Vicki Saporta

Organizing was what I loved to do and what I was good at. I really got my passion from the people I was organizing.”

Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, February 2020

[Edited Transcript]

VS:  My name is Vicki Saporta and I was born and raised in Rochester, New York. I was part of a very loving, extended family, including grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. And my immediate family was my mother, father, two younger sisters and our dog, Chico. Our family were members of Congregation Light of Israel, a Sephardic Temple in Rochester, New York, one of the few Sephardic temples in the country. I got Bat Torah’d there with four other girls from my Hebrew school class, because at the time, at least in Sephardic and Orthodox temples, women couldn’t read from the Torah and we couldn’t have a Bat Mitzvah.

MJC:  Did that raise consciousness with you about being a woman? Or any discrimination or did that come later?

VS:  Absolutely. The girls in our Hebrew school class, we were all very interested and very good in our studies and didn’t understand why we couldn’t be Bat Mitzvah’d and we had to have a Bat Torah when the guys weren’t all that interested and all that proficient in their studies.  And so that was my first time probably being aware of discrimination against women. And in fact, it wasn’t until I was much older that I got to do what is called an Aliyah at my first nephew’s Bar Mitzvah and got to do another one at my second nephew’s Bar Mitzvah. 

At that temple was the first woman rabbi in the United States and she knew how much it meant to me to have an Aliyah for the first nephew. When I had a broken leg for the Bar Mitzvah of the second nephew, she actually said, “If she can’t make it to the Torah, I’ll bring the Torah to her.” And I used every ounce of my strength to get up to the Bimah to be able to do my Aliyah for that nephew as well.

MJC:  That’s wonderful. So, talk about high school, you were active in high school.

VS:  Yes. I went to Irondequoit High School in West Irondequoit and was an excellent student and active athletically. That’s another place where I noticed that the girls and boys sports teams were treated very differently. I was a basketball player. I loved to play basketball. We basically had a team, but only played a very limited schedule where the varsity and junior varsity boys teams got to do a full schedule. In fact, I was a radio announcer for the boys J.V. team, and we used to announce their games. No one ever announced our games on the radio. 

And that even continued in college. I played varsity basketball at Cornell University and we would practice four days a week and have a game on the fifth day during the season. And again, we worked hard, and we had games and they were open to people who wanted to come and watch. But this is pre-Title 9 and they did not treat women’s and men’s sports at all equally in college at the time. Today, you see women athletes getting scholarships, which is marvelous. And you have women’s professional sports teams. Again, marvelous, but that was something that we were precluded from in my day growing up.

MJC:  So, tell me what attracted you to Cornell?

VS:  I had wanted to go to Cornell since I was twelve, for whatever reason. I had a neighbor who went there, and I wanted to be a lawyer. And when I looked at the different programs at Cornell and the schools that they had, I decided to apply to the industrial and labor relations program and thought that that would be a great background for law school. And if I didn’t want to go to law school, which didn’t occur to me at the time, also an excellent background. So I ended up studying at Cornell. And during a summer, I went to work for the Teamsters Union.

MJC:  Was it unusual for a woman to choose labor relations at Cornell?

VS:  Oh, we had a quota for women in the ILR school at the time. And so we had to go as part of our interview process to the school and write an essay about why we wanted to study in this particular program. And I believe it was 10 or 15 percent of the class slots were allocated for women. And I received one. And so, it was mostly a male program throughout my time studying at Cornell, which is no longer the case, as you could well imagine. Now the class, I think, may even be a tiny bit more women than men at this particular time. People didn’t think that women wanted to go into that particular field. 

I did enjoy my time at Cornell. I enjoyed being on the basketball team, on the sailing team, I enjoyed my studies. I was looking for a summer job at the bulletin board one day and a professor came and said, “Hey, do you want to work for the Teamsters this summer?” And I said, “Yeah, that sounds interesting.” He says, you know, “Watch, it will be posted here.” I went every day for a couple of weeks and nothing was posted. And so, I went into the office and asked, where was this job with the Teamsters? And they pulled out something on their desk and said, here, go ahead and apply. And so, I did and was hired sight unseen, unmet, based on my persistence with the person at the Western Conference of Teamsters who later became a mentor to me, who I respected greatly.

MJC:  Where was the job located?

