Helen Weinstein resigned her teaching position rather than label a colleague a Communist. Photo circa 1945.
On this day, not only am I thinking about my mother, but more broadly, I’m thinking of all the strong women that have contributed to the labor movement throughout US history and have worked to improve the quality of life for all of us. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker’s war on public employees makes me recall the incredible resolve and dedication that Helen Weinstein, a NY teacher, exhibited throughout her career.
A few excerpts:
It was 1932, the height of the Great Depression. School officials at PS 225 in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, decided to put 50 students in a single first-grade class.
(Today, the average first-grade class at PS 225 is 18.3.)
Tammany Hall’s “Uncle John” McCooey insisted the city had no money to build an addition to accommodate the growing student population. Helen Weinstein, in her first teaching job, launched a protest anyway.
With her colleague Ralph Fagin and the support of the principal, Weinstein organized the parents. She borrowed a mimeograph machine, distributed leaflets and took part in parades. Ultimately, the Board of Education was forced to build a wing onto the school. Mayor LaGuardia received the credit and Weinstein and Fagin were subsequently transferred by Superintendent William O’Shea “for the good of the service,” according to a 1932 article in The Nation.
Education and civic organizations from the PTA and local Chamber of commerce to the Teacher’s Union and ACLU protested the transfers, but to no avail.
“They should not have gone parading through the street and arousing the ire of the people against their employers … They should not help to instigate public uprising,” O’Shea told a group of parents, according to minutes taken of the meeting.
Some years ago, I first came across this article that had been written about her by her grand-niece, Brandy Marshall. Ms. Weinstein’s story is powerful enough that it has stuck with me since. It is particularly relevant today. Just imagine being a Jewish woman in 1930’s Brooklyn and taking on the political machine of the time because the school board insisted there was no money to build a school addition, then ordered that classroom size be increased to 50 students. Like Wisconsin teachers, she took to the streets in protest. Unlike today, the police used clubs and labor disputes were often quelled with violence. If you happen to find yourself with a spare few minutes after celebrating with your mother, read this article about a remarkable woman who embodies the true spirit of the labor movement. You won’t be sorry.
Happy Mothers Day,