Sister Randi Explains It All
By RICHARD STEIER
Randi Weingarten's 50th year was an eventful one.
In April, Mayor Bloomberg compared the UFT to the National Rifle Association while complaining about the disproportionate power it was wielding in thwarting the implementation of another school reorganization plan. Ten days later, the plan had been restructured to win the UFT's blessing, eliminating language that would have reduced Teachers' tenure rights and committing money to reduce class size.
Merit Pay and Pension Gains
In October, Ms. Weingarten reached a deal with the Mayor under which a school-based merit-pay program was agreed to, granting bonuses to every Teacher in struggling schools that showed marked improvement. Not incidentally, the initiative was linked to the city's support for two measures that improved pension rights for union members and retirees, one of which allowed them to qualify for a full pension at age 55 if they had 25 years' service.
It was almost enough to overshadow the fact that a couple of weeks earlier, Ms. Weingarten had publicly disclosed that she was gay while accepting an award from Empire State Pride Agenda.
All this, and sweating out the serious illness of a close family member who has since taken a turn for the better might have seemed quite enough for one year. But Ms. Weingarten, whose admitted flaw - ''Unless it's perfect, I'm not satisfied" - gives her away as a compulsive overachiever, lived up to type in a less-welcome way when an early birthday roast Dec. 4 nearly turned into the site of a Carpenters' union picket featuring the inflatable rat that strikes terror into the heart of any labor leader at whom it's grinning.
It turned out that another of Ms. Weingarten's activist moves - using $28 million of Teachers' pension funds to build affordable housing for union members - had become a good deed punished because the developer opted not to use union labor - contrary, the UFT leader said during a Dec. 11 interview, to the assurances she received when the deal was announced two months ago. She believed those assurances enough, she said, that trades-union officials were "legitimately" furious about her insistence that the developer intended to honor prevailing-wage regulations for union jobs.
"It was unfortunate that it took so long to realize what was going on," said Ms. Weingarten, who ended the UFT's involvement in the project. "I desperately want affordable housing for our members. But you can't accomplish that at the expense of other union members."
National Union on Her Horizon?
It was one of the rare embarrassments she has endured in the decade since she stepped up on an acting basis to replace the late Sandy Feldman, who left the UFT in mid-1997 to run the American Federation of Teachers following the death of Al Shanker. Ms. Weingarten is the third member of that troika that since 1964 has built the UFT into the model of a local labor union, and for much of the past year there has been speculation that if AFT President Ed McElroy did not seek another term next spring, Ms. Weingarten would follow her predecessors in leading the national union.
"All I've said thus far for the record is I won't rule out anything," she said. "I think my national president has done a fantastic job. His focus has been on organizing and politics - we've been out there doing the work we ought to do. My personal preference is for him to stay on. If and when he makes a different decision, I'll decide what my next steps are."
It is not as if she'll be idling until then. Ms. Weingarten, an avid and longtime backer of Hillary Clinton, will be more than a bit engaged by the Democratic presidential primaries, particularly New York's Feb. 5 vote. And her roller-coaster relationships with Mr. Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein almost inevitably will produce some additional dips, curves and shrieks in the coming months.
In mid-November, less than a month after the Mayor lauded the UFT for being intrepid enough to agree to the school-based merit pay program, Mr. Klein resumed his role as the administration's educational Bad Cop by announcing that he had retained a team of lawyers to get rid of Teachers faster. Ms. Weingarten decried the firing squad as inflammatory and overkill, and soon after questioned whether the Department of Education was engaging in age bias by not placing older Teachers from schools that had been closed or contracted into permanent new assignments.
"The most frustrating and infuriating thing is the infantilizing and disrespecting of Teachers, both in New York City and across America," she said. Her "biggest anger" regarding Mr. Klein was his refusal to create an educational culture "that deeply respects the work that Teachers do. Instead, I think he took the easy way out to be able to say he's the change agent, rather than the Teacher being the change agent, or the school."
