Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers gives us the lowdown on what she’s learned about changemaking after more than 25 years at the chalkface of teacher’s unionism in the United States.
We explore education reform and the mobilising power of social movements and discover how the election of President Trump invited her to rethink the way she organises.
It’s great to have you with us. You’ve been a change maker since you were quite small, but what do you do now, especially as a unionist, as the head of the American teachers Federation that makes you a change maker?
I often think of myself as the luckiest person in the world in that I get to work at the nexus of public education and the labour movement. And so I believe with, with every drop that is in me that we need to help people have a better life, a voice at work, and a voice in democracy, that what public education does is that it is the pathway for kids to not just dream their dreams, which is important in and of itself, but have the wherewithal to achieve those dreams. And the labour movement does that for working people all across the world. So when you get to work in that sweet spot, that is both the vehicle that creates power for working people so that they can fight for that better life, living wages, decent health care, retirement security, the fight to be free from bigotry and hate, the fight for democracy, the fight for good schools. And then you’re also smack dab in the middle of the fight to ensure that students from pre K through to higher education have the skills and the knowledge to be prepared for their civic life, their economic life, their life in general, like career, college and life.
That’s the change that I try to help spark.
Fantastic. And we are going to spend a little bit of time in the second half of this interview talking about what that movement means, particularly in the current political environment, and what you’ve learned over your career about, about how you make that change together and your insights into that. But what I want to do now first is actually ask you about why you would do this all in the first place. You’ve spent your whole career in different forms of change-making. Tell me where did the spark first come from for you to be, to be connected to the labour movement, to be connected to education?
It was a sense when I was young of trying to correct injustice. I’ll never forget a conversation when I was in high school with some of my friends who would always say to me, well, you’re the goody two shoes. I’m like, what? What does that mean? Well, you know, you always want to help people and it was interesting to see, to hear friends of mine think about that negatively instead of positively. But I grew up in a way of thinking and feeling like we needed to make a better world. And I’ve been really lucky in my life. I mean, I’ve had my struggles, but I’ve been lucky in that, I’ve been able to navigate the obstacles that have been in my way.
And so I just chose service in terms of what I wanted to do in my life and to help others rise. And frankly, when you do that, whether it was a teacher in a classroom or negotiating a contract or seeing someone who tried to get elected, actually win a race, this is what America should be. There’s a sense that the American dream is realizable by all. But you need to have fairness and that doesn’t happen automatically. That only happens if you create an environment that enables that. So I think it’s a combination.
Why education as service? Why teaching as service? Like what inspired, who inspired you to go there? Like lots of people care about social justice, but they might apply that in different directions based on their own experience. What experiences told you that education was the right place to go?
Again, I would actually say growing up and so my mom was a teacher. My mom was one of my mentors. I loved the fact that in 2008 I got to be for a couple of years, the leader of my mother’s union which was quite a thrill. It was a thrill that when I won the position, when I was elected as the head of the AFT, my mom was in the audience, as was a couple of my teachers from high school. I do think that people have to climb up a ladder of opportunity, but somebody has to put that ladder there and somebody has to catch you if you fall. There are clearly people who actually help enable opportunity. And so , in terms of first instinct, first impulse, it’s education, it’s foundational to a democracy.
It is the propeller of an economy. And it is the way in which children reach and realize potential. So I don’t think there’s any better way of service than, than public education. And the difference between public and private is that public education is about all kids. And we’re far away from a perfect system. And I really, really hate when people pretend or try to disparage me or my members about being in the status quo. I don’t know one teacher who doesn’t fight for better conditions for our kids.
But what I find interesting about your career Randy, is that you haven’t only been involved in education, you’ve done lots of different work. You’re a bit of a polymath, you’ve moved across different spaces. You’re in education, you’re in industrial relations as a speciality. What have those different fields over the course of your lifetime taught you about Progressive’s and how they may change?
So I would actually say when I look at those different fields there were a couple of experiences when I was a high school student that were very motivating to me or that had great influence on me. One was that my mom was on strike for I think six or seven weeks. When I was a high school student and in New York state, you had a law that while while it enabled collective bargaining for school teachers and other public employees, it also had pretty stiff penalties for striking. And so my family so, so my mother had two days pay deducted for everyday. She didn’t, that she was on strike, which meant it seemed to be months and months that she didn’t get paid. Or she would get a check for like 3 cents or 4 cents. And it was, my sister and I were going to college or going to college soon and a few years before that, my father had been laid off for a couple of years.
