Late on the night of Dec. 5, 1989, school district officials walked into strike headquarters of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers with a written proposal aimed at averting a walkout the following day.
It was literally the 11th hour, and the deal was made. Out came the soft drinks, and the former adversaries talked and laughed for the next half-hour.
Union President Gladys Westin had reason to be pleased.
“They gave us exactly what we asked for,” she said at the time.
Westin, whose legacy as a teacher lives on in a college scholarship in her name, died on Feb. 18 — peacefully, and surrounded by family. She was 80.
Al Oertwig, who was a school board member when Westin led the federation, said last week that she was a “pioneer in women’s leadership,” a warmhearted person who could surprise and challenge with her questions.
“It would be nothing about the union work,” he recalled, “but about the interpersonal connections — and that, of course, helped the union work. And you don’t get far without taking some risks.”
Westin grew up in Deer River, Minn., and loved school and music of all genres. She sang in the church choir and learned to play the coronet and piano, too.
After graduating from high school in 1955, Westin attended the University of Minnesota Duluth and earned a degree as a medical lab technician. She worked at hospitals in Duluth and in the Twin Cities, but in 1969, she returned to the classroom — this time as an instructor in the medical lab technician program at St. Paul Technical Vocational Institute (TVI), since renamed St. Paul College.
Then, TVI instructors could be members of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, and Westin eventually became its vice president and then president.
She was at the helm when Superintendents David Bennett and Curman Gaines led the school system. When talks over a new contract slowed in 1989, federation members voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike — a move that would not be repeated until bargaining this year.
Then, as now, the district stated it was in a fiscal bind. But the talks came a year after Bennett was awarded a hefty raise that made him the state’s best-paid superintendent, leaving many union members to wonder: “Is the money really as short as he claims it is?” Oertwig said.
With the membership’s trust in Bennett in short supply, Westin had to be tough, Oertwig said. But being a pleasant, warmhearted person, he added, “helps you move to a settlement when it’s possible.”
Still, it took late help from then-Mayor George Latimer, a former labor lawyer who offered to mediate, to get the two sides to agree on a deal.
About that time, Oertwig, Westin and Bennett headed to Ohio for a national meeting on union relationships. Oertwig, seated on the plane next to Westin, had made plans, too, to attend a modern art show that was viewed by some as controversial. He meant to keep it secret, but Westin suddenly asked: “Oh, Al, are you going to the exhibit?” he recalled, laughing. “It was just kind of her open style.”
The three ended up going together, Oertwig said, and he and Westin roamed “like two little kids almost.”
She retired from St. Paul College after 32 years and then spent considerable time doting on her granddaughter, Natalie, her family said.
Westin also is survived by her son, Mark; daughter-in-law, Dawn; and sisters Marian Cunningham and Carol Chandler.
Services have been held.
Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109