Mr. Bloomberg has parried such criticisms in the past by pointing out that during his administration Teacher salaries have risen by 43 percent. Under the current contract, top pay for a Teacher will reach $100,000 in May.
Ms. Weingarten, who began her career with the UFT more than 20 years ago as its outside negotiating counsel, isn't about to deprecate what she's been able to achieve at the bargaining table. She also knows the difference between Mr. Bloomberg's demanding and sometimes mercurial personality and the constant vituperation she faced from Rudy Giuliani, whose rudeness was compounded by a determination during his final year in office not to make a contract deal that would have benefited the city as much as the union. That pact was signed off on by Mr. Bloomberg less than six months after he took office.
'Raised Living Standard'
"On an economic basis," the UFT president said, "we've accomplished a lot with Mayor Bloomberg, even in the context of pattern bargaining, even with my objections to pattern bargaining. We've been able to change the standard of living for Teachers [and] maintain health benefits and improve pension benefits in ways that members needed. One thing I admire about Mayor Bloomberg is that he will take the risk to make a deal. The other thing is, he supports education."
But, she added, the reluctance of the Mayor and Mr. Klein to work more closely with the union on improving education has led to a system that has yet to strike the right balance "between tests and teaching" and a mistrust among her members of the administration's motives as it tries to expand its success in the lower grades to middle and high schools.
"I see some signs of turning corners," Ms. Weingarten said. "The level of Teacher quality these days is huge; walking into classrooms, it's definitely better than it was in the '80s. But I don't see the esprit de corps that ought to be happening. There's still too much looking over people's shoulders. The Mayor constantly cheerleads Teachers, but there's the little ditty, 'Actions speak louder than words.'''
Mr. Bloomberg's success as a businessman has sharpened his belief in concrete results being the definitive proof of whether something works. Ms. Weingarten said she too is a believer in the value of standardized tests, but that they are overrated as a measure of how much students are really learning.
'Test Prep Not Life Prep'
"The focus on outcomes has probably been somewhat of a motivator," she said. "There's not a question that people know they're there to teach; nobody thinks they're just treading water. But the dilemma is that there's more time spent on assessing kids and what they've learned as determined by state standardized tests than on whether we're preparing them for college, whether we're preparing them for life.
"Can Johnny critically think? Can he engage in a debate about search and seizures? Can kids work as a team, and if they lose, come back and rally next time? That's not part of the conversation, at least on a macro level, and that's disheartening to me."
She continued, "I think they're gonna do everything in their power to get the highest test scores they can in the 2008-2009 school year," the final full one of Mr. Bloomberg's term. "But even if they get that, what will happen to the kids three or four years later? I've always been one who believes in incremental but sustainable results. The third-grade Teacher builds on the second-grade Teacher."
The incremental approach has served her well at the bargaining table. Ms. Weingarten's success in improving Teacher salaries at both the entry and upper levels, and doing so with timely and even early contracts, has stood in marked contrast to the city union leader who most shares the struggle to keep pay competitive with what's offered in the suburbs: Patrolmen's Benevolent Association leader Pat Lynch. His contentious relationship with Mr. Bloomberg has not been interrupted by periodic happy endings, and the PBA is currently in arbitration to replace a contract that expired in August 2004.
Both union leaders have demanding rank and files, but Ms. Weingarten has fared better in breaking through members' expectations when they grew too high, and in giving up some rights - on matters ranging from work time to transfer rights to discipline - as the price that had to be paid for better wages without alienating her members. Her 2005 contract, even though it was approved by 70 percent of her members, provoked significant grumbling because of concessions in all those areas. But, she noted pointedly last week, besides the tangible economic gains it produced, there was an agreement in that pact to explore a 25/55 pension bill that came to fruition in the deal reached two months ago.
And the hard feelings expressed two years ago by some delegates and rank-and-file members, she noted, spurred her to create the 300-person negotiating committee that proved a major help in formulating demands and reaching a solid successor contract last fall, nearly a year before the October 2007 expiration date of the previous one.
