Feldman, Sandra

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Feldman, Sandra

(b. 14 October 1939 in New York City; d. 18 September 2005 in New York City), labor leader and union executive who was a leading defender of teachers, public schools, trade unionism, and civil rights.

Feldman was born and raised in a poor section of Coney Island, in Brooklyn, New York. Her father was a milkman, while her mother occasionally worked in a bakery. Feldman, born Sandra Abramowitz, had two siblings, whom she largely cared for because her mother was sick both physically and mentally. Feldman recalled that when she started school she was delighted and filled with awe. In the second grade her teacher gave her such books as Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, which she often read at home in bed, as she suffered from asthma. By the sixth grade she was writing short stories.

Feldman graduated from James Madison High School in 1956 and entered Brooklyn College that same year, majoring in English. Sandy soon aligned herself with campus groups that were working for civil rights and social justice, including the Eugene V. Debs Club and, later, the Young People’s Socialist League. Feldman also joined the Harlem chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality. After her freshman year at Brooklyn College, she married Paul Feldman. They divorced seventeen years later, in 1974.

Feldman graduated with a BA in 1960 and then entered the master’s program for English literature at New York University. While attending classes, she became a substitute teacher in the public schools and still managed to find time to grow more involved with the civil rights movement. She participated in and was arrested during the campaign to integrate Howard Johnson restaurants along Maryland’s Route 40. During this time Feldman met the African-American civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, who would become her mentor as well as a good friend. In 1963 the two worked together to help plan the March on Washington, aiming to spur the passage of civil rights legislation. As completely devoted to the civil rights movement, Feldman later remarked, “We really believed we were going to make a better world; we were going to lick this thing. I was prepared to die.” Meanwhile, Feldman was earning an MA from New York University, which she received in 1965.

By this time Feldman was teaching fourth grade full time at P.S. 34, on New York’s Lower East Side. While employed there, Feldman joined the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and quickly organized the teaching staff. Elected as chapter leader, Feldman became more active in the UFT and was recognized for her leadership skills. She was hired as a field representative in 1966, handling member’s grievances as well as becoming a spokesperson to the community.

During the year 1968 the UFT became embroiled in a contentious battle over community control in the school district Ocean Hill–Brownsville. The UFT initiated strikes three times during the fall of 1968 over the issue of due process, while the community control board deemed that they could rightfully remove whomever they desired. In response to the union action, the New York State legislature created a decentralized school system comprising thirty-two districts in New York City, and the UFT became a stronger organization.

Feldman married Arthur Barnes, a New York City businessman, in 1980 and became stepmother to his two children. Feldman became the UFT secretary in 1983 and the president and executive director in 1986, succeeding her longtime mentor and friend Albert Shanker, who yet remained president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Shanker said that Feldman represented “the best in teacher leadership.” Feldman remained the president of the UFT, a union with more than 90,000 members, for eleven years, forging an image of a hard-hitting, no-nonsense promoter of the city’s public schools and their employees. As UFT president, Feldman increased pay for teachers, oversaw the removal of time clocks, and established a solid network of teacher centers. She also sued the city over its physically crumbling schools and proved a force in the selection of school chancellors and New York City mayors.

In February 1997 Shanker died of cancer, and later that year Feldman was elected the fifteenth president of the AFT, the second-largest teachers’ union in the United States. One of Feldman’s key programs entailed the advancement of preschool education. She called for universal access to preschool while also demanding that Congress provide funding for “Kindergarten-Plus,” a plan to help schools offer an extended year of kindergarten to disadvantaged youth. Meanwhile, from 1997 to 2004 she wrote the weekly, then monthly column “Where We Stand,” which was carried by the New York Times and American Teacher. Overall, Feldman was a powerful voice in support of both public schools and teacher accountability. She strongly advocated national standards, and rather than criticizing the No Child Left Behind Act she condemned the Bush administration for not fully financing and enforcing it. As a strong supporter of civic education and democracy worldwide, Feldman also served as vice president of Education International. She was a harsh critic of nations that repressed human and worker rights and once wrote, “Devotion to human dignity and freedom, to equal rights, to social and economic justice, to the rule of law... must be learned and practiced.”

In 2004 Feldman decided not to seek reelection as president of the AFT because of health reasons. In a tearful farewell speech she told delegates, “We still have two school systems in America—wealthy and poor—still often separated as much by color as by class.” Though relieved of her official capacities, she continued to work with the union and other causes, including the Child Labor Coalition, the Albert Shanker Institute, the Council on Competitiveness, the International Rescue Committee, and the A. Philip Randolph Institute. On 18 September 2005, after a three-year battle with breast cancer, Feldman died at her home in New York City and was cremated.

At Feldman’s memorial tribute former U.S. president Bill Clinton said of her, “America gave her a chance to live her dream. She spent her life trying to give every other child that chance.” Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) remarked, “Tens of millions of young students are better off today and will have better lives because of her.” Feldman herself said that public school saved her, and she attributed her good fortune to her education. For forty years of her life, she gave back to the public school system in every shape and form. She ensured that teachers gained and received the respect they deserved in the workplace, expended endless energy ensuring that school buildings were welcoming structures and not dilapidated prisons, and was wholly committed to holding everyone in the schools accountable, whether teachers or administrators. Above all, she continuously strove to ensure that all children, regardless of race or class, received equal educational opportunities.

For biographical information on Feldman, see “Meet Sandra Feldman,” American Teacher 82, no. 1 (Sept. 1997); and “AFT Mourns Sandra Feldman: A Leader Without Comparison,” On Campus 25, no. 3 (Nov. 2005). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 20 Sept. 2005). Two oral histories, from 1986 and 2005, are housed at the Walter P. Reuther Library, at Wayne State University, in Detroit; they cover her life growing up, the Ocean Hill–Brownsville strike, and her presidency with the UFT.

Daniel Golodner