September 13, 1941 – November 30, 2023
Mary Astrid Bergan, former president of the California Federation of Teachers died November 30, in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, after a long illness. Her career of service stemmed from a Kennedy-era idealism that took her first to the Peace Corps and on to classroom teaching and ultimately an enduring leadership role in education unionism.
Bergan, 82, dedicated her professional life to improving working conditions for educational employees in particular and working people in general. She had a profound and lasting impact on the course of the California Federation of Teachers, AFT, AFL-CIO. Bergan served as CFT president for 16 years and worked for the union for 35 years. She was a product of her family’s politics and the dynamic era of the 1960s, putting her convictions into practical action that changed the lives of millions of people.
After her years as a middle school English teacher, Bergan became a field representative for CFT and then the union’s first full-time lobbyist. As the statewide union’s legislative director, Bergan was closely aligned with then-Governor Jerry Brown and helped the CFT bring collective bargaining rights for teachers and classified staff to his desk for signature in 1975. The passage of the Rodda Act, or the Educational Employment Relations Act, capped more than two decades of CFT’s efforts to pass this landmark legislation and bring workplace protections to thousands of educators in California.
Bergan’s strong political sense earned her the respect of legislators. In 1978, and several subsequent years, Bergan was rated top lobbyist in Sacramento by California Journal. She said the key to her success was based on a simple strategy: ”Read every word of proposed legislation and be thoroughly familiar, know where the legislators are, get there first, get their attention and vote, and leave last.”
Bergan was elected CFT President in 1991. She possessed a calm, understated leadership style with an uncanny ability to connect members and local union leaders with significant roles in the union, unerringly identifying capabilities the person may not have known they had. Union membership tripled under her leadership, and union staffing doubled and diversified to meet the growing needs. In particular, she launched successful organizing projects to bring more classified staff, part-time community college faculty, and adult educators into the union.
Under Bergan’s stewardship, CFT maintained its role as a key progressive voice within labor for members and on social issues. With her keen sense of politics, political involvement became a hallmark of CFT’s mission with successful participation in legislative races and ballot measures, especially helping to defeat school voucher initiatives, the anti-union Proposition 226, and Governor Schwarzenegger’s anti-worker efforts of 2005. She was allied with leaders of other AFL-CIO-affiliated unions as a vice president of the California Labor Federation.
Mary also helped shape national policy when she was elected a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, CFT’s national affiliate. This commitment led her to juggle CFT duties with red-eye flights to AFT national headquarters in Washington D.C., to AFT events in other states, and to represent AFT in countries around the world.
As the only woman to serve as CFT President in the union’s modern era, Bergan’s commitment to women’s rights never wavered. In her early years as a union lobbyist, she was one of few women at weekly meetings of the California Labor Federation, and helped organize the Federation’s first women’s conferences — the answer to the “Women’s Auxiliary” that existed at the time. She was a member of the Union Women’s Alliance to Gain Equality (Union WAGE), and in 1974, became a founding member of the Coalition of Labor Union Women. She served on its national executive board and as president of the East Bay chapter for many years.
The years 1991 to 2007 were a time of change and growth for the CFT. Bergan’s steady hand on the tiller guided the union through them.
In 2009, CFT recognized her with its highest honor, the Ben Rust Award. Her advocacy, leadership and intellect have left a lasting legacy in the labor movement and beyond.
Throughout her life, she was active in the Democratic Party. Mary was born into a political family on September 13, 1941 in Kenosha, Wisconsin to Harold Bergan and Helen Thompson Bergan. She grew up just across the state line in Winthrop Harbor, known as “the cornerstone of Illinois.” Her early recollections include Adlai Stevenson staying at the family home when she was a young girl. In her later years, she said of the experience, “I haven’t been nervous around a politician since then because none were his equal.”
After graduating from Holy Child High School in Waukegan, she attended Loyola University in Chicago, then headed to the West Coast and graduated from UC Berkeley in 1965. She joined the Peace Corps and was assigned to Malaysia where she spent two years teaching English language and literature and also coaching Malay girls into a championship relay team.
Once home, she became a middle school English teacher in Pittsburg, California. As a new teacher, Bergan joined the Pittsburg-Antioch Federation of Teachers, AFT Local 2001.
This marked the beginning of her union career with the CFT and AFT. Her keen sense of analysis won the attention of then-CFT President Raoul Teilhet who brought her onto staff.
She put down roots in the Bay Area and was a proud resident of Oakland for more than 50 years. She only recently moved back to Wisconsin to be near family.
In her retirement, Bergan continued her electoral advocacy with the League of Women Voters, as well as numerous civic and labor organizations. She loved the theater, art, music, and lectures, and was always ready to enjoy fine food and good wine with friends and family. She was a lifelong learner who traveled extensively.
Bergan was a loving and generous friend, sister, and aunt. She is survived by sisters Martha O’Halloran (Michael) and Kathleen Bergan Schmidt (Lawrence), and brother Harold Bergan Jr. (Susan Hundt), as well as six nieces and nephews and nine great nieces and nephews.