Abe Levine, the union’s first vice president for elementary schools and a steadfast presence at the UFT until his final months, died at age 89 on June 13.
“If there was a UFT event, Abe was there,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said. “The UFT was his life. There has never been anyone more committed to this union. His passing leaves a huge void.”
Levine joined the Teachers Guild — the UFT’s predecessor organization — in 1953. In the mid-1950s, he spearheaded the campaign to win the right to a duty-free lunch for teachers.
George Altomare, another UFT founder, said Levine pitched to his fellow union leaders that the time was ripe to pursue the issue. “Abe didn’t just go by himself,” he said. “He was able to take his own idea and bounce it around, and we all loved it.”
The Elementary School Committee, which Levine chaired, began a “Right to Eat” campaign, collecting thousands of elementary school teachers’ signatures on petitions for a duty-free lunch. The issue eventually became part of the union’s campaign for collective bargaining rights, and the right to a duty-free lunch was enshrined in the union’s first contract in 1962.
“That was one of the first big victories we had as the UFT,” said Altomare.
Levine worked as a classroom teacher from 1951 until 1967, when he became a full-time staff member of the UFT as assistant to the president. When the UFT was born in 1960, Levine was elected its first vice president for elementary schools, a post he held for 33 years until his retirement in June 1993.
Altomare and Mel Aaronson, the former UFT treasurer and another founder, both noted that Levine, as a respected leader of elementary school teachers, played a pivotal role in the founding of the UFT in 1960.
“The elementary division was the largest, and he was able to convince the elementary school teachers to combine with the high school teachers,” Aaronson said.
Levine took that step at a Teachers Guild Delegate Assembly on March 16, 1960. There was a divide and some mistrust between the elementary and high school divisions at the time, Altomare noted.
“We needed an elementary school hero,” Altomare said. “That was Abe Levine.”
In his speech that day before the vote, Levine acknowledged the reasons elementary school teachers feared a merger, but then, Altomare added, “He said that without the merger, we should be afraid of having a profession without anything worth working for.”
“Without Abe,” Aaronson said, “there would have been a huge delay in the merger.”
Levine served on the UFT Executive Board for nearly 59 years, including his time with the Teachers Guild, until he stepped down in 2013. He missed only one meeting in all those years. He never missed a Delegate Assembly meeting either.
Since his retirement, Levine continued to be an ardent trade unionist and regular participant at UFT events. He never missed an opportunity to work a phone bank or attend a rally.
Levine also made a practice of visiting the sick, bringing them cheer and letting them know their fellow union members had not forgotten them.
“If you wanted to know about anyone who was sick or had problems at home, you asked Abe about it because he always knew about it and did something about it,” Altomore said. “He was like a one-person committee to help brothers and sisters in crisis.”