VS:  It was a pre-retiree program. They wanted to take students on a study program in Europe. We went to four different countries and studied their labor relations systems and met with the unions. I was a counselor in the program, and in working with the union folks, they asked me if I wanted to come work for them when I graduated. I explained that I wanted to be a lawyer. They said, that’s a great background. Let us know. We’d be very interested. 

And the following year, I went to the London School of Economics for two terms as part of my undergraduate studies. And there, we actually went to school with shop stewards. And so my labor studies became very real and I had this contact with the Teamsters Union. By the time I graduated, all I wanted to do was go to work for the Union and I graduated early in order to do so, and basically traveled across the country as quickly as I could to start working. I was an organizer with the Western Conference of Teamsters.

MJC:  What was it, over this period of meeting the Teamsters and studying labor relations, that really grabbed you?

VS:  I really thought I would love to be a union organizer. And it turned out that it was just something that I was made to do. I absolutely loved organizing and couldn’t believe they actually paid me to do that type of work. And, you know, a lot of people say, was this part of your family background, or how did you get interested? How did you become so passionate about union organizing? I really got my passion from the people that I was organizing. 

My first campaign was in Yosemite National Park. We were organizing the concession workers there. I spent the summer in the park, and we unfortunately did not win that election and people lost their homes as a result because you couldn’t live in the park if you couldn’t work in the park. And they really didn’t necessarily want the union organizing committee continuing to work for them, and some of the committee members were very disillusioned with the company and didn’t want to stay. But that was a heavy responsibility for me that you had to take this seriously. You really fell in love with the people that you organized. 

Later, I was organizing in the south, in small towns in North Carolina. If we weren’t going to win those elections then those people were going to be out of a job and would have to travel many, many miles to find another one. And so you really felt a sense of responsibility to the people you were organizing. You wanted to empower them to take control of their lives in their workplaces and to be able to get the dignity and respect that they deserved from their work, from their employer. 

To this day, I’m still in touch with a couple of the flight attendants that I organized at Northwest Airlines. You become very close to people that you’re organizing. They were really my inspiration. And so I would travel more than 200 days a year, sometimes more than 250 days a year on the road.

MJC:  Where was this? Were you in Washington?

VS:  I first went to work for the Western Conference of Teamsters, which was headquartered outside of San Francisco. So I moved to the Bay Area and lived there. And then the following year, the Teamsters International hired me as an organizer and they wanted me to move to Washington. And I said no, I’d prefer to stay in California, since I’m traveling all the time anyway. They agreed. And the reason that they hired me is that their organizing staff was all male and they had a campaign at Honeywell in Oklahoma, and they lost it. 

One of the reasons they thought that they lost it is because they didn’t have any women organizers. My mentor who hired me at the Western Conference was working at the International, and he told them he had just the organizer for them. And so, they hired me. I worked in the field totally for about 10 years before becoming the Organizing Director.

MJC:  So that was a challenging job, 10 years of that kind of travel.

VS:  They would tell you; you will work seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and you think, well you know they must be kidding. And then you really did. And it wasn’t because anybody was there telling you that you needed to. It’s because you were in the middle of a campaign and you were involved, and you did whatever it took in order to win. There were days when I used to get back to my hotel room at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning and would have a four o’clock wakeup call. And the receptionist is like, what do you do? You can’t continue to do this. I’m not going to wake you up at 4:00. I’m like, please, you have to. I have to be meeting the shift at 6:00. And it would take me an hour to get there because I didn’t necessarily think it was safe to stay in some of these very small towns. So, I stayed in a little bit bigger town.

MJC: How did you experience that? There was fear. This is the south, labor unions are not popular.

VS:  Oh, absolutely. And I was really a target, because I was having tremendous success. We won a lot of elections in a row in factory settings. Employers were on edge. They were holding seminars on how to beat me and my tactics. And at one of the places, they sent me a funeral wreath right before the vote count as a matter of intimidation. And people would say, are you afraid? I didn’t think anybody would want to kill me, really. I thought they would be more interested in my credibility and trying to destroy my credibility. 

But two organizers were murdered shortly after I left North Carolina that were organizing for a political party. So I mean, it was real. Some people would drive around with guns in their cars or bring guns to meetings. I remember working with one committee woman who said to get something out of her glove compartment and I opened it and there was a gun in there. I’m like, “What are you crazy? What do you have a gun for?” She goes, “I thought you was mafia.” I said, “No, I’m not.” And she said, “We all or most of us carry weapons.”