Reflecting on her 10 years running the union, she said, "What surprised me is how much I've learned since then. It shows the value of experience. I actually take more risks now than I did then."
That has carried over to her personal life, which gets crammed into a schedule that typically features 14-hour workdays. Many of those who deal with her regularly knew that Ms. Weingarten was gay; when she was together with her partner at union events, she would sometimes quietly introduce her to longtime acquaintances.
But until six months ago, she had never spoken openly about it, despite the urging of the rabbi at her synagogue, Sharon Kleinbaum. When she finally did so, during a service at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in June, Ms. Weingarten said, nearly a dozen attendees profusely thanked her, with several uttering variations on, "You gave me a will to live." "That struck me," the UFT leader said. "It's 2007 and people are still afraid of the ramifications." A New York Times story about gay senior citizens who were "vilified in their assisted living facilities" because of their sexual orientation, she said, pushed her further toward a decision to make a speech in a larger forum.
'Not a Spectator Sport'
"If you want to speak truth to power, you have to make it personal," Ms. Weingarten contended. "Also, I tease about it, but when you reach a marker like 50, and 10 years as president of the UFT, you start thinking about whether you've done the things you want to do when it comes to things like social justice and economic opportunity. If you care about those things, it's not a spectator sport."
And so she made her public declaration while receiving the award from ESPA. After initial, straightforward news coverage, it became clear that she had not triggered a media sensation.
"I had a flurry of reactions [from union members] that were extremely positive," Ms. Weingarten said, "but mostly it was, 'Never mind. Let's talk about my grievance now. Or class size."
As if energized by the response, she completed the deal combining school-based merit pay with the pension gains less than a week later, and the following week won the right to represent the home day-care workers. It proved, she said, that in its middle age the UFT had reinvented itself - ''we tried to undertake this culture of organizing." In recent years, the union has expanded the number of nurses it represents and gained the right to bargain for Administrative Law Judges, and she noted that during her tenure "we started calling ourselves a union of professionals, not just Teachers."
'Salt of the Earth'
The home day-care providers, Ms. Weingarten said, are essentially the first level of education for the children they serve. "They're really the salt of the earth; they work so hard. This is a group of people who are incredibly exploited," referring to their low salaries and lack of benefits - even with the bargaining certificate, the UFT does not have the right to negotiate pensions for them. "They need the collective strength that a union gives them. They get the connection between being in a Teachers union and the professional opportunities that may be created for them." Ms. Weingarten wasn't even a teenager when the UFT under Mr. Shanker won the right to represent Paraprofessionals in 1969, prevailing over DC 37 in a close vote. She is steeped enough in the union's history, however, to know that many Teachers at the time opposed the organizing drive, either because of lingering resentments from the racially charged battle over community control of schools that fueled the lengthy UFT strike a year earlier or because they viewed the Paras as less-qualified intruders in their classrooms.
'Like Night and Day'
This time, she said, there was none of that resistance. Some veteran Teachers got involved in the organizing drive, and "most of them gave us permission to do it. The difference between what happened when Para organizing started and what happened when we started with family day-care was really night and day."
Even as she welcomes a new group of employees to the union, she argues that their needs merely represent a more-acute version of what Teachers face.
"Teachers are more respected than they've been at any time since I've been in education," Ms. Weingarten said. "It's still not enough." Whatever she's been able to achieve for them economically, she said, there remains the challenge of making "every school a school where parents want to send their kids and educators want to work."
Back in her mid-30s, this daughter of a Teacher began reconstructing her career track, spending six years teaching in Brooklyn even as she went from being the UFT's outside attorney to its in-house counsel and later an officer who was groomed by Ms. Feldman to succeed her."The one thing that's never gone away is the idealism," Ms. Weingarten said. "I've become more practical and thick-skinned, but what's never gone away is the passion."