UPDATE: Feb. 8, 2021: With great sadness, we report that labor pioneer Mae Stark has died. Stark was a dedicated NYSUT and UFT retiree, and the founding president of the Kingston Substitute Teachers Association. We're reposting this story from the March 2020 edition of NYSUT United, which helped to mark the occasion of her 100th birthday, as well as a video she contributed to in 2017 to share her personal story of working as a teacher without union protections in New York City in 1943.
Union pioneer Mae Stark reflects on a life of labor
By Liza Frenette, NYSUT United, March/April 2020
As a newly minted 100-year-old, Mae Stark comes with many hard-earned titles: teacher, mother, great-grandmother, widow, daughter and self-described “lifelong unionist.”
She credits her passion for unionism to her Russian immigrant parents.
Stark taught science for three decades in the Bronx. When her career first began, she said the seeds of unionism were around, but many teachers resisted, believing that as professionals they did not need a union. She taught at the same middle school as math teacher Al Shanker, founder of the United Federation of Teachers.
“He talked union all the time,” said Stark, smiling.
"Your Right to Work Like It's 1943." Mae Stark contributed to this video of NYSUT members speaking candidly about their experiences in the workplace without union protections; Mae reflected on being a new teacher in New York City public schools in 1943.
The union was formed in 1960, and a two-month strike followed that same year. Teachers were being arbitrarily transferred, the union wasn’t being recognized, and teachers were not getting raises. It was the first teacher strike in NYC history and those on strike risked their jobs. Her husband worked in the garment industry, but it was tough losing an income with two children to support.
“It was a very hard time. I was counting the pennies,” Stark said. She began her career as a general science teacher, but changed to earth science when asked, attending a National Science Foundation summer course that opened her mind.
“I began to see all the sciences interrelated,” Stark said. “I’d come before a class and the kids would be wild and crazy. I’d stand there with a rock. They’d start to notice. I’d ask them, ‘How do you expect a fish fossil to be in this rock on the top of Bear Mountain?’ That’s the story of the earth.”
Stark eventually moved to Ulster County.
“I retired July 1. On Sept. 1, I went to the middle school (in Kingston) and said, ‘Here I am. Do you need me?’”
She substituted for 30 years, organizing the Kingston Substitute Teachers union and becoming its first president. Substitutes often put in for permanent jobs when they became available — but were rarely hired. The new union helped change that, and it also got substitute job duties spelled out, multi-year contracts, and formal channels established for dealing with issues.
Now retired again, Stark no longer drives and she has an aide part of the day. She attends concerts and theater, has traveled extensively, and plays classical music, though her eyes are now failing.
“I have good health insurance through my union,” she said. She also appreciates how unions have helped to elevate women, very few of whom used to be hired to work in high schools. Men and women are treated equally with class size and salary, she said, “and that’s a wonderful advance.”