(Repeats July 31 article with no changes)
By James B. Kelleher
DETROIT, July 31 In the maelstrom of criticism
surrounding America's unionized public teachers, the woman
running the second-largest educator union says time has come to
collaborate on public school reform rather than resist.
Randi Weingarten, re-elected this week for a third term as
president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) with 98
percent of the vote, wants her 1.5 million members to be open
to changes that might improve public schools.
That willingness to engage, she says, could win over
parents, taxpayers, voters, well-funded pressure groups and
cash-strapped cities that have blamed unionized teachers for
high costs and poor performing schools.
"We have to unite those we serve and those we represent,"
Weingarten said in an interview with Reuters at the AFT
convention in Detroit. "And we have to think ... what's good for
kids and what's fair for teachers?"
Weingarten rebuffed her critics in the union for mistaking
collaboration with surrender and said her overwhelming victory
in the election showed rank-and-file members supported the move.
"There are a lot of people who are very angry for legitimate
reasons and want to hear simply the 'fight back'," Weingarten
said. "But this is about fighting for things as well as fighting
Across the United States, public education -- and the often
unionized teachers and support staff employed in the sector --
are under attack from reformers who argue the country's schools
need to be reformed and partially privatized in order to improve
Weingarten was attacked by critics for a willingness to
throw her support behind deals in places like Philadelphia and
Cleveland, where AFT locals bargained away tenure protections,
or New Haven, Connecticut, where the union accepted a teacher
evaluation system that removes teachers whose students don't
perform well on standardized tests.
"Some people would argue what happened in New Haven is not
solutions-driven unionism," Weingarten told Reuters. "Do I
embrace every single aspect of that agreement? Is everything
single aspect of that agreement part of my particular belief
system about how education should run? Of course not."
Weingarten's call for greater community outreach strikes
many observers as a realistic strategy for building support for
public education, long attacked for high costs and poor results.
"She has said she's open to any reform, under certain
conditions, except private school vouchers. She's drawn the line
there," said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at a
liberal-leaning think tank, The Century Foundation, and author
of "Tough Liberal" a biography of former AFT President Albert
"But on every other issue - charter schools, merit pay for
teachers - she has said that the AFT is willing to talk. And I
think that's the right tack to take."
SUMMER OF DISCONTENTS
But activists in the union, hardened by the layoffs,
furloughs, pay freezes and benefit cuts that states and
municipalities have forced on teachers nationwide in a weak
economy, remain vocal and leery of Weingarten's blueprint for
"We have to ask ourselves what are the solutions that are
driving the particular model that Weingarten is talking about,"
said Jeff Bale, a professor at Michigan State University who
spoke at a panel discussion hosted by AFT dissidents from
Chicago and Detroit.
"Concessions don't lead to more prestige with the public.
Concessions don't win more credibility at the bargaining table.
They lead to more concessions."
Critics say Weingarten's willingness to see traditional job
protections like tenure disappear and to accept charter schools,
merit pay and other changes is a retreat from core principles
and plays into the hands of those who want to eliminate public
education, privatize government services and curb the ability of
workers to unionize.
What the new approach will mean for AFT's membership remains
to be seen. Like its bigger counterpart, the 3.2 million-member
National Education Association, AFT has seen its full dues
paying membership decline in recent years, according to its
official filings with the United States Department of Labor.
AFT spokeswoman Carolyn Fiddler says total AFT membership --
which includes retirees and members paying partial dues -- is
actually up from "1.5 million and change" in 2010 to "1.5
million and some more change" in 2012, a claim repeated in the
state of the union report issued at the Detroit convention.
At the event, officials said AFT, which represents teachers
and other school staff as well as healthcare workers, had signed
up 79 new bargaining units in 18 states in the past year.
REAL FIGHT LEFT?
Weingarten told Reuters that there was "real fight left" in
the AFT. But the question is how widespread and deep it is.
One convention highlight came when the 3,000 delegates, in a
spirited floor vote, unanimously backed a "special order of
business" promising the union's full support for "AFT educators
in hostile bargaining environment who are fighting to defend
fair contracts and the right to bargain collectively."
That describes just about every AFT local in the country.
But the resolution specifically cited five cities, including
Chicago, the nation's third-largest public school system, where
teachers represented by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) have
been involved in bitter contract talks with Mayor Rahm Emanuel,
a Democrat, and could walk out beginning on August 18.
At a weekend caucus on the sidelines of the convention,
delegates from Chicago and Detroit, where an emergency manager
has imposed a 10 percent pay cut on teachers, were skeptical the
national union has the appetite for strikes or walkouts.
But they agreed, as William Weir, a Detroit public school
teacher put it, that "it's time to do things differently."
Activists seemed especially excited by CTU, which resisted
an effort by Emanuel to unilaterally impose a longer school day
and won -- a rare victory these days for a teachers union.
Debby Pope, who works in the CTU's grievance unit, said the
message from Chicago was simple: old-fashioned hardball,
combined with outreach to parents and communities likely to be
hurt by public school closings, works better than compromise.
"We will not be heard at the table unless we are out there
in the streets seen and heard fighting," she said.
(Edited by Peter Bohan and Mary Milliken)