AFT mourns the loss of Ruby Newbold

Our union family remains saddened by the sudden death March 2 of retired AFT Vice President Ruby Newbold, emeritus chair of the PSRP program and policy council and former president of the Detroit Association of Educational Office Employees.

Ruby Newbold on the picket line
When the governor's promise of $48.7 million in school funding was broken in 2016, Ruby Newbold and her Detroit support staff took to the streets.

Uncommonly kind and at the same time keenly strategic, Newbold advocated for the most vulnerable students and the school employees who supported them. For little kids who had trouble getting to school on time, she provided alarm clocks. For pregnant teenagers who needed job skills, she opened up the union office so they could learn to use computers.

Throughout her career from payroll clerk to national union leader, Newbold celebrated the school support staff who usually go unheard and unheralded.

“Ruby Newbold was an activist with a fervent sense of justice and a fierce love of her community,” AFT President Randi Weingarten says. “When you think of Ruby, the term ‘pioneer’ immediately comes to mind: She brought the Detroit Association of Educational Office Employees into the AFT because, coming from a labor family, she understood the value of belonging to a union. She held so many leadership positions within this union and left her mark on all of us. When Ruby spoke up, it was because she had something profound to say.”

Weingarten recalled Newbold as one of the AFT’s deepest thinkers and best facilitators. When she spoke, members listened.

AFT Secretary-Treasurer Emeritus Lorretta Johnson describes Newbold as a powerhouse. “Ruby was one of my ‘she-roes.’ She was a great leader, and she contributed so much to the PSRP policy council,” Johnson says. “And then she was like a sister and a friend. When my husband died, and I looked back in the church, she was there.”

Newbold provided wise counsel when Johnson became the AFT’s first PSRP to serve as a national officer. Taking over as PPC chair, Newbold made sure that all the PSRP classifications remained united, Johnson says. And when a local affiliate was in trouble, Newbold became the first PSRP leader to act as a trustee and administrator, flying to another part of the country and staying for a year until the local got back on its feet. “We still have that local now,” Johnson says.

“Ruby knew what she wanted. She always knew how to lead. Soft-spoken, but she always knew how to wield power. She was that great voice,” Johnson says. “My heart is broken that she’s gone.”

Another PSRP leader echoed how essential Newbold was—personally as well as professionally.

“It hurts,” says Kathy Chavez, vice president of AFT New Mexico and an AFT vice president. “She was a dear, dear friend. We both started on the PPC in the same year, and that’s how we bonded. It was just solid friendship from then on. She was very quiet but very observant. Like Randi said, she spoke when she had something to say.”

Chavez, too, notes Newbold’s passion for her union, for her family and for justice. How smart she was, and how driven, warm and compassionate.

To illustrate the depth of their friendship, Chavez describes a small klatch of PSRP leaders, including Newbold and PPC Chair Shelvy Abrams, paraprofessional leader of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City and also an AFT vice president. During downtime at meetings or conferences, this group would take off on mini-adventures to go shopping or sightseeing―sometimes getting themselves into scrapes. Once they were stranded after a long subway ride in suburban Maryland. Another time, they got lost on an excursion in Florida. “We were bad,” Chavez says, “but we had so much fun.”

Ruby Newbold reading to kids
In one of the AFT's early projects with First Book, Ruby Newbold reads to Detroit first-graders in January 2012. Photo by Jim West.

Echoing others, she was left grasping for words to paint a complete picture of her friend: an amazing woman, a perfect person, a stalwart and a winner.

“She was a rock and a true, true, true unionist,” Chavez says. “I’ll miss her bad.”

AFT Michigan President David Hecker remembers Newbold as compassionate, strong, outspoken and determined.

“Ruby was a force,” he told state activists. “She did not take any crap from anyone. She spoke out, stood up and made things happen. She was outspoken in support of school support staff who play such an essential, yet underappreciated, role in the education of our students. Whether it was better pay, benefits and working conditions, or just plain old respect, no one fought harder or more persistently than Ruby.”

Many PSRP leaders and those who served with Newbold on the AFT executive council share the same adjectives in describing her: “wonderful,” “graceful,” “kind,” “firm” and “inspiring.” Particularly for newer members of the PSRP program and policy council, Newbold served as a wise soul, a friend and a mentor.

Retired AFT Vice President and PSRP PPC member Tim Stoelb of Oregon says he was heartbroken to learn of her death: “Ruby was a wonderful person who cared deeply about anything affecting classified employees. She was always kind, thoughtful and polite. That being said, she never had a problem saying what was on her mind.”

