Obituary: Al Fondy / Teachers union president

Headed both city, state organizations

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Al Fondy, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers for 38 years, died yesterday of cancer at ManorCare Health Services in Green Tree after a lengthy illness. He was 69.

Kent Badger, Post-Gazette
Al Fondy in 1976 (above) and in 2000 (below). Fondy said he was proud the union had worked with the Pittsburgh school district to improve education.

John Heller, Post-Gazette
Click each photo for larger image.

In his own words

In February 2003 Al Fondy participated in an extended recorded interview with reporter Carmen Lee as part of the Post-Gazette's Legacy Project, an initiative designed to give prominent Pittsburghers the opportunity to recount the past in their own voice. Here are excerpts from that interview:

An incident involving a student with a torn shirt opened Fondy's eyes to the value of union representation.

The role of the union goes beyond representing its members.

The union must be a constructive force to keep schools sound.

The instructional leadership program is one example of a partnership Fondy helped create with the school district to improve teacher performance.

Fondy says when the school district has a good idea, the union should help make it happen, and vice versa.

Eliminating the residency requiremnt for teachers was a key success.

Teaching has changed a lot in 38 years, Fondy says. Teachers are more accountable now and they're paid more, too.

Annual evaluation has helped make teachers more accountable.

One of the reasons he kept working as union president for so long, Fondy says, is the importance of continutity for strong union leadership.

He had spent most of his final months between his Banksville home and West Penn Hospital.

Mr. Fondy, who also was president of the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers, believed in public education as a way to unify society.

"If you have all kinds of religions and ideologies for different schools, that's a way to balkanize society," Mr. Fondy, who was educated in Catholic schools, said in a February 2003 interview.

Mr. Fondy vigorously opposed school vouchers, likening the program to rescuing just one child from a burning building instead of improving a troubled school to help all children.

"He was an unwavering supporter of public education," said John Tarka, executive director of the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers and an executive board member of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. "He wanted to see every school properly funded, every school safe and every child provided a quality education."

He attended St. Joseph Academy Elementary School of Pittsburgh, Central Catholic High School and Duquesne University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1958 and an education certificate in 1959.

Mr. Fondy didn't grow up wanting to be a teacher. He switched from a pre-med program to a math major and earned a teaching certificate after graduation.

In college, he started working at Mesta Machine Co. in West Homestead in the same job his father had, a layout man in the machine shop.

When he was laid off at Mesta and playing golf, his mother, Bertha, now of Monroeville, said, "You think you're going to sit around here. You're not. You're going to take a job."

So in the fall of 1959, he took his first teaching job -- math for seventh through 12th grades -- in Trafford for $4,200 a year. At the end of the year, he asked for a raise. He didn't get it.

The following year, he decided to teach in the city public schools at Carrick, where he had done student teaching. He taught math for about eight years before becoming the full-time union president.

Pittsburgh teachers weren't unionized when Mr. Fondy started teaching, but he liked what teachers in New York City were doing under noted leader Al Shanker to unionize. And when a student accused him of ripping his shirt -- a charge Mr. Fondy denied -- he saw first-hand how a union could have helped had it existed.

Mr. Fondy wasn't known for mincing words, even in his early days of teaching. "They claim I tore his shirt. I say he's full of crap," Mr. Fondy said in the February 2003 interview.

It was the bluntness he would use as he led the union.

"Everything worked out fine. I took care of it myself. I realized that not everybody can take care of it themselves," Mr. Fondy said.

Mr. Fondy lost the first time he ran for union president in 1965 but won in 1967 and had served steadily ever since.

The union was small at first -- about 300 members -- but grew to about 1,000 of the district's more than 3,800 teachers by the time of its first strike in 1968. That strike was to win the right for representation.

The union now has more than 3,900 members.

Mr. Fondy credited former state House Speaker K. Leroy Irvis for helping school board members realize they had to talk with the new union.

The union and the city school district reached their first agreement in 1969.

Mr. Fondy was the chief negotiator for 28 labor agreements for the teachers as well as for paraprofessionals, technical-clerical workers and the Pittsburgh Intermediate Unit.

In the early years, city teachers went on strike three times -- the longest and last of which was for 56 days in 1975.

