Sandra Feldman became the first women elected to head the United Federation of Teachers on this date in 1986. A decade later, she would become president of the American Federation of Teachers, a position she held until her retirement in 2004. Feldman was born to a poor family in Coney Island in 1939.
At age 17, she met Bayard Rustin, the civil rights leader, who became her mentor and comrade. Feldman was a twice-arrested Freedom Rider. She helped to integrate Howard Johnson’s restaurants in Maryland before becoming chair of the employment committee of the Congress of Racial Equality in Harlem. As a fourth-grade teacher on the Lower East Side, she became active in the UFT and established herself as a union spokesperson during the Ocean Hill-Brownsville controversy.
As successor to Shanker at the head of the AFT, Feldman worked to reduce class sizes and to gain funding for quality preschool programs, and also had to reckon with charter schools and high-pressure testing regimens. The union’s membership grew to more than a million during her tenure. She died in 2005 and was succeeded by Randi Weingarten.
“The future of America’s children is tied to the future of labor’s fight for working families . . .” —Sandra Feldman