Mary Cathryn Ricker, director of the Albert Shanker Institute and former AFT executive vice president, calls Newbold “a powerful and graceful presence,” and like many others, speaks of learning from her.

“I will always cherish the conversations I had with Ruby,” says Sandra Davis, a Baltimore paraprofessional and member of the policy council. “She was a phenomenal woman and a champion for the labor movement.”

Tish Olshefski, who worked closely with Newbold for more than 35 years, much of that time as director of AFT PSRP, describes Newbold as “a blessing to anyone who knew her. She got to spend her final years with her family, as it should be. She will be missed.”

Retired AFT PSRP Director Tom Moran recalls Newbold’s epic battles with privatizers—how she was able to outwit them at every turn through a combination of traditional labor tactics—like picket lines, member mobilization and rallies—and creative new strategies. Once, she brought in an efficiency expert (an AFT member, of course) who worked with her members to identify hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential cost savings for the school district as an alternative to privatization. The push to privatize stopped dead.

Newbold also had the vision to realize how activism would build her union, Moran says, as a pioneer in adopting First Book and as a key contributor in affiliating the nearby Dearborn Federation of School Employees: “She really was a smart leader and creative person, willing to try new things.”

Newbold had a tremendous number of connections and was respected and trusted by all, Moran says. “She knew that for her to be successful and her local to be successful, everybody had to be successful.”

Lauren Samet, AFT PSRP’s current director, uses the words “beloved” and “incredible” to describe Newbold. Samet phoned Newbold two days before her death and says “she was filled with energy and happiness. She was taking care of her pride and joy—her 3-year-old grandson,” the child of her son Demetrius. “She loved her family and her union.”

A fighter and a visionary

Born in 1952, Newbold was the product of a union family and developed into a warrior for unions. She used to tell the story of how, her first day on the job as a payroll clerk, she had no idea what to do. A union member stepped in and showed her the ropes, becoming her “first friend and best friend” in the workplace. Newbold wanted to be that friend to every new school employee in Detroit and to every unionist nationwide.

Newbold’s only adversaries were the enemies of public education—in Michigan, they are a menace—and Newbold faced them with courage and tenacity. Long before Michigan’s Betsy DeVos was appointed U.S. education secretary, Newbold warned our national leaders about what troubles lay ahead from ultra-conservatives bent on destroying public education.

Ruby Newbold at AFT convention
Newbold addresses PSRP delegates at the 2018 AFT convention. Photo by Pamela Wolfe.

As a unionist in her state, Newbold rose to become a vice president of AFT Michigan and served as state co-chair of the PSRP committee and as chair of the organizing committee. She was president of the Detroit Coalition of Bargaining Unions and a member of the Metropolitan Detroit AFL-CIO executive board.

She volunteered with several community groups, including the Detroit Compact. She organized a mentoring program in her local for teenage mothers, which included a $1,000 scholarship each year for one teen mom. Under her leadership, the local also opened a training center for members in 1998. Newbold was a lifetime member of the NAACP and a precinct delegate; a volunteer with United Way Community Services; and a member of Gamma Phi Delta Sorority.

In 1999, she won the Albert Shanker Pioneer Award, AFT PSRP’s highest honor.

Aside from her gutsy union work in Michigan and her influence on future PSRP leaders, Newbold left a legacy in education. In a column for AFT Voices, she wrote about the need for school leaders to keep up with technology. She was herself a graduate of Detroit’s Northwestern High School and Wayne State University.

Visitation will be held on Monday afternoon, March 13, at the Swanson Funeral Home in Detroit. The memorial service will take place on Tuesday, March 14, at 2 p.m. at Hartford Memorial Baptist Church in Detroit. Condolences can be sent to the Newbold family, 18312 Biltmore St., Detroit, MI 48235-3222.

In addition to Newbold, AFT Michigan has lost another important figure in recent days. Hugh Jarvis, president of what was then the Michigan Federation of Teachers and School-Related Personnel from 1981 to 1996, died on Feb. 24. Before serving as the state federation president, Jarvis led the East Detroit Federation of Teachers, now the Eastpointe Federation of Educators. Together with Rollie Hopgood, president of the Taylor Federation of Teachers, Jarvis worked over his 15 years as state federation president to strengthen and greatly expand—adding 46 affiliates—what would become AFT Michigan.

[Annette Licitra]