Cornell University

April 14 2012

Reigniting a Movement

Labor and education key to prosperity: Weingarten '80

Randi Weingarten '80The labor movement is "one of the few vehicles" that can rebuild the middle class and help people take themselves out of poverty.

"That's because of our unique role at the ballot box and the bargaining table. We're really good at shining the light on injustice," said Randi Weingarten '80, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

She delivered that message to a capacity crowd during her Union Days keynote presentation on Thursday at the ILR School.

In her speech, "'Is This Land Made for You and Me?' The Labor Movement and the Public Good," Weingarten stressed that a key challenge this century is to reignite the labor movement and strengthen the public school system.

"This is essential to reimagining our country's vision for shared prosperity."

A "big irony," Weingarten said, is that in the 20th century, public education and the labor movement were viewed as the most enabling groups for driving and creating opportunity.

Today, there is a growing anger directed to unions and teachers. "Teachers are often blamed for economic failure. People see union members as 'them,' not 'us.'"

"Unions have to be seen as standing up for protecting the common good. We have to help the public see who we really are. This will require more than just a messaging campaign. It has to be real," she said.

As head of a union with more than 1.5 million members, Weingarten said she has led the group in efforts to successfully take on issues of tenure and teacher effectiveness.

"Public schools have to be models of innovation, of quality and efficiency. We have to be about quality, not just about fairness. And we have to fix schools, not just close them."

She believes that market-based reforms – such as using student test scores to evaluate and compensate teachers – are not effective and contribute negatively to the public education system.

She cited several major university studies that raise questions about market-based reforms. National studies on merit pay, for example, have shown that rewarding teachers with bonuses based on test scores does not necessarily lead to higher test scores.

"There's an increasing compliance focus over an achievement focus. We should emphasize teaching and learning, and building the capacity of our teachers. We need to look closely at all market-based tactics to see if they really are moving the needle."

She noted that the American Federation of Teachers is endorsing President Barack Obama for re-election, even though the union doesn't fully agree with him on education issues. "We disagree with some of his core philosophies – but not with his heart. He wants kids to succeed."

Like the public education system, the labor movement has to move beyond cries for fairness and focus more on quality, Weingarten said.

"If you build with union labor, you know you will get a quality product. Look at the United Auto Workers now. This has been a key philosophy in helping to resuscitate the UAW."

It's "no coincidence" that union membership has dropped while wage inequality has increased, she added, but unions still have value for workers.

"If you're in a union today, you are 54 percent more likely to have employer-paid benefits. If you're a woman, you're more likely to have health benefits if you're in a union versus if you have a college degree."

Weingarten, an ILR alumna who said the school is "home to me," sees tremendous opportunity in the recent "anger movements," such as the Occupy movement that began on Wall Street and spread across the country.

"These movements are built on frustration over the economy and that everyone should have a fair shot at realizing their dreams."

She said Occupy was powerful because of the collaboration that developed between labor and young people.

"All great movements in America involve students and labor working side by side, hand in hand, not just in protests but in other meaningful ways."

In closing, Weingarten issued a call to action for students, faculty and others in the audience.

"I ask you to take your passion and use it to make a difference. Use it to help reignite a movement, one that says if you work hard, you can raise a family, retire with dignity and have a voice in democracy."

"Because this land is our land – and this land was made for you and me."