Eminentoes

Randi’s Tangled Vine Garden

As teachers unions come under fire, the AFT's combative Randi Weingarten is happy to play triangulation to stay in the game.

By From the May 2011 issue

Send to Kindle

There's no better known or infamous teachers union boss -- or leader among America's public sector unions -- than Randi Weingarten, the cunning, charming, and oft-quotable president of the American Federation of Teachers. A frequent guest on shows such as The Colbert Report (on which she declared that teachers in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana skipping work to oppose efforts to abolish collective bargaining rules wanted to "make a difference in the lives of kids"), she is as comfortable on the talk show circuit -- and playing the villainess in popular films such as Al Gore pal Davis Guggenheim's Waiting for 'Superman' -- as she is at protest rallies.

Unlike Dennis Van Roekel, the low-profile (and low-charisma) president of the much larger National Education Association, the quick-quipping Weingarten is more than willing to go toe-to-toe with big-name reformers such as Microsoft mogul Bill Gates and the notoriously combative Michelle Rhee, with whom she tangled for years, especially during the latter's tenure as chancellor of D.C.'s public school system. In a March interview with the Wall Street Journal, Weingarten called Rhee's record running the district "no better than the previous two chancellors."

But while Weingarten plays hardball union leader, she also triangulates in a manner ever Bill Clinton would have to admire. As she took to the airwaves in February to denounce efforts in Wisconsin and Ohio to remove the AFT's and other public sector unions' right to collectively bargain with districts and governments, she broke with the teachers union tradition of opposing speedy firings of lazy teachers. Although Weingarten's plan -- which would allow districts to kick poor performers to the curb if they didn't improve performance in 100 days -- is hardly a major concession, it won some plaudits from reform activists. Kati Haycock, president of the pro-reform group Education Trust, called Weingarten's proposal "a big step forward."

The compromise game is one Weingarten has no choice but to play. These days, she and the AFT, whose strikes and hardball tactics paved the way for the lavish benefits and influence public sector unions currently enjoy, face a dilemma.

On one side, the nation's school reform movement, which now counts President Barack Obama and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, among its allies, long ago concluded that the traditional system of teacher compensation -- including seniority- and degree-based pay scales, defined-benefit pensions, near-lifetime employment, and protections for veteran instructors from layoffs -- do little more than protect poor-performing teachers and contribute to the nation's education crisis. On the other, cost-cutting Republican governors such as Wisconsin's Scott Walker are wrangling with the high cost of teacher pay -- including $1.4 trillion in pension deficits and unfunded retired teacher health care costs -- just as they are scrambling to make up $260 billion in budget shortfalls. Both sides know it's past time to end the deals that have made teaching the most lucrative profession in the public sector.

As a result, the AFT and the NEA no longer enjoy outsized influence over education policy. Both unions took a hit in March when Wisconsin and Idaho passed laws abolishing collective bargaining for teachers and most other public sector employees. But for the AFT, the problem is particularly acute. Its locals are located in the nation's most woeful traditional public school districts, the hotbeds for the most important efforts in school reform. With big-city mayors, inner-city parents, and young centrist Democrats more concerned about improving the quality of education than about union solidarity, the AFT also finds itself in the biggest battles over the future of American public education. As Elena Silva, an analyst with the Education Sector, a reform-oriented think tank, has noted, "Reform isn't going to go away. The union can either be a part of it or go against it."

Faced with this reality, and armed with the AFT's idiosyncratic history as both militant organizers and initial proponents of what became the charter school movement, Weingarten is pursuing a third way of sorts, embracing some reforms while otherwise preserving the status quo. She has launched an initiative to help AFT locals experiment with their versions of small-scale reform. More importantly, Weingarten has also nudged locals to accept contracts that weaken the use of seniority in teacher layoffs and allow for some form of performance-based pay.

