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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Cathy Collette inducted into the Rhode Island Hall of Fame

Thank you to all the friends and family who turned out
By Will Collette

Last Saturday, I saw my life companion of 44 years, Catherine O’Reilly Collette, inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame, one of nine people so honored this year. 

Cathy is the first Rhode Island woman from organized labor to earn this honor and was recognized largely for her years of international work to promote the rights of women workers throughout the world.

I was moved by how many people came out to support Cathy. In addition to family and our Charlestown friends, there were trade unionists, labor historians and political leaders from all over Rhode Island. In all, they filled ten of the tables and then some. If there’s one thing that Cathy and I have learned to appreciate during our lives as activists, it’s turn-out.

I also want to thank the Westerly Sun and Cynthia Drummond for the article they ran that did a nice job of capturing the broad sweep of Cathy’s career.



When we were young
It’s been a long and winding road that led Cathy and I to Charlestown. Cathy grew up in the village of Harmony in Glocester, RI and went to Rhode Island College during the turbulent years of the Viet Nam War and civil rights movement. She was a student activist, went to Woodstock (as did Frank Glista, we later found out), and was the first woman page at the Rhode Island Senate.

It was there she met crusading state Senator Eleanor Slater who became Cathy’s mentor and friend, and later, Cathy’s boss when Eleanor hired her to work at the newly formed RI Division on Aging. There, Cathy became a union activist, helping to form a new local of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) at the Department of Community Affairs and later becoming local President and them member of the state AFSCME Executive Board.

With members of her AFSCME local at the RI
Division on Aging
Cathy and I first met in 1970 when we were both volunteers for Ecology Action for Rhode Island (now long gone). We got married a year and a half later at the historic First Unitarian Church in Providence. We shared ideals and activist causes though we took slightly different professional paths. Cathy went first into public service and later into the labor movement while I worked as a community organizer and campaign strategist.

I was offered a job in Washington DC (described in more detail HERE) and Cathy followed, going to work for her home union AFSCME

While I changed jobs fairly regularly, Cathy had the good sense to stick with AFSCME and rose to become AFSCME Director for Women’s Rights. That was a significant position, given that the majority of AFSCME’s 1.2 million members were women – 700,000 of them.

Cathy as a new AFSCME staffer
My organizing jobs took me all over the US – to every one of the 50 states at least once, as well as to several foreign countries. Cathy's job also took her to all 50 states and to many more countries. 

Cathy generally went to large cities and great world capitals while my travels took me to much smaller places. I used to joke that while Cathy would be speaking at a big conference in Zurich, I’d be doing a kitchen meeting in Zip City, Alabama (I’m not making this up). 

On occasion, we’d hand off car keys at Dulles Airport. One time we did it on the escalator as she was coming in and I was going out. A few years before we left DC, United Airlines sent her a card that identified her as having flown one million actual miles on United. We joked that maybe this card meant she was entitled to free foot massages. It didn't.

Cathy served as a US delegate to the World Women’s Committee of Public Service International, a wing of the International Labor Organization of the United Nations which represents approximately 18 million working women around the world.

This meant even more travel, to Geneva several times a year and to meetings in all of the other continents (except Antarctica). When the Presidency opened up, Cathy ran for election, with supporters campaigning for her in all the major languages spoken in the group. Cathy won, and that came with even more international duties.
...And as President of the World Women's Committee

In addition, Cathy was also sent on assignments that took her to the Philippines several times and to Africa to train local women trade unionists in leadership skills so they could rise within the ranks of their unions.

All the while, Cathy was still travelling all over the US to work with AFSCME’s women leaders and to advance women’s rights in state legislatures. Plus, she was frequently detailed to run union phone banks and get-out-the-vote efforts in key Congressional races around the country.

After 25 years of that, by 2001, we were ready to come home. The years had taken their toll and cost Cathy her mobility. Events in DC, such as the 9/11 attack, anthrax scares and the DC snipers, also made it easy to decide to pack it in. We had already bought our house in Charlestown in 2000, and we made the permanent move in 2002.

Some of the union women Cathy worked with in the Phillipines
I went to work at the Laborers Union’s New England Regional organizing department and later worked for UNITE HERE before I decided to retire in 2009.

Cathy was supposed to be fully retired at the end of 2001, but worked part time for the Institute for Labor Studies for several years, served on the boards of the WARM Center, RI Labor History Society and the George Wiley Center, as well as the Charlestown Democratic Town Committee.

Though she’s still active, she’s whittled down her permanent commitments down to chairing the CDTC and serving as the President of the Labor History Society while adding the job of state Democratic Committee member.

Cathy and I have been fellow travelers through the past 44 years, sometimes traveling side-by-side, but always on parallel tracks. I was proud to see her honored so deservingly. For a couple of kids from Rhode Island, we did our best to follow our dreams and to do the right thing. It’s gratifying to see that people noticed.

Finally, I’d like to share Cathy’s acceptance speech with you. Here it is:

Thank you, Scott [Molloy], my loyal and valued friend.

And my heartfelt thanks to Dr. [Patrick] Conley and the Board for this extraordinary honor.

I was so lucky to have wonderful parents…. Roland and Marie O’Reilly. My mother was a feminist before the word was in popular use, and my father was very open minded.

They raised my brother, my sister and I to believe that we all could do anything we wanted to do. Be anything we wanted to be. I’ll always be grateful for their belief in me.

I also owe a debt to the late Senator Eleanor Slater, a member of this Hall of Fame, and author of Rhode Island’s Fair Housing Law. Eleanor was my boss, my mentor and my friend. She was smart, tough, generous and funny. The kind of role model for younger women who not only reached up, but reached back so others could follow her up the ladder.

And, to my husband of 44 years, Will Collette, my fellow traveler in life, and in the belief that the world needs to be a better place, thank you for your constant guidance and support.

It’s because of my union, AFSCME, that I got a chance to see this country, and a lot of the world. I learned so much from the workers, the people I met.

I worked with amazing women overcoming obstacles that are the stuff of nightmares, and being a small part of their success is one of the most gratifying things in my life. Like the shy young women in the Philippines in my Leadership classes who are now running those classes for other women all around their country.

I was so fortunate to work for a union that gave me a chance to learn that we are all connected, and that we have a responsibility to both help those who have it worse than we do, and to learn from countries more progressive than our own.

We have a great country, but it can and should be better.

I’m firmly convinced of two things. The first is that real change can only be done collectively. The countries with strong unions and strong community groups are less likely to have widespread poverty and injustice.

The second thing is, I’ve seen them all, and Rhode Island is the best state in the union. It’s very good to be home. This honor means the world to me.

Thank you very much.