July/August Issue
July 01, 2015

Labor pioneer enters hall of fame

Source: NYSUT United

NYSUT Women's History poster celebrating Sandra FeldmanOne of the many amazing things about former UFT and AFT President Sandra Feldman is the company she's with. In May, she was inducted posthumously into the Labor Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C., joining the ranks of powerful, everyday heroes and two U.S. presidents.

"As a woman in what was then and, in many ways, still is a male-dominated world, Sandy was a pioneer and role model," said NYSUT President Karen E. Magee. "I can't think of anyone who is more deserving of this great honor.

"For the last decade, we've honored Sandy annually with the Not for Ourselves Alone award and a grant also bears her name; her induction into the Labor Hall of Fame is a fitting tribute indeed. She continues to be an inspiration to us all."

While all of the men and women — from longshoremen to municipal employees — in the Labor Hall of Fame worked to overcome hardships relating to their professions, they shared a deep motivation to protect and help progress the working conditions of all laborers.

For Feldman, her walk was on a long trail of improving public education. She helped shape No Child Left Behind but broke rank in a quest to push for funding to support the higher standards called for by NCLB.

Feldman began her activism with the Freedom Rides during the 1960s. She was a teacher, local union leader, president of the United Federation of Teachers, and then president of the 1.3 million-member American Federation of Teachers. She was the union's first female president since 1930. Feldman was also vice president of Education International, an organization of teacher unions in democratic countries, a post that brought her on worldwide travels to promote trade unionism and democratic principles.

She was widely recognized as an authority on urban education and an advocate for children.

"Education is the great equalizer and the engine for opportunity," she said in the AFT/UFT memoir, In Her Words.

Growing up poor in Coney Island, she sat alongside rich kids for the same education. She went on to Brooklyn College and became involved in the civil rights movement. "... And when I started teaching, union activity was just a natural. It was the beginning of a lifetime commitment to education and trade unionism."

"She was brilliant, to begin with," said Antonia Cortese, former longtime NYSUT vice president and AFT officer. "What she did always came from her heart. I always thought Sandy very much understood that she served the members."

Cortese said Feldman was involved in the merger of two teacher unions, NYSTA and UTNY into one statewide union, NYSUT. She was at the forefront of recognizing the importance of early childhood education, advocating for a Kindergarten Plus program, which several states did adopt. And, Cortese remembers, when Feldman faced breast cancer she showed courage, consistently saying, "Well, tomorrow's another day and who knows what someone will discover."

In a heated debate with former U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, Feldman was being verbally bullied, "but she took it away from him and gave it back," Cortese recalled.

Feldman clanged the danger bell early on, reporting in 1997 that "many of the enemies of public education are also leading efforts to privatize public services, limit access to colleges and universities and eliminate tenure. They would also deny access to quality health care, destroy employee rights and collective bargaining and silence working families and their unions."

"As a young union activist, I grew up learning what it meant to be a fierce and dedicated union leader from Sandy Feldman," said NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino. "Her posthumous induction means that future generations of union activists from around the world will benefit from her visionary union work."

NYSUT has reissued and updated its poster celebrating Sandy Feldman's contributions. You can order one for free by sending an email to orders@nysutmail.org. The poster was originally published as part of the union's series celebrating women's history.