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After graduating from Marygrove College in 1941, Riordan made headlines as the first female president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT), a position she held for 20 years. During that time she successfully negotiated 10 contracts with the Detroit Board of Education.
At that time the DFT was a fledgling union. Riordan immediately enlisted the help of attorney Ted Sachs and led the fight for collective bargaining for teachers. That fight included three strikes, which produced significant wins for both school employees and the district's 300,000 students: higher wages and better health care for teachers, and smaller class sizes for students. Many people felt that the increased rights and benefits generated for Detroit teachers raised the bar in suburban schools as well, and that practically all teachers and students benefited from Riordan's struggles for collective bargaining.
The new initiatives eventually extended to other public employees too. Riordan encouraged the Legislature to adopt the 1965 Public Employee Relations Act, giving hundreds of thousands of public-sector workers the right to collective bargaining.
After retiring from the public school system, she became a tireless champion for Michigan public school retirees. Her actions resulted in equal benefits for all Michigan public school retirees. Three years ago she was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame for her leadership and activism on behalf of Michigan teachers and students. Most recently, she served as a charter member of the Marygrove College Education Unit Advisory Committee. Today she is honorary chair of Marygrove's $8.5 million capital campaign to renovate the College's science and mathematics departments.
Riordan credits Marygrove with giving her a solid foundation to build on. "We had excellent instructors," she said. "I am particularly grateful for the reinforcement of English, grammar, religion and ethics. We learned that we were required to use the talents that God gave us to do what we needed to do." Believing that all ethnicities should be treated equally, she pushed for desegregation in Detroit and fought for books and equipment for the center city schools in the 1940s. She was also very involved in districting.
Riordan was the only classroom teacher in Michigan to participate in President Kennedy's 1964 meeting on Civil Rights in Education, and served as a delegate to President Johnson's 1965 White House Conference on Education, and the 1980 White House Conference on Families.
"As a teacher, union leader and community activist, Mary Ellen Riordan has touched the lives of millions of people," says Janna Garrison, Detroit Federation of Teachers president. "I am certain her legacy will endure as long as men and women continue their quest for justice and equity."
Riordan credits her bargaining success with her basic philosophy about life. "The way you treat other people is the basis for the way you get treated," she said. "I like people and they sense that, and I usually get a good response."