So you could imagine, emotions ran high in these elections, so you did need to be concerned. I always locked my car when we were out leafleting and rallying. Some committee members said, “Don’t you trust us?” I said, “I absolutely trust you, but there are people who would like to set me up for something” – and I always thought it would be drugs. So I locked my car and made sure that they didn’t have that opportunity.

MJC:  How were you received by the workers you were organizing as a woman organizer?

VS:  At first some would say, “Are you going to be our organizer?” And I said, “Yes, why don’t I look tough enough for you?” And after we started the campaign, they didn’t care if I was a male or female. They knew I was 100% in their corner and would do whatever it took to win the election. I had a great rapport with my committees.

MJC:  And then your reputation, I’m sure, got around to people. So, you did that for 10 years.

VS:  I did that for 10 years. And then I was in Washington at the International Union, and someone said the General President would like to see you. It was a new General President so I went up to his office and he wanted me to direct their Political Action Committee. I said, “You know that’s really not my interest and forte. If you want to promote me, you should make me the Director of Organizing.” He asked, “Who is the Director of Organizing now?” I said, “You don’t have one, they disbanded the program, that was a mistake and the way we’re conducting campaigns and assigning people, it doesn’t make any sense.” 

He said, “Let me think about it and let me check you out.” Because he didn’t know if the men in the union would accept a woman as an Organizing Director. So, he did ask around. And I understood people said when asked, do you think a girl could be the organizing director, who are you talking about? Are you talking about Vicki, because I was the only one who was working for the union at the time. If you are talking about her, then yes. If you’re talking about someone else, who are you talking about? He came back and said people will accept you, and he decided to promote me. And at the time, I thought it was my dream job. We conducted campaigns throughout the country.

MJC:  You had staff that reported to you that were out in the field.

VS:  Yes, and I decided my staff was having more fun than me out there organizing and doing the real work. I was expected to evaluate their reports, their expense reports, the administrative stuff, which was not my favorite part of the job. One of my organizers said to me, “It’s your job to take care of the politics and make sure our expenses are paid – we’ll take care of the organizing.” That’s not really what I signed up for. Organizing was what I loved to do and what I was good at. 

I noticed that there were anti-choice extremists who were using some of the tactics that we had developed in the labor movement in order to persuade employers to bargain in good faith against abortion providers. And I said, this is wrong, I know something about this and pressure points and different things. I became interested in working in the pro-choice movement. I contacted a number of people that I knew working in the movement – you were one of them – and said, “I’d be interested if an organization comes up, let me know.”

The position at the National Abortion Federation opened. They were looking for a new chief executive. You called me and another friend called me and said, “They’re looking for somebody and I think this might be your organization.” So, they recommended me to the headhunter, and I threw my hat in the ring. And he said to me, “You’re going to have to establish in the first three minutes why we should be considering you. Not that your résumé is dogmeat is what he said, but you have no background in the pro-choice movement.” I thought, don’t people see that skills are transferable?

So when they asked me in my interview, “How does this transfer?” I said that it was movement work and that it was fighting the right. And that NAF in many ways was like a union. And they looked at me very strangely. It was a membership organization. I had always worked for a membership organization. My salary was always paid with dues dollars. The same kind of support that NAF members needed was the same kind of support our local unions needed, whether it was training and education, advocacy support and the like. 

I thought it made perfect sense and in the end they also agreed. They said that I looked at things as campaigns, and I did. I was very much in campaign mode. They wanted to know what kind of campaigns I would run for them. We needed fundraising and all kinds of things. And so I went to work for the National Abortion Federation.

MJC:  Do you want to describe what NAF does?

 VS:  National Abortion Federation is the professional association of abortion providers, and works to ensure that abortion is safe, legal and accessible for women. We were a very small organization when I started, with a very small budget. So I built and grew the organization. My first challenge there was the introduction of the federal abortion ban two weeks after I started. So I’m like ok, what is this piece of legislation? Who does it impact? We brought forward women who needed a later abortion due to severe fetal anomalies, and they didn’t think they really had a choice. They came and testified before Congress, did a lot of media work. And then when we were looking for the President’s veto because it did pass in Congress, everyone said, “No way that you’re going to be able to get a veto.” 

