Juan Ramirez, CFT Executive Vice President, acted as master of ceremonies for the Memorial Dinner for Mary Bergan, on the second evening of the CFT March Summit. Ramirez asked the attendees to think of the event not as a sad occasion, but rather a chance to honor all the good things Bergan did. 

And there were lots to celebrate. Bergan, who passed away at 82 years old in Wisconsin November 30, 2023, was part of the CFT for more than three decades, and her love of the union shaped her life as well as the CFT. 

Speakers at the dinner included CFT President Jeff Freitas, Tom Martin, a retired field representative, Margaret Shelleda, Bergan’s former assistant, and the President of CFT Council of Retired Members, Dennis Kelly. They remembered Bergan’s accomplishments, her effectiveness as a leader and a lobbyist, how she fought for what she believed in, as well as her friendship. 

Before talking about what Bergan meant to him personally, Freitas outlined her professional life —how she started as a middle school teacher and member of the Pittsburg-Antioch Federation of Teachers, AFT Local 2001. She became a field rep for CFT and then the organization’s first full-time lobbyist. While she held this job, then Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill establishing education workers’ right to collective bargaining. This legislation, the Rodda Act, capped off more than 20 years of efforts by the CFT to bring workplace protection to hundreds of thousands of California educators.

Freitas told the audience members that Bergan, who was recognized with CFT’s highest honor in 2009, the Ben Rust Award, worked for CFT for 35 years, and in the last 16, 1991- 2007, she served as president. Along with this, she was vice president of the California Labor Federation, vice president of the AFT, and a founding member of the Coalition of Labor Union Women.

Freitas also spoke about his personal connection with Bergan and what it meant to him to see a strong woman at the head of the union when he became a local leader in 1998. 

Having served as president for five years, Freitas expressed admiration for the grace and strength Bergan had called on to do the job for 16 years.  Bergan brought him on staff in 2002, and he noted how, in some ways, his career mirrored hers. 

“I remember being in my interview panel, and that helped start me to where I am today, and I’m thankful to Mary Bergan for that and for seeing the potential of what could be,” he said.

“I didn’t know I was following in her footsteps as a teacher, and then a field rep, and then a lobbyist, and then the president of CFT — very much a parallel path to Mary Bergan. So, tonight, we honor her, and I honor her.”

Freitas closed by saying that he was looking into a way to preserve Bergan’s memory. 

In his speech, Kelly also expressed the importance of that.

“The people who accept our vote of confidence to lead us must be honored for the good work that they do, the days they spend agonizing on our behalf, articulating our dreams, fighting against our foes, making our challenges theirs, and sharing their victories with us,” he said. “You heard Jeff say tonight say that we’re looking for what we can do to commemorate and memorialize Mary and keep her name alive because Mary must not be forgotten.”

Kelly ended his comments by asking the audience members to stand and raise a glass to Bergan. 

“Let us salute Mary Bergan for leadership, for friendship, and for the huge portion of her life that she gave to help make each of our lives and therefore the lives of each of our students better in so many ways,” he said. “Tonight is for Mary.”

After a moment of silence, the memorial ended with two women from The Table the Central United Methodist Church leading attendees in Solidarity Forever, Bergan’s favorite song written by Ralph Chaplain in 1915. 

Audience members sang along, raising their clasped hands and ending with:

“In our hands is placed the power greater than their hoarded gold,
Greater than the might of armies, magnified a thousand-fold.
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old
For the union makes us strong.”