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Martha Straus

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Martha Straus

Every army has its foot soldiers and the union's army is no different.

Meet 96 1/2-year old Martha Straus. She's been around so long that she remembers when her Brownsville birthplace was called Goatville. "That's right, there were goats in the streets," she says, with a laugh.

The youngest of seven children, Straus grew up on the Lower East Side. "There was no starvation but there were no luxuries either," she says. Her father and older brother took part in the 1910 cloak makers strike that came to be known as "the great revolt."

Carrying on the family tradition, Straus joined the Teachers Union soon after graduation from Hunter College in the mid-1920s. It was not long after that the TU became hopelessly deadlocked by sectarian ideological debate, the chief culprit, she says, being the communists. "We couldn't do the work we wanted for teachers," says Straus, one of the 499 who bolted the TU to form the Teachers Guild in 1935.

For the next two decades until her retirement in 1958 Straus was a fixture of the Guild's pioneering grievance committee. Under the direction of Ben Mazen, these volunteers represented teachers at a time when there was no formal grievance procedure, never mind a contract. It was in these confrontations, Straus says, that "teachers started to see they could fight back. It was terrific to watch and be a part of."