Maria Portalatin, Linda Bridges loved their union
THE AFT HAS LOST two of its most passionate sisters and leaders.
New York paraprofessional and former AFT Vice President Maria Portalatin, who died in December, was a pioneer, serving on the AFT’s original paraprofessional committee and the PSRP program and policy council. She always fought for civil rights, dignity and economic well-being, starting with the first paraprofessional contract in New York City.
AFT Vice President Linda Bridges, who died in January, was a longtime advocate for school support staff in Texas and nationwide. In a state where collective bargaining is banned, Bridges in 1979 pioneered exclusive consultation for school employees—the closest thing to bargaining there is in Texas—when she led the Corpus Christi AFT.
A civil rights pioneer
Starting out as a paraprofessional in New York City, Portalatin was devoted to empowering women and mentoring many of the city’s current Latino activists. She helped establish the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement.
“Maria loved her union and understood its importance to our members’ economic well-being,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten. “She was a real trailblazer for PSRPs.”
One member of the United Federation of Teachers remembers how, as a parent, Portalatin joined the picket line during the UFT’s 1968 strike. The months-long strike was contentious in some quarters, including among Latinos, but “Maria was there, Maria was supportive as a parent,” says retired elementary school teacher Abe Levine.
After becoming a paraprofessional, Portalatin went with a group of paras to ask the UFT’s president at the time, Al Shanker, if they could join the union. He told them to find out if other paras supported affiliation.
When the answer was yes, Shanker led the way, declaring that unless the teachers accepted the paras, he would resign. “That’s how strongly he felt,” Levine recalls. “He always said his greatest achievement was bringing in the paraprofessionals.”
Portalatin’s inspiration touched many, including UFT paraprofessional leaders Shelvy Abrams and Hector Ruiz, who both recall her mental toughness and can-do spirit.
Ruiz singles out her concern for students, her mentoring and how she told him she was proud of him. Ruiz says he often calls upon “her stories of the days where the struggles seemed insurmountable.”
A union builder
An elementary special education teacher, Bridges was a charter member of the Corpus Christi local and served as an officer before beginning a 24-year tenure as president. Under her leadership, the local union developed several collaborations with the district. At the national level, in addition to being elected as an AFT vice president, Bridges served on the AFT organizing committee.
During Bridges’ run as president of Texas AFT, which began in 2005, the union continued its growth in membership and influence. The union grew from 48,000 members to more than 65,000 members, and it is recognized as one of the AFT’s most effective state federations.
Under Bridges’ leadership, Texas AFT saw significant gains in salary and health insurance. The federation also is known for statewide leadership development.
Bridges also was active in labor and community organizations in Texas, including the Texas AFL-CIO and the Juvenile Assessment Center. According to Texas AFL-CIO President Becky Moeller: “Countless Texans who may never have met Linda Bridges are better off for her insistence that the public schools of Texas fully reflect a quest for a better future.”