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Ben Rust Award 2018: Mary Bergan, Former CFT President

Mary Bergan left Wisconsin for the good life in California and ended up giving all of us more than she could ever dream to receive.

Mary graduated from UC Berkeley in 1965 and then followed the idealism of the Kennedy era and joined the Peace Corps. Mary was assigned to Malaysia and spent two years teaching English language and literature and also coaching the championship relay team at Tunka Kurshiah College, a secondary boarding school for Malay girls.

With that commitment to society in place, Mary turned her attention to acquiring easy wealth and a soft job. So she became a middle school English teacher in Pittsburg, California.

As a new teacher, Mary joined the AFT. Her sharp mind and keen sense of analysis brought Mary to the attention of CFT president Raoul Teilhet who brought Mary onto staff as CFT’s first full-time Sacramento lobbyist.

Mary’s success in Sacramento was solidified as she was rated top lobbyist by California Journal in 1978. Mary acknowledged that the key to her success in Sacramento was based on a simple strategy: know where the legislators were, get there first, get their attention and vote, and leave last.

Having defined and perfected the role of lobbyist, Mary offered herself as an insurgent candidate for the presidency of the California Federation of Teachers. Her election made Mary Bergan the first woman to serve as president of the union in the modern era that began with Ben Rust.

Mary’s leadership was recognized formally as she won seats on the governing boards of the California Federation of Labor and the American Federation of Teachers. Mary was the first California state president in over 40 years to serve as an AFT vice-president.

Mary’s 16 years at the helm of the CFT was a time of challenges and accomplishments. Consider these challenges and then measure them against Mary’s (proud) accomplishments:

  • The CFT she inherited had what we euphemistically call unrealistic budget projections and she needed to keep the union solvent.
  • While the CTA developed a sense of being a union, Mary had to craft a distinct voice, role, and purpose for the CFT.
  • As collective bargaining settled into the status quo, Mary needed to build membership and maintain the CFT’s proud tradition of activism.

And look at what was accomplished by the CFT during the years of Mary’s presidency:

  • Membership vaulted from the mid-20,000’s to nearly 65,000.
  • CFT maintained its role as a key progressive voice within labor for our members and social issues.
  • Political involvement became a hallmark of CFT’s mission with successful participation in legislative races and ballot issues, especially the voucher initiatives, the anti-union Proposition 226, and the Schwarzenegger efforts of 2005.
  • The CFT has remained a union the members are proud of and which is respected by the rest of the political and labor universe.

The years 1991 to 2007 were a time of challenge, tumult, and change. The steady hand on the tiller of the CFT guided our union through rough waters and kept the union afloat.

Under the stewardship of Mary Bergan, the California Federation of Teachers built its reputation as a strong participant within the California Federation of Labor and an increasingly significant member of the American Federation of Teachers.

Mary’s time in office as president of the California Federation of Teachers was a time of pride and accomplishment for the union and was the product of the integrity, calm leadership, and earned respect of Mary Bergan. We honor those qualities today with our highest honor, the Ben Rust Award.