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Randi Weingarten '80

Weingarten ’80 Reflects on Week at ILR

The first week in March was fairly typical for Randi Weingarten ’80, president of the 1.75 million-member American Federation of Teachers. She attended meetings, including a call with the White House before President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address. She visited with teachers to discuss several innovative programs at a local school district. She met with a chapter of the American Association of University Professors. She gave a rousing speech, "Unions, Labor, and Freedom of Expression," to college students.

Unlike a typical week, Weingarten did all these things based out of a room at the Statler Hotel on the Cornell campus.

Weingarten, the ILR School’s 2024 Alice B. Grant Labor Leader in Residence, also taught a week-long course in the ILR School on the topic of how the levers of education, collective bargaining and political action can be used to address the problems facing working people and communities.

“I was petrified because I hadn't actually had authority over an actual classroom where I give grades since July 1997,” said Weingarten, who had a six-year stint as a history teacher and United Federation of Teachers member at Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn. “I love to teach, and I miss teaching, but like so many teachers, I said to myself, ‘Am I going to be okay with this? Will I be interesting enough? Am I teaching the right things?’”

That apprehension quickly dissipated in front of the students whose “open-mindedness, caring, compassion, insightfulness and creativity in their ability to analyze things” was inspiring, according to Weingarten.

“What I take back with me is a sense of hope,” Weingarten said. “Hope because of who these young adults are, what they bring to the table, the insights they have, the engagement, and the sense that they want to seize their futures.

“And we need to ensure that there is a world that they can inherit and then change for the better, which is the role of labor and of public education.”

Randi Weingarten '80
As the 2024 Alice B. Grant Labor Leader in Residence, Randi Weingarten '80 gave the keynote address to kick of Union Days at the ILR School. 

A native of Rockland County, New York, Weingarten graduated from the ILR School in 1980 before earning her J.D. from the Cardozo School of Law. She has led the American Federation of Teachers since 2008, prioritizing strengthening public education for all children while addressing the crisis in the teaching profession, she said.

Weingarten credits her time at ILR for teaching her how to be resilient in the face of challenges and how to look at a problem and help solve it meaningfully, making both parties feel good about the solution.

“I use that skill every single day.”

And those are skills she tried to impart to her ILR class. Through her assignments, Weingarten pushed the students to go beyond analyzing a problem and writing a policy based on research, but to have the agency to solve problems.

“There are no better activists than young adults, and the young adults at Cornell and at the ILR School are here because they want to solve problems, They want to make the world better.”

Wanting to solve problems was also a part of Weingarten’s life as a student at ILR, and it is another trait she has carried over into her career.

“What I remember from ILR is that my community of friends and the professors that we worked with, we all had the will to solve problems,” Weingarten said. “We had the will to make things better. We didn't stop and complain about what was wrong. We wanted to create something to make things right and to create a better life for people.

Randi Weingarten '80
During her week on campus, Randi Weingarten '80 had a series of informal meetings with ILR students, faculty and staff. 

“And if you see the work I've tried to do in my whole career, I take that seed that I learned at ILR and try to apply it, try that to grow it, try to nurture it every single day, to the trees and to the great forests that it should be.”

Immersing herself in ILR for the week – teaching, speaking and meeting with students, professors and university staff – reminded Weingarten of another college experience.

“It was an immersive experience, and it was also an experience of getting virtually no sleep, which I also remember from my college days!”