Well, we met with White House staff and I offered to bring in some of these families. At first they said, okay, one family. I said they really come in twos, in pairs. You want at least two of them, so you see that it’s not just one woman’s story.  But I’ll be happy to bring six families to you. I negotiated for twenty-four hours, family, by family, by family, and ended up with five families there. We met with President Clinton in the oval office, and he told them it was their stories that convinced him to veto the legislation. 

He held a press conference with the families and while they were going to get set up for the press conference, he pointed at me. He said, “Who else can tell their story?” I said, “You heard them, and each one has a story.” They didn’t know that all of them would be called upon, because their staff only wanted one to testify. After the first one gave her presentation, he called on the next one who I suggested, who was pregnant and who was a Republican, who said, “I really didn’t have a choice. And thank God for this veto and being able to make sure other women have the same opportunities as I did.”

And then he went through each one of them.  The press was crying, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. And he came up to me afterward and thanked me and said, “Who could be against his veto after hearing these women’s stories?” When subsequent pieces of legislation came forward, he wanted to know how it would impact the women that he met with and it had an impact on him. That was one of my favorite days at NAF.

I had a number of excellent experiences there. We were able to raise the grant money to do most of the education and training around the introduction of mifepristone, the abortion pill, in the United States to both health care providers and to women. We developed the educational materials, we did the training programs, first for abortion providers and then for others who would need to refer and be involved in the program. And then ran a public advertising campaign so women would know that it was available, safe and effective. More than three million women have now ended an early pregnancy using mifepristone and misoprostol. That has changed abortion service delivery in the United States.

Another thing I’m particularly proud of is the expansion of our national toll-free hotline. We ran a hotline that would be able to refer and give information to women. But the biggest need we identified on the hotline were women who couldn’t afford to pay for their procedures. I was able to negotiate significant, significant grant support to allow us to subsidize abortion care for low income women who otherwise couldn’t afford their care. In a 10-year period, we subsidized care for nearly a million women.

MJC:  A number of states don’t permit funding for abortion.

VS:  Very few allow funding for abortion care, and most of them do not. And even in some of the states that do, it’s difficult for women to obtain that assistance. That was a direct service that we were able to provide to women and our members did a wonderful job in caring for those who needed it.

I also enjoyed expanding NAF internationally. We developed an organization in Canada for abortion providers in Canada who had long been a part of our group but wanted more help and assistance from us. Also, in Latin America where people wanted us to help with education and training and quality standards. We had a successful program expanding in those areas.

The most challenging and terrible thing I faced at NAF was the murder of two of our members. First, Dr. Slepian from Buffalo, New York. We were very close to that clinic; the administrator was on our board. We sent staff in to keep that clinic open, to answer the phones, to schedule, to do what it took so that anti-choice extremists wouldn’t think that they could shoot a doctor and close a clinic. We were able to work with a couple other groups and we asked for a meeting with then Attorney General, Janet Reno, and asked her to establish a task force on violence against health care providers. 

She brought us back in two weeks later, established the task force with all the responsibilities that we asked her for. She also put the anti-abortion extremists who committed murder on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List. So, there were extra resources to pursue them for many years and capture and convict them. She assigned U.S. marshals to protect providers – we actually saved lives. She came to our annual meeting and addressed the providers and went down in the audience and gave one of them a hug who had helped one of her staff members. 

That task force actually helped deter violence for more than a decade. And then, unfortunately, Dr. George Tiller was murdered. And that had to be my worst day ever. And I, quite frankly, still am not over it. You think is there something else that could have been done? But, you know, Janet Reno was very clear that you couldn’t necessarily prevent somebody from committing a murder if that is what they’re determined to do. I spent a lot of time working to help our members become less of a target and have stronger security so we wouldn’t see a repeat of that type of violence.

MJC:  That’s quite a record of accomplishments. I think you increased the budget some over your tenure.

VS:  Thirty-five-fold. We started with a budget of 1.1 million and when I retired, it was 36 or 38 million. A lot of that was to support the hotline and subsidize care for low income women and others to support the expanding programs that we did.

While I was there, I got involved in some of the other pro-choice organizations, serving on their advisory committees, boards and different things.

MJC:  Are you still active in that movement or have you moved on to other things?

