Catherine O’Reilly Collette

Inducted: 2014

Cathy Collette was born in North Providence, grew up in Harmony, and is a 1969 graduate of Rhode Island College. She began her illustrious career with the state Department of Elderly Affairs where she helped to organize workers and became active in her local union, an affiliate of the 1.3 million member American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

In 1979, when her husband Will was recruited to work for Legal Services Corporation in Washington, DC, she took a job in that city with national AFSCME. Cathy rose to become the director of the Women’s Rights Department which represented 700,000 women across the United States.

For more than 25 years Cathy was an advocate at the state and national levels for pay equity and stronger laws against sexual harassment and domestic violence. She served on the national advisory group to the Women’s Health Initiative of the National Women’s Law Center, and on the Boards of several national organizations.

Cathy also received a White House appointment to the National Council on Violence against Women, an agency that developed a comprehensive report to combat all aspects of domestic violence. She co-authored the Council report’s chapter on the Workplace’s Role in assisting those experiencing violence at home.

Perhaps Cathy’s greatest achievements were her work on the international level. She served on and was elected president of the World Women’s Committee of Public Services International (PSI), a trade secretariat of the International Labor Organization. The PSI is part of the United Nations and is based in Geneva, Switzerland. In addition, Cathy was a member of the Executive Board of PSI, which represents 20 million public service workers in 150 countries.

In that influential position, Cathy gave speeches and conducted training programs, often simultaneously translated into five languages, in dozens of nations, and worked with trade union leaders on six continents. During her tenure as president of the PSI World Women’s Committee the primary focus of her work was to help women who lived in developing countries to hone the leadership skills necessary to fight discrimination at work and in society and to help them advance in their unions and in their jobs.

Before she retired in 2002, Cathy worked on Congressional and Senate races around the country and in four presidential campaigns, including service on the National Women’s Advisory Committee to presidential campaigns.

Cathy has also run labor training seminars and summer schools at a dozen universities around the country. She has met the presidents of several countries, and was part of the official greeting party for Nelson Mandela’s first visit to the White House after his election as president of South Africa. During the terrible years of apartheid in that nation, Cathy was one of the civil rights activists arrested at the South African Embassy in Washington for protesting apartheid.

When Cathy and her husband Will returned to their beloved home state of Rhode Island they moved to Charlestown. Since then she has immersed herself in local and state politics and has served on the boards of several local and state non-profit organizations.

Cathy is currently president of the Rhode Island Labor History Society, the largest group of its kind in the nation.

– Dr. D. Scott Molloy, Jr.

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