It’s revealing the only idea Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), gets right in the NYT interview with Michelle Goldberg, is a fact that was apparent two years ago to activists: the Right has used the pandemic to undercut public education, fueling more privatization. What’s most important about this interview is that it shows liberals are looking to Weingarten to repeat the same game plan that teachers and parents had to overturn to win a reprieve from the bipartisan drive to marketize education and control what students learn with standardized testing. Weingarten is once again doing the work of big money.
While teacher union activists were fighting against unsafe returns, in this interview Weingarten brags with faux modesty she “spent much of her energy, both in public and behind the scenes, trying to get schools open.” What this means is that while activists were trying to expose to the public how the Right orchestrated demands to reopen schools to increase privatization, rev up the economy no matter what the cost, pit parents against teachers, and erode trust in public schools and teachers unions, Weingarten was using her political connections to undercut resistance to a movement funded by the biggest, darkest money. Weingarten is portrayed as a hero in this piece, as she was by liberal media when she defended use of scores of students on standardized tests to evaluate and fire teachers. Goldberg doesn’t bother asking for a rebuttal from any of the local union presidents who fought against unsafe reopenings, including one who is quoted defending remote learning, the president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), the second-largest teachers union in the U.S. In fact, Weingarten betrayed thousands of teachers who were struggling against in-person learning until it was truly safe and equitable, fighting a life and death struggle, for school workers, students, and families, and communities. In finagling to open schools – without permission of members who pay her salary – Weingarten not only violated union members’ right to control policy, she carried out a strategy that worked against public education and workers in public schools.
Though Weingarten now points to how the pandemic was used to accelerate privatization and marketization of education with charter schools, she doesn’t mention the most chilling inroads in privatizing public education and destroying democratic control of our schools: use of educational technology to control learning and profit from student data, the colonization of public education with “platform capitalism.” The reason for this omission is that AFT and the National Education Association (NEA) are junior partners in the project, which is global.
Goldberg reports when “Weingarten became the A.F.T.’s president, [Diane] Ravitch told her it was her job to save public education in America.” Though this idea of union leader as savior is liberalism’s conventional knowledge, no statement could be farther from the truth or more dangerous for workers to believe. The fate of public education depends on teachers, mobilized as workers, along with activists in social justice movements, students, and parents using their collective power to force change. One lesson school workers pummeled by exhausting work demands and attacks on their professional integrity can learn from this interview is that we need to address the admittedly formidable task of transforming the national unions.
What Weingarten doesn’t say even if she understands it is that capitalism has changed in the past fifteen years. Our opponents are more formidable than they were, and we cannot trust the national unions to lead. But we can resist successfully if we fight smart. In the first chapter of my new book, which New Politics will publish shortly, I delve into what that means. In the meantime, if you belong to an AFT local, it’s your right and obligation to ask why you weren’t consulted – to question why the Executive Council of the union allowed Weingarten to set national policy on a matter of life-and-death for so many people.
I am very interested in your quote, “this idea of union leader as savior is liberalism’s conventional knowledge.” I would conclude that your thesis is that savior leadership is exclusive to liberalism. You appear to argue that militant, activist and leftist leaders are less prone to this, and that’s why they fight harder.
I am a member of CTU and a founding member of CORE. I am also a VP candidate with the REAL caucus. CORE Leader, Jackson Potter, stated in 2010, “While many caucuses depend upon a central leader to promote their ticket, the strength of CORE lies in our team…”
Jackson’s statement from 2010 is consistent with your thesis in this article. In 2010 CORE was not promoting leadership as icons and idols and were promoting themselves as the resistance to neoliberalism. We led many great fights that you admired and supported.
Today, CORE calls itself “The Caucus of Karen Lewis.” The website features many pictures of Karen’s greatest moments. They state, “In the spirit of Karen Jennings Lewis…” The CORE of 2022 capitalizes off the legend of it’s fallen leader. There is a spirit conjured when the imagery of this great leader is repeatedly promoted for its campaign to elect present leadership.
Today CORE is fractured, which lead to the creation of REAL CORE is led by those that favor tyranny, blind loyalty and absolute rule. Dissent is squashed and effective staff are fired. Huge paydays are given to staff to buy their silence, because of what they’ve witnessed. When $8 million comes up missing, those that ask questions are ostracized and called racist. Donations are made to indicted politicians and money is hidden from the sight of members. Phony community groups are created to skirt the law and make donations.
I ask you, how can you continue to lend your name to this caucus when they betray the values you promote. Do we support leaders who speak of fighting the same forces, no matter the tools they use to fight it? When the tools they use betray our values, do we support them blindly because they fight a common foe? If their rhetoric is pleasing, do we disregard their practices?
When you speak to a caucus, during an ongoing heated election, it appears as an endorsement. It appears as though you are also endorsing their idol worship and undemocratic practices. I would love the opportunity to speak more with you, but ask that you engage with an open mind and a willingness to ask difficult questions.
Joey McDermott’s comment raises a critically important issue for all who support transforming unions so they defend workers’ rights by embedding these struggles in a program for economic and social justice and political freedom. It deserved a reply much sooner. My apology for not having done so.
First, to clarify my actions in regard to the CTU election. I have not endorsed any slate. If I were a CTU member I would be politically obligated to know enough to do so. But I’m not and I haven’t.
Second is the issue of the membership’s relationship to a union president. On the one hand, I can understand that for many Karen Lewis was a hero, someone who inspired, led, educated, gave them hope. She was part of CORE’s founding and referring to that history seems to me legitimate during an election. On the other hand, that history cannot and should not replace the ruthlessly objective scrutiny of what CORE and the CTU under its leadership have done that’s been right and mistakes that have been made.
Finally, what Joey refers to is my participation in panel, readers can listen to here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FgOCesYYq84
The background to this event is after completing the first chapter of my new book, published by New Politics, I reached out to CORE to organize a panel, open to the public, to present my new research and hear comments from teacher activists. My intent was to learn about conditions in CPS and hear how CTU activists regard what I identify as a mistake I think our movement has made in allowing dangerous new forms of privatization and control over what and how we teach, primarily with informational technology, advanced by an alliance of Silicon Valley and Wall Street, which owns the Democratic Party.
I articulated that I would not endorse CORE and that the event could not be cast as part of the election. I was asked if CORE could ask for a donation, and I agreed, because it seems to me a fair way to show my thanks for the time and energy spent in organizing the panel.
If REAL CORE would like to organize a similar panel, I will absolutely join you.
We are in a race against time to shift gears, learn from our mistakes, and fight this new iteration of the project that started 20 years ago to destroy public education.