Florence Rood, a native of St. Paul, was the first woman president of an AFL-affiliated union that included both men and women members. She also had the distinction of being the first woman to preside over a regular meeting of the St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly. It was front page news in the Minnesota Union Advocate in 1922! "Last Friday, for the first time in history, a woman presided over a regular meeting of the local Trades and Labor Assembly . . . " the newspaper reported. "She quickly proved her ability as presiding officer and the business of the meeting was expeditiously dispatched, adjournment being reached in a seasonable time."
Elected in 1923, she was the second president of the newly formed American Federation of Teachers and a self-taught expert on teacher pension laws. Rood belonged to the cadre of women teachers who made teaching their life profession. They were single and dedicated to their students, but knew they had to take care of themselves. The school systems across the country didn't worry about pensions for their teachers -- after all, women left teaching when they were married. That wasn't the women teachers' choice however -- they were forced to by either law or tradition. These women didn't need pensions, it was argued.
But what about the growing number of single women in the classroom? What would happen when they retired? That was a problem, among many others, that focused Florence Rood on joining a labor union. In 1898 she had helped form the Grade Teachers' Organization, a group of women elementary school teachers that worked to give its members a voice against the patriarchal pronouncements of the St. Paul school system. These women believed in democracy in education and self-respect for teachers -- both difficult to achieve in the prevailing system. Despite being outlawed by the school superintendent, despite his rewarding of teachers who reported on their coworkers for joining the GTO, the organization flourished, soon enrolling nearly 100 percent of the grade school teachers.
In 1909, Rood led a group of fellow teachers to take advantage of an enabling act on pensions just passed by the Minnesota Legislature. She was able to get that legislation turned into a teacher retirement program. The pension plan she and her committee devised went into operation in 1910 and Rood managed the plan continuously and competently until 1939 when she retired. If you visit the Retirement Fund offices today, you can see her picture prominently displayed.
But that was only one of her battles. In 1909, Rood fought a merit pay plan linked to a salary increase, a divisive tactic often used by management. She was again victorious.
The campaign for teacher tenure, however, was one of her most difficult arenas since even when she won a teacher tenure clause in the charter of the City of St. Paul, five years later the Commissioner of Education tried to get it removed. Again Rood led the teachers and joined with other groups that eventually were successful in passing a bill in the Minnesota legislature that gave teachers further protections.
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Building the labor movement
Even though Rood had no labor background, she could see that joining the labor movement was an important step to help teachers. Her powers of persuasion were strong and she led the GTO into the American Federation of Teachers in 1918. Her name is the first one on the official charter, denoting a place of honor as well as her willingness to go first in this new venture. She was elected to the AFT executive council in 1919.
Rood's AFT presidency came at a time when the AFL was under attack and losing members. So was the AFT. During her two-year presidency, Rood was able to help stop the losses and stabilize the union. She picked her successor, Mary Barker, another highly competent woman who led the Atlanta teachers and as president doubled the AFT's membership. Rood believed it was very important to rotate leadership in the top spot. She refused to serve more than two terms. She was also asked to run for St. Paul city council in 1924, according to a story in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, but declined. Besides being the unpaid president of the AFT, she had to keep her day job with the retirement fund.
In 1920, the same year women were enfranchised, Rood began a women's page for the Union Advocate under the editorship of her friend, William Mahoney. Her page was called: "The Distaff: A Department Devoted to Women's Views on Matters of Public Concern." She warned women not to look for the usual "jam and crochet recipe page" and urged them to vote. She wrote about the importance of the eight-hour day, freedom of contract, biased reporting on strikes and why workers organized. Her goal was to teach women about the labor movement.
Rood was among the union activists who organized the purchase of the Union Advocate by the St. Paul Trades & Labor Assembly in 1920, and she served on the first Board of Directors for the newspaper.
In addition to her union work, Rood also remained active in local politics and community activities. She was a member of the state Board of Education from 1933 to 1935. Gov. Floyd B. Olson re-appointed her to the state Board of Education, but the state Senate refused to confirm the appointment on the grounds she was "a radical." The source of that reputation, it appears, was her strong advocacy of organized labor.
Florence Rood was always a teacher and a leader. She remained on the AFT executive council for 15 years and chaired the Pension Committee at AFT conventions until two years before her death. The Pioneer Press gave her a two-column obituary with her picture. Tributes to her came from a judge, a former mayor, many labor representatives, the Farmer-Labor Women's Clubs and several of the local women's clubs. They all remembered how hard she worked, her care for teachers, her intelligence and her success as one of the first teacher union leaders. Noted one union leader: "Miss Rood lives on in the thousands of children and teachers who have been blessed not only in her teaching but by her work for social progress in the AFT."
Paula O'Connor, director of information services at the American Federation of Teachers, is a former resident of St. Paul and attended the College of St. Catherine. She based her master's thesis on Florence Rood and Mary Barker -- up until then, the only two women presidents of the AFT.
Milestones in the history of the St. Paul teachers' union
'Strike for better schools' - The St. Paul public school teachers' strike of 1946
Steve Dress: He continued a tradition of leadership
Union Advocate history series main page
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