Rest easy with Arlene. Know that the fight for justice goes on. We – your sisters and brothers in arms – will pick up your tools and keep moving forward. We can never fill those boots of yours, but we will do our best. You never gave up, you never gave in. Neither will we.
The family requests memorials in Jim’s name be made to the Montana Historical Society, P.O. Box 201201, Helena, MT 59620, or the American Cancer Society, at www.cancer.org. Please visit below to offer the family a condolence or share a memory of Jim.
Services are pending at this time or no services will be held. If available, please see obituary for more information.
Services are pending at this time or no services will be held. If available, please see obituary for more information.