Mourning the loss of our union’s ‘happy warrior’

“While bargaining in education remains elusive, we will have Sharon’s years of activist building and steward training in Texas AFT to thank when we finally reach our goal of a bargained contract.”

Texas AFT President Zeph Capo
Sharon Cole

Sharon Cole, one of the early trainers for what we were then known as, the Texas Federation of Teachers, died recently. Sharon was the spark plug that ignited much of the organizing in our union by teaching new staff the nuts and bolts of signing up members for the union movement and guiding leaders of local unions. Our friend Ed Sills, communications director for the Texas AFL-CIO, wrote this fitting tribute to her.

The Texas AFL-CIO is saddened to learn of the death of Sharon Cole, who played an extraordinary role in the success of the Texas American Federation of Teachers.

Sister Cole and her husband, John Cole, a long-time Texas AFT President, were one of the great power couples in Texas labor history. As a reporter covering the Legislature in the 1980s and early 1990s, I witnessed this first-hand: John would preside at news conferences and serve as the public face of the union, but reporters would flock to Sharon to get further detail and everything between the lines that the union could afford to divulge. It was a Mr. Outside and Ms. Inside vibe characterized by superb communications skills and determined advocacy. Though Sharon Cole officially was in charge of leadership development and training, her portfolio took in the entire Texas AFT operation. As Communications Director of the Texas AFL-CIO, I also had the honor of helping out in some of the leadership training conferences that Sharon organized at Texas AFT, and can say from experience that those operations were (and are) valuable, efficient and enthusiastically received.

The Coles’ tenure included nationally important battles over education reform and school finance justice — the latter a historic civil rights battle that conquered some steep hills. Their participation in the movement to fund public schools fairly came after a setback at the U.S. Supreme Court. Ultimately, the Texas Supreme Court delivered major court rulings and the Legislature moved in the direction of funding parity for schoolchildren across the state. 

Sharon Cole

Though some local Texas affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers are older, Texas AFT was founded in 1974, an era when public-sector unions were beginning to play a much larger role in the labor movement. The state AFT was an upstart in a state that has four organizations seeking to represent teachers and other public school employees. Two of those organizations can be characterized as non-union and/or anti-union. The third, our friends at the Texas State Teachers Association, have joined with Texas AFT in meet-and-confer arrangements in a number of large school districts; TSTA was founded in 1880. Under the leadership of John and Sharon Cole, Texas AFT grew, both in numbers and effectiveness.

A succession of Texas AFL-CIO Presidents has proudly noted that Texas AFT is the state federation’s largest or second largest union, depending on which day you count membership alongside the American Federation of Government Employees. The union went from “being able to meet in a closet” to the 66,000 members it has today by stating unabashedly that Texas AFT is union through and through, seeking collective bargaining, opposing the so-called “right to work” law, and engaging in the kind of concerted activism expected of labor unions across the country. Sharon Cole played a seminal role in laying the groundwork for the union’s rise.

In addition to building an organizing culture, the Coles set another standard that runs in Texas AFT to this day: They were stellar at staff recruitment, hiring some of the best advocates in state government and cultivating their talents. To this day, Texas AFT makes a mark that goes well beyond its numbers. 

“Sharon Cole was a true labor emissary sent from Ohio to shepherd new activists to the promised land of collective bargaining and power building for teachers and school employees here in Texas,” Texas AFT President Zeph Capo said. “While bargaining in education remains elusive, we will have Sharon’s years of activist building and steward training in Texas AFT to thank when we finally reach our goal of a bargained contract.”

Any remembrance of Sharon Cole cannot fail to mention that the Coles were mainstays in Corpus Christi, having begun their Texas work (after meeting while organizing in Ohio) at the local AFT affiliate. (The Corpus Christi affiliate would produce another revered Texas AFT President and Cole protege, the late Linda Bridges.) Conditions in Corpus Christi schools and the realization that other school districts were similarly situated prompted the Coles to bring their activism to the state level. For years, the Coles made personal financial sacrifices as they strengthened the foundation of the union.

“It was my good fortune to work with and know Sharon Cole,” said former Texas AFL-CIO President Becky Moeller, another history-making labor activist from Corpus Christi. “In addition to her advocacy for schoolchildren, she was dedicated to education for union activists. Her Continuing Education programs within AFT and labor in general were legendary.” 

“John Cole and Sharon Cole were a dynamic duo,” Moeller said. “They complemented each other professionally and personally. Many in the union movement were touched by Sharon’s activism and love of the work she did.”
 Sharon Cole personally signed up former Texas AFT President Louis Malfaro for Texas AFT membership in his first year as a teacher. 

“Sharon cold-called me the same week I received a mailer from an anti-union teacher organization that said, ‘We believe strikes should be reserved for the grand old game of baseball,’” Malfaro said. “I was livid. When she called, I asked, ‘Is this a real union?’ She assured me that Texas AFT was an affiliate of the AFL-CIO and very much a real union. She was at my classroom door the next morning with a membership card, convinced she had a live one on the line.”

Malfaro said Sharon Cole’s belief in systemic organizing has influenced AFT affiliates across the nation. He adds she was a joy to work with: “Her ribald sense of humor, easy way of connecting with just about everyone she met, and raucous laughter that spilled down the hallways at the Texas AFT office are forever etched in my memory.”

Eric Hartman, the long-time Legislative Director of Texas AFT recruited by John Cole, described Sharon Cole as a “happy warrior.” He said the couple was “a true partnership, a team that served the members very well.” 
 Hartman said Sharon Cole’s versatility was extraordinary, especially considering the years in which the union was akin to a family operation, with minimal staff. “She was the one who could do it all,” Hartman said.

Jerry Quinones, a retiree who worked for AFT in local, state and national capacities, said Sharon Cole’s role in the growth of the union was indispensable. “She lit up a room,” Quinones said. “She was always upbeat and positive, with so much energy and so much drive.” Quinones said that personality carried over into summer and winter leadership training sessions that were widely imitated and became national models for the union.  

Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy said Sharon Cole played an important role in the history of the state labor federation. “Sharon Cole was at the heart of the movement to improve public education in Texas,” Levy said. “Her commitment to training, leadership development, and organizational strength left a legacy for the entire union movement to aspire to and helped make Texas AFT a leader not only on educational policy but on the gamut of issues that affect working families. We will deeply miss her.”

The Texas AFL-CIO offers our heartfelt condolences to John Cole, the Cole family and Texas AFT. Arrangements are private