Honoring a labor leader who is "an important role model and trailblazer for women," the Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy Committee chose NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira as the 2012 recipient of its Frances Perkins Leadership Award.
The award, named for the first female U.S. Secretary of Labor, was presented to Neira by Kerry Kennedy, director of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. She described Neira as a friend and a "visionary advocate" for public education who "is not only brilliant, she is someone who gets things done."
Neira shows "courageous, unwavering and determined efforts in support of the public school teachers of New York state," said Judith Hope, founder and board member of Eleanor's Legacy, www. eleanorslegacy.com. "Eleanor's Legacy Committee, like Eleanor Roosevelt, recognizes that a democracy is only as strong as its education system," said Hope, whose organization supports progressive women candidates running for elected office in New York state. She praised Neira's remarkable record as an advocate for students and public education in New York.
Eleanor's Legacy also recognized U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, during a ceremony in New York City that was a celebration of the increasing numbers of women who are running for elected office.
In her acceptance speech, Neira quoted Frances Perkins, who said after her appointment as secretary of labor: "The door might not be opened to a woman again for a long, long time, and I had a kind of duty to other women to walk in and sit down on the chair that was offered, and so establish the right of others long hence, and far distant in geography, to sit in the high seats."
As secretary of labor, Perkins helped advance unemployment benefits, pensions and the Social Security Act. She was instrumental in bringing labor into the New Deal.
"Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins opened doors," Neira said. "They made it possible for women to be union leaders." Noting how pioneering unionists Sandy Feldman and Randi Weingarten (who each served as president of both the United Federation of Teachers in New York City and the American Federation of Teachers, NYSUT's national affilate) inspired her, Neira spoke passionately of her own commitment to "paying it forward."
And she talked about NYSUT's longstanding support of strong women candidates for elected office, noting women comprise nearly half of union members nationally, and 70 percent of NYSUT's membership.
Labor has a vested interest in electing candidates who are not only women, Neira said, but also strong supporters of women's and workers' rights. The past two election cycles put a not so positive spotlight on women's issues, she said. "Women have been slower to recover from the recession than men. Our reproductive rights are being threatened. Social Security, which is integral to many women's financial security in retirement, is under attack, as are Medicare and Medicaid," Neira said. "That is what's driving labor's activism."
NYSUT has endorsed 45 women in races this year, Neira said, affirming that "we believe a woman's place is in the House, the Senate, the White House, and yes, in the union!"