As teachers unions come under fire, the AFT’s combative Randi Weingarten is happy to play triangulation to stay in the game.
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Weingarten’s dealings have certainly made the AFT seem reasonable in comparison with the more militant NEA. But school reformers are no longer looking for half-measures; neither are legislators and governors who are tired of failing schools and costly teacher benefits that add to taxpayer woes. States spent $68 billion on teacher pension payments in 2007-2008 alone, $18 billion more than they did five years earlier; in many states, a teacher can retire at age 55 (a decade earlier than their private sector counterparts) and yield a defined-benefit pension that pays as much as $2 million over a lifetime. As a result, reformers and cost-cutters alike are pushing to go a lot further than Weingarten is willing to go.
There is also dissension over Weingarten within the AFT ranks, especially among leaders of AFT locals that have been on the losing side of battles against school reformers and need to placate their fellow Baby Boomers. In New York City, Weingarten’s successor, Michael Mulgrew, has battled tooth and nail against Bloomberg’s new reform initiatives. Last year, he teamed up with the NAACP to stop the mayor from shutting down 19 of the city’s worst dropout factories. AFT leaders who have embraced Weingarten’s rhetoric haven’t exactly been rewarded by the rank and file. In Chicago and D.C., Weingarten allies and other moderates have lost to firebrands more interested in beating back reforms than in embracing half-measures; Weingarten’s own slate for national leadership had to withstand a challenge last year from hard-line elements, the first such challenge in four decades.
AFT LEADERS MAY ALSO demand that Weingarten follow the moves being made by the rival NEA, which is using its considerable resources to mount an aggressive pushback against efforts to abolish collective bargaining and other reforms. The NEA is doubling the amount of dues dedicated to political campaigns (currently at $10), giving the union another $40 million a year for its efforts; it is also using its foundation arm to raise money to mobilize rank-and-file members. Weingarten has already taken up harsher rhetoric. During an appearance in March at Detroit’s famed Cobo Hall, Weingarten declared that efforts to expand charter schools — most of whose teaching staffs are not unionized — are merely attempts at “silencing voice” of teachers and their unions.
Meanwhile Weingarten must also deal with the generational divide: younger teachers, who want to be rewarded for high-quality work and whose lack of seniority makes them more likely to be laid off during the current retrenchment. From where they sit, neither Weingarten nor the rest of the AFT leadership is going far enough in ending tenure and other seniority-based privileges that are keeping far too many laggard colleagues in the classroom. In New York City, the AFT local is struggling to respond to Educators 4 Excellence, a group of young teachers whose push to end seniority privileges is being cheered on by New York City Mayor Bloomberg. A similar battle is brewing in Los Angeles, where NewTLA, a small group of younger, reform-minded teachers, is challenging the regime of the local’s notoriously hard-line president, A. J. Duffy. More young teachers (and even many longtime veterans) share the view of Grace Snodgrass, a special education teacher in the Big Apple who declared in the Huffington Post that “my students’ success hinges on the quality of my teaching.”
With dissension from within and challenges from school reformers, cost cutters, and union foes from without, Weingarten is going to have to do even more triangulating. In the process, the AFT (along with the NEA) will have to accept an end to the array of near-lifetime employment benefits and protections from private sector-style performance management that has made teaching the most comfortable profession in the public sector.
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