VS:  I was on the advisory council of the nursing group and a law student group, the pro-choice groups that had formed; with the Women’s Information Network that supported pro-choice Democratic women. I was on the board of the National Council of Women’s Organizations; the board of Choice USA, which later became URGE. I served on the D.C. Women’s Commission. At Cornell, the President’s Council of Cornell Women. I was involved in a number of other pro-choice and women’s organizations.

MJC:  I think you were involved in CLUW when you were in the labor movement.

VS:  Oh yes. That’s really how I started in the organized women’s movement. I started at the Teamsters in March of 1974. And in 1975 I was assigned in Chicago to the Blue Cross Blue Shield campaign, involving a lot of women that we eventually won. And while I was there, I went to ERA rallies and joined the Coalition of Labor Union Women. I was on their national executive board for almost a decade. And through them I had the opportunity of attending the Houston Women’s Conference in ’77. Yes, I participated in the women’s movement, both in the labor movement, which wasn’t always popular in certain parts of the labor movement and certainly in the choice movement.

MJC:  Since you retired, are you active in other issues?

VS:  I moved to the Chesapeake Bay. I have been a lifelong sailor and had a boat and sailed on the Bay for more than 30 years. Since I’ve moved down here, I’ve gotten active in the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. I took their Voices course where you learned about all the problems of the Bay and some of the solutions they’re proposing. I’m now one of their Clean Water Captains and hope to engage in some advocacy. 

I’m also raising oysters from the dock at the house. You raise them over the winter and then in the summer, you give them back to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and then they plant the oysters on sanctuary reefs. They help filter and clean the water and clean the Bay. So actually hands on, I’m an oyster farmer at the moment. 

I’ve gotten again more involved with Cornell University. The dean of the ILR school asked me to be on his Advisory Council, which I accepted. I have endowed a social justice internship program so that students who otherwise might not be able to afford an internship with a progressive nonprofit organization will have the opportunity to do so. I left the nonprofit organizations very wide open. If they want to work on gun control or the environment, the climate, pro-choice, pro-labor, pro-worker, whatever it is, as long as it’s on the progressive side, they would be able to obtain funding for an internship. And I’m hoping at least two a year. I’ll have my first interns this summer – they are in the process of applying now.

MJC:  That’s great. So, when you look back, what are the things you’re most proud of and things that disappointed you – both?

VS:  Well, sometimes it seems that we make a lot of progress only to be treading water and to be going backwards. Right now, the pro-choice movement is facing tremendous challenges in terms of the Supreme Court and the move to overturn Roe v. Wade – although I don’t really think that the anti-choice legislators want to overturn Roe, because that’s how they raise their money and generate their grassroots support and win elections. I think that if in fact they did  overturn Roe, there would be a tremendous backlash and women in the country wouldn’t stand for it. I am one of the few people, I think, who doesn’t really think that that’s going to happen. 

But access to abortion care really has diminished significantly in many states in the South and Midwest with clinics closing and impossible laws that make access very, very difficult. The labor movement as well has instead of grown, has been in a period of decline. Although now it seems to be gaining some popularity again, as people understand that there is, you know, tremendous wage inequality and that something needs to be done to improve the economic status and workplace benefits and conditions. 

I would have preferred to see both of those movements in a better place than when I left them, but unfortunately, that isn’t the case at the moment. But I hope that that certainly will turn around.

MJC:  Well, looking back, the accomplishments, things you’re proud of. What would you point out to us?

VS:  I was a trailblazer in the labor movement in that I was the first woman organizer that the Teamsters had out West and then internationally and the first woman Organizing Director in any international union. I was told that whether women followed me or not would depend on my success. And there are lots of women organizers and women are even heading up unions now. So, there has been progress on that front. Not that I’m taking credit for all that, but it’s good to see that women have played an important role in the labor movement. 

I’m proud of expanding access to abortion care for low income women directly at NAF and stemming part of the tide of anti-abortion violence. And in providing educational and training opportunities so that women could in fact access quality abortion care, including early abortion care with the abortion pill.

MJC:  That’s great. So, is there anything we haven’t covered yet that you can think of?

VS:  I’m sure there’s tons of things we haven’t covered but I think you probably have enough at this point.

MJC:  Well, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you and to hear your story. And I know others will learn and be grateful for your efforts and your accomplishments. So, thank you very much.

VS:  Thank you, Mary Jean.