He said the role of the union was to represent its members, but it also goes beyond that.

"Given how important education is, the union cannot be an obstacle to progress," Mr. Fondy said.

And while representing members was important, Mr. Fondy didn't believe he had to defend incompetent teachers.

"You give them a chance to improve and so on. But if they don't improve, they leave the classroom," he said.

He was proud that the union had worked with the district to improve education, including establishing teacher leaders to help guide other teachers, working toward implementing the district's math and reading initiatives and helping to train new teachers.

"If [district officials] come up with some educational thing, if it has merit, we should try to make it happen," Mr. Fondy said.

This partnership style of thinking played a role in the final contracts Mr. Fondy negotiated. The teacher contract was ratified in October 2003, but the teacher vote was the closest ever. The teachers had to pay more for their medical insurance and work a longer day.

"We have to do the right thing and responsible thing," Mr. Fondy said at the time.

Attorney Bruce Campbell, who has negotiated contracts for the city school district since 1978, called Mr. Fondy "the best labor leader that I have dealt with in my life. He is unbelievably dedicated to labor."

He said Mr. Fondy realized that for his members to get the best deal, "they had to be responsive to the employer and provide a good product."

He said Mr. Fondy was "absolutely and totally honest. If Al Fondy made a commitment, you could take it to the bank."

Mr. Fondy's ability to win respect was noted by James Weaver, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, who called Mr. Fondy "an icon of labor unions in Pennsylvania public education."

"Al made many friends throughout his career," Weaver said, "but even those he didn't win over respected his determination and his skill as a negotiator, a lobbyist and above all a spokesman for public schools and the men and women who work there."

Mr. Fondy was already ill during the 2003 negotiations, but Campbell said he showed "incredible energy."

Mr. Fondy's brother, Thomas of Syracuse, N.Y., later donated stem cells, and Mr. Fondy improved for a period of time. Last year, he marched in the Labor Day parade before his health worsened. A booster of stem cells from his brother was unsuccessful in reversing his illness.

Mr. Fondy and his wife, Vivian, were married for 36 years. He spoke proudly of the accomplishments of their now-grown daughter, Jessica, of the Arlington section of Pittsburgh, a valedictorian of Brashear High School and graduate of Wesleyan University.

Mr. Fondy traveled to meetings -- he was a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers and vice president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO -- but he typically didn't go on vacations.

As his illness progressed, Mr. Fondy made few public statements. In February, he phoned a reporter when stories were surfacing about city teacher contract talks. He wanted to make it clear that the union wanted a "progressive contract, not a backward contract."

Mr. Fondy said, "There are people in this world who spend a lot of time with whatever their occupation is and whatever their profession is, and I'm one of those people.

"I do it because I like it. I think I know what I'm doing, too. I'm not always right."

And he didn't have regrets.

He said, "Honestly, I don't think so. Not really. You always wish you might have done this a little better in this contract or that contract. Overall, the main thing you've got to do is you want each new agreement to be progress over the last one. That's all you can strive for. Nothing's perfect."

In addition to his wife, daughter, mother and brother, Mr. Fondy is survived by a sister, Bernadette, of Greensburg.

Friends will be received from 2 to 5 and 6 to 9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday at the William Slater II Funeral Home, 1650 Greentree Road, Scott. The funeral service and burial will be private.

A public memorial service will be announced at a later date.

The family suggests contributions to the union's QuEST Scholarship Fund -- which stands for Quality Education Standards in Teaching and is for city students planning to become teachers -- at union headquarters, 10 S. 19th St., Pittsburgh 15203.

PG Archives
Striking Pittsburgh teachers picket the Board of Education Building in Oakland, Feb. 9, 1968. They were fighting for the right to collective bargaining.
Click photo for larger image.    PG Archives  Al Fondy at the Pittsburgh teacher's union strike headquarters on the South Side in February, 1968. 

Amy McConnell Schaarsmith contributed to this report. The audio was recorded by Carmen Lee and produced by Curt Chandler. Post-Gazette education writer Eleanor Chute can be reached at or 412-263-1955. Carmen J. Lee can be reached at or 412-263-1884.


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