So it’s not as if we were middle-class, but my sister and I both worked while we were in college and my parents did everything in their power to help us defray the costs of college. But watching that struggle and the solidarity of people who frankly never really thought about being in unions, that was compelling to me, that the notion that it is only together, that you can achieve things, that the sense of power of the collective, was something I saw back when I was in high school. The sense that when you have to build power and that means you have to have more than values and ideas, as important as those are and they are a condition precedent. You have to have values to move an agenda and to move an agenda that will also move both in terms of membership and community. But it can’t just be ideas. It can’t just be values. You have to have the power of a social movement to move an agenda, to move your values. And that’s where union comes in. And watching the struggle and watching these teachers on strike for that many weeks in a small community in New York state was very impactful on me.
Thankfully. Right. It’s led to a pretty interesting career and actually in some ways i’m wanting to now jump all the way to now and allow you to look back on the implementation of some of those insights that you gained fairly early on. And the lessons that you’ve learnt as someone who has tried to make lots of change in the United States. And want to just work you through some of those questions and ask you to step back from the day to day difficult political environment that you’re currently sitting within and step back and sort of reflect on the sort of essential lessons about the work that you’re doing.
I know that in in America lots of people probably the sick of this question, but outside, I think there’s a level of curiosity. But my first question is what have you learned from being a unionist under Trump?
So, you know, I wanna I want to start with something that A Philip Randolph said, because I think that what he says, what he said when he was a unionist in the Jim Crow era is probably as important today as it was then. And I think it kind of answers the question about Trump, which is what Randolph said, and let me quote it, is at the banquet table of nature, there are no reserved seats. You get what you can take and you keep what you can hold. If you can’t take anything, you won’t get anything. And if you can’t hold anything where you can keep anything and you can’t take anything without organization. And what Randolph tried to do and what the labour movement tries to do is that we build community around the work we do and the aspirations we have. And so it’s building community understanding with clear eyes about what’s in front of you and the obstacles and what you need to do to create power. But it is power that is also layered with hope and aspiration.
And what has happened in the Trump era, what Trump tapped into is the exact opposite. And Trump taps into people’s fear and, and deprivation and grievance and tries to pit people against each other and communities against each other. And in some ways, like the worst of the Lord of the Flies or the worst of the Game of Thrones, the sense of competition and survival of the fittest and he instead of being an organization that helps. And working together as a movement that helps create things. It is only him who becomes the great leader that people cling to. And look, there’s 20 or 30%, maybe sometimes 35 or 40% of his base as he has said that, that even if he shot somebody in the middle of fifth Avenue, which is, you know, the big Boulevard in New York city, that his base would still justify it or love him for it or whatever.
Because he binds people through frustration and through fear. And so what I’ve learned is that hope and aspiration for a better life, a voice at work, a voice in democracy, meaning that when you put out a value system that is about hope and aspiration for all working people and people believe it and you create movements around it, you can Trump fear.
Yeah. And one or the other. I mean I’m a unionist from way back and love this space. And one of the things I see in the, the unionism that the American teachers Federation practices, and I think it’s easier sometimes when you’re in a space like education where it’s not hard to make an intersection between your workplace interests and social interests. But you work on class sizes, you work on facilities, you work on privatization. You don’t just work on teacher wages. Although teacher wages are completely a justice issue when people are being paid poverty wages, that, how can they teach the students? What I see is that you’re holding a form of unionism where you’re working on the interests of the union. And there’s a quote by Flanders who he talks about the need for unions to work on vested interests but to also hold up the sort of justice. Do you see that playing out as a philosophy at all or how do you react to that? In terms of the unionism you practice?
Well, I think that we’ve tried to integrate them and be very forward facing. What I see we have to do, teachers have to be part of community. That is, most of us went into teaching to make a difference in the lives of others. We chose that as the work we were going to do and in exchange want to be treated fairly for it. You don’t go into teaching if you are about acquiring other corporations or want to make a gazillion dollars. You go into teaching because you have a different view, in life. That you wanna make a difference in the lives of others. And frankly, I think that activists in unions, they do union work because they want to be part of the change that makes life better for people.
That makes life fair for people. So I guess that if you see a community as a virtuous circle, you want to try and help more and more people have enough of a living wage that they can actually enjoy the bounty of their work. You can talk about it differently if you work hard and play by the rules, you should, you know, have a decent life. The community wants to keep their teachers, they want to attract and retain good teachers.
They want teachers to be part of the life of community. And so the idea that teachers should get a decent wage is something that at least in America now, people believe in. But the teachers themselves by and large, don