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Jeannette DiLorenzo, was a champion of worker and senior causes who helped organize the UFT before serving as an officer of the union for many years.
DiLorenzo, who with her husband John led picketing in Brooklyn for the UFT’s first strike, held a variety of positions with the union and served as its treasurer from 1972 to 1993. She was elected Retired Teachers Chapter leader in ’93 and held that position until her death.
"Her life’s fight was for the dignity and well-being of all working people," UFT President Randi Weingarten said. "She was a dedicated trade union leader and a superb educator. She will be missed by all active and retired members of the UFT."
In the precede to the series "Class Struggles: The History of the UFT" that appeared in the New York Teacher in 1996, Staff Writer Jack Schierenbeck opened with DiLorenzo’s experience with her late husband, on Nov. 7, 1960, the day of that first walkout:
For their part, Jeannette and John DiLorenzo, teachers at JHS 142 in Red Hook, Brooklyn, were ready to walk. Though new to teaching, both were veteran organizers and activists. In a little more than a year, they had signed up nearly all of the teachers at their school.
Come Monday morning, it seemed as if all of Red Hook had turned out in support of their striking teachers. Parents were handing out refreshments, while longshoremen from the nearby piers and merchant seamen from the Seafarers Union were out carrying signs of support. As the morning bell rang, some 80 teachers were giving an open-air civics lesson on democracy.
But the DiLorenzos’ hearts would soon sink. They had been detailed to check on some 30 other schools in south Brooklyn. As they rode by one school after another, a depressing realization began to sink in. "It was a terrible feeling," recalls Jeannette. "It was pitiful passing by all the elementary schools and not a soul coming out."
By the time they returned to JHS 142, half the striking teachers had deserted the picket line and returned to their classrooms. Word was out. The strike had fizzled and the superintendent of schools had fired the strikers.
By day’s end, DiLorenzo found herself hoping "to find a way to get back in that building with some kind of dignity."
The former Jeannette Blumenfeld was born on Dec. 29, 1918, and grew up in an immigrant household in New York City.
"All the people around us were committed to the notions of trade unionism and socialism," she told the UFT Oral History project in 1986, "to the idea of building a better world; the idea of belonging to the working class."
Her parents had come from Romania in 1907, her father one step ahead of army conscription. Schierenbeck noted in a short biography of DiLorenzo that appeared with the UFT history series that she remembered her older brother taking her to the Rand Socialist School for Sunday morning classes studying Karl Marx.
"The religion of my house was [socialism], the Jewish Daily Forward the bible," she said.
DiLorenzo also recalled marching on the piers in support of striking maritime workers in the mid-1930s and being "chased by scabs with knives." Another time, she was "pelted with eggs and garbage" by pro-Mussolini fascists.
"It was part of the culture to help the downtrodden and the weak," she said.
DiLorenzo received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Brooklyn College, hoping to become a teacher. There were no teaching jobs when she graduated, however, and both she and her husband wound up working for the city of New York as financial investigators at the Department of Finance. They were among the prime movers and officers in the formation of Local 1113, the union of Finance Department employees of the City of New York (DC 37).
But in 1959, both found jobs at JHS 142, she as a teacher of social studies, history and economics. On their second day of work, the DiLorenzos appeared at union headquarters eager to organize for the Teachers Guild, the union that became the UFT.
"We were adults where we were and we’d come into a system where the teachers were treated as if they were children," DiLorenzo told Schierenbeck for the history piece. "It was almost a throwback to feudal times. The principal was the lord. You were the serf."
DiLorenzo recalled the exhilarating atmosphere of that first strike. "It was all thunder and lightning, do or die," she said. "Even the old were young again."
Alan Lubin - now executive vice president of NYSUT, the UFT’s state affiliate - remembered serving with DiLorenzo as district representative when the UFT established the position in 1969. DiLorenzo represented District 15.
Lubin noted the importance of DiLorenzo’s mentoring as he learned the ropes.
"I was so enriched by all the time she spent with me," said Lubin.
Lubin visited DiLorenzo a few days before she died, bringing two items from the statewide union’s recent annual convention: a special order of business delegates passed sending get-well wishes her way, and a copy of a convention video on women pioneers of the union, which included DiLorenzo.
"She asked me to thank everyone in the union, and that made us reminisce about all the accomplishments the union has made and reviewed her leadership role in the union’s growth. She also reminded me of walking picket lines with my father."
Lubin’s father, Irving, taught with the DiLorenzos at JHS 142.
"Through the years, when I think of Jeannette, her tremendous strength and then her extraordinary compassion stand together," Lubin said.
DiLorenzo served as UFT’s Staten Island borough representative from 1972 to ’77 and Manhattan borough rep from 1977 to ’93.
She was a member of the board of directors for NYSUT, was chair of the administrative committee of the Jewish Labor Committee and executive member for Holocaust education, was a former chair of the UFT’s Jewish Labor Committee Educators Chapter, and served as vice president of the Italian-American Labor Council.
She was also a member of the Holocaust Scholarship Committee, the National Board for the National Council of Senior Citizens and the Retiree Advisory committees of both the AFT and NYSUT.
She served as delegate to the New York City Central Labor Council as well as to the AFT, NYSUT and New York State AFL-CIO conventions.
DiLorenzo chaired the Retirement Issues Committee at AFT conventions and coordinated the UFT Labor Studies Curriculum for Secondary Schools.
DiLorenzo received countless awards from the UFT, including one of the union’s highest honors - the Charles Cogen Award - in 1991.
To mark the occasion, Sandra Feldman, then president of the UFT, presented her with a framed handwritten note, dated April 10, 1962, asking teachers at her school to "report to picket captain Jeannette DiLorenzo at 6:45 a.m."
"There were never any good old days for trade unionists," DiLorenzo said at the event. "That’s a myth. There were always hardships, a hostile press and fear, but we persevered."
DiLorenzo was honored by dozens of community organizations and even had a day named for her by proclamation of the Borough of Manhattan.
When honored in 1994 at a special dinner for her and Abe Levine, former vice president for elementary schools, DiLorenzo was asked whether she would follow her productive union career by taking time off to relax and perhaps take up a hobby.
"Hobby?" growled DiLorenzo. "My hobby is organizing!"
At the event, Feldman praised DiLorenzo for educating so many of the union’s present leaders. "What a teacher she has been!" Feldman said.
When she received the Cogen Award in 1991, DiLorenzo said: "The Berlin Wall fell and Lech Walesa is Poland’s leader because we in the democratic trade union movement were able to help our European brothers and sisters.
"We have a lot of work to do in our own country and city."
Jeannette DiLorenzo saw that mission through until the end.
She is survived by her sister, Blanche Greenker. A funeral service was held on May 20 at Riverside Memorial Chapel, Manhattan. Those wishing to honor DiLorenzo are asked to make contributions to the Jewish Labor Committee, the Holocaust Museum, the Brooklyn College Fund or the American Red Cross.