Today that teenager, Shelvy Young-Abrams, heads the 25,000-member UFT Paraprofessionals Chapter that celebrates its 50th anniversary this school year.
From the moment she got off the Greyhound bus in 1950, Young-Abrams was determined to learn all she could about her new world and how to get ahead. She was, she said, “tired of racism and disrespect and ready to begin a new life.”
The job that brought her north was caring for two children, but she moved on to factory work for the independence it gave her, always supplementing her income with domestic work on the weekends. She remembers a job she had ironing shirts — 12 or 13 at a time — for a Wall Street broker.
“Those early years in Queens were busy years,” Young-Abrams recalls. She married, had two daughters and always worked hard. But there were tough years when, as a single mom, she had to make a deal with a local bodega owner to provide credit for food until her next welfare check arrived.
“I was always a strict mother,” she said. “I knew where the girls were 24/7, and I attended everything they were involved in.”Her participation in the PTA and her volunteer work at PS 19, the school her girls attended in Manhattan’s East Village, opened a new chapter in her life. “I was involved in anything and everything that had to do with education, and that involvement extended to the local school board and Democratic politics,” Young-Abrams said.
In 1968, when federal funds became available to hire community women to help out in schools, the principal asked Young-Abrams to join the PS 19 staff. She credits one of the UFT’s founders, Albert Shanker, for opening the road to her success with his efforts to bring the paraprofessionals into the union and create a career ladder for their job title.
From the very beginning, Young-Abrams supported efforts to unionize paraprofessionals and to negotiate the first contract in 1970 that immediately tripled wages and provided benefits. “I ate, slept and drank union from the start,” she said.
She even turned down an offer of a better-paying city job in order to stick with the challenge of building the UFT’s Paraprofessionals Chapter, for union benefits and for work hours that would allow her to earn her bachelor’s degree at night “to set an example for my kids.”
She remembers being part of the paraprofessional contingent that confronted Mayor Ed Koch in 1979. The paras took along chains and threatened to chain themselves to the furniture if Mayor Koch did not approve negotiations for a pension plan and a 12-month pay schedule that would end summer layoffs. They were successful, and no chains were needed.
In a personal aside, Young-Abrams spoke of being assigned as a paraprofessional to a gym teacher who became her second husband. They were married for 35 years until his passing in 2016.
As she moved up through the union ranks from paraprofessional representative at PS 137 to district coordinator to borough coordinator, then from second vice chair of the chapter to first vice chair and, in 2006, to chapter chair, Young-Abrams carried the message of what paraprofessionals had achieved in New York City to other paraprofessional chapters across the country and around the world.
With all her active memberships in labor and civil rights organizations as well as professional women’s organizations, it should come as no surprise to hear her declare, “I have no time for hobbies and I only travel for the union.”
“I always tell our new paraprofessionals,” Young-Abrams said, “I have stood in your shoes and I am proud to be a paraprofessional.”
This article is the first in a series to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the UFT Paraprofessionals Chapter.