But Weingarten's triangulation is going over like a lead balloon within the AFT ranks. Fellow AFT leaders, tired of humiliating defeats at the hands of reform-minded politicians and dealing with restlessness among their fellow Baby Boomers (who make up a third of membership), think Weingarten isn't fighting hard enough to protect their dwindling power. Meanwhile the AFT's younger members, who benefit least from the seniority-based privileges the union defends (and who, along with their NEA colleagues, make up the majority of all teachers), think Weingarten isn't going far enough to embrace a performance- and school reform-oriented vision of teaching.

Weingarten may still succeed in keeping the AFT from further losing influence. It could even lead to actual expansion of school choice. But the union could also end up breaking apart. Either way, it could lead to the end of costly teacher compensation plans that do little for either taxpayers or children. For both, this would be a very good thing.

WEINGARTEN  -- a Cornell- and Cardozo Law School-educated lawyer, and daughter of an engineer and a teacher -- doesn't exactly fit the profile of the typical AFT member. Her teaching experience consists of 10 months' work at New York City's Clara Barton High School. That's less experience than, for instance, the newly celebritized Rhee (who taught for three years in Baltimore's notoriously inept public school system). Weingarten also learned to play the education politics game early. While in high school, she successfully used surveys to convince the Clarkson Central School District to reverse $2 million in budget cuts; during her senior year at Cornell, she further burnished her credentials by serving as an aide to the New York state senate's labor committee.

After a stint as a labor litigator, Weingarten joined the AFT in 1986 when she became general counsel for the union's New York City local. There, she became the protégé of its legendary president Sandra Feldman, whose clout was so complete that she helped oust two Big Apple mayors (including another legend, Ed Koch). Weingarten's skillful negotiating with the notoriously corrupt and inept New York City school board earned her Feldman's admiration and support. By 1995, with Feldman's help and a bare minimum of teaching credentials in hand, Weingarten climbed the ranks of local AFT leadership; when Feldman left to take over the national AFT two years later, Weingarten took the helm of the local.

But in 2002, residents and politicians in the city and New York State, tired of the district's status as one of the nation's worst big-city school districts, handed control of the school system over to newly elected mayor Michael Bloomberg. With the help of former Clinton administration appointee Joel Klein, Bloomberg proceeded to steamroll Weingarten with such moves as shutting down the district's persistent dropout factories and opening charter schools.

Faced with the prospect of greater losses, Weingarten settled upon playing ball. While engaging in saber-rattling -- including denouncing Bloomberg at a rally in Madison Square Garden -- she made significant concessions, such as allowing principals to remove ineffective teachers from their schools (giving them the kind of authority found in the private sector). In turn, the union won a series of double-digit pay raises, and even protections for low-performing rank-and-file such as a so-called "rubber room" in which they would collect salaries in exchange for staying out of classrooms. By the time Weingarten became national AFT president in 2008, a New York City teacher with more than 20 years of experience could earn as much as $100,049, double the national average for teachers and the average American household.

Since becoming AFT president, Weingarten has kept up the gamesmanship. Even as she's bashed President Obama's $4.3 billion Race to the Top initiative for focusing on expanding charter schools (and continuing the school reform efforts that began with predecessor George W. Bush), the AFT has launched its own innovation efforts. Since 2009, the AFT's foundation has handed out $4.5 million in grants for reform projects such as an effort by the union's San Antonio and St. Paul locals to expand the number of charter schools operated within the city's school district.

More significantly, Weingarten has changed the AFT's strategies for negotiating contracts with school districts. Even as Weingarten battled with Rhee in D.C. over her efforts to replace near-lifetime employment through tenure with a performance-based pay system, Weingarten nudged the local there to sign on to a new contract that all but ditched seniority as a factor in teacher layoffs. Weingarten is also embracing one of the key tenets of the school reform movement: the use of student test score data in evaluating teacher performance.

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. 

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

RiShawn Biddle the editor of Dropout Nation , is co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB EraHe can be followed at Twitter.com/dropoutnation.