"Education Work Is Union Work"
A Tribute to AFT President Sandra Feldman, 1939–2005
Sandra Feldman was president of the AFT from 1997 to 2004 and, before that, president of the United Federation of Teachers, the AFT's New York City affiliate. She will be remembered in many places for her many roles: civil rights activist, New York City trade union leader, child advocate, national and international labor leader, educational leader, defender of teacher rights, civic education proponent, international human rights advocate, and more. Here, American Educator pays tribute to her many efforts to make the union an effective, creative advocate for strengthened public education and a place that members could turn to for ideas, training, and practical support to improve their own districts, schools, and teaching. As she said, "Education work is union work."
Following a brief biography, we share a selection of excerpts from Sandra Feldman's many speeches and columns that highlight her commitment to improving schools, in her words, "for the sake of the kids we serve ... for our union's sake, and for the sake of public education."
Sandra Feldman, whose career began as a second-grade elementary school teacher in New York City and ended as president of the 1.3 million-member American Federation of Teachers, died on September 18, 2005, after a long battle with breast cancer. Feldman served as a member of the Executive Council and the Executive Committee of the AFL-CIO. As president of the AFT, Feldman was in the forefront of efforts to defend the rights of teachers and paraprofessionals, as well as nurses and healthcare professionals, public employees, and higher education faculty and staff, all of whom the AFT represents. Throughout her life, she was a tireless advocate for children, public education, civil and human rights, and trade unionism in America and around the world.
Her career in the labor movement, which spanned more than four decades, grew out of her early activity in the civil rights movement. With noted civil rights leader Bayard Rustin as her mentor, Feldman became an activist in the Freedom Rides and the 1963 March on Washington. When she became a teacher, union activism came naturally. Albert Shanker, then president of New York City's United Federation of Teachers, quickly recruited her as a UFT field representative. Soon, Feldman became Shanker's protégé, and eventually she succeeded Shanker as president of the UFT in 1986 and of the AFT in 1997, bringing her own style and expertise to the union. In meetings with Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, senators, representatives, governors, mayors, commentators, writers, researchers, and educators of every kind, Feldman called for a greater investment in public education, more emphasis on high standards, and increased, but fair, accountability. Feldman placed a particular priority on the needs of poor children and especially their need for early childhood education, which she often expressed as "getting it right from the start."
Internationally, Feldman advocated for civic education and democracy. She was a vice president of Education International and a board member of the International Rescue Committee and Freedom House; she condemned terrorism and repression of human and worker rights abroad, from China to Colombia, from the Soviet Union to Sudan, to South Africa. She visited many countries emerging from Communist rule or dictatorship to help teachers form labor unions and improve classroom conditions.
Feldman's strong commitment to public education came from her own experience growing up in a poor family in Coney Island, Brooklyn. She would often say it was the public schools and the public libraries that "created my future."
Because she understood that only professional teachers can deliver the high-quality education that all children deserve, Feldman fought for professional compensation and working conditions for teachers throughout her career. As she explained at the AFT's QuEST professional issues conference in 1999, "Teachers need salaries they can live on and that give them the respect they deserve. They need ongoing professional development, mentoring by experienced colleagues, and an atmosphere that encourages risk-taking while answering the many questions about how to best reach their students. They need time—time with colleagues, time to plan, time to learn. They need more voice and more control over what happens in their schools. Our job is to get them what they need." Feldman did that job well—with determination, passion, and courage.
Many thanks to the AFT's Bert Shanas and John See for allowing American Educator to draw from their biography of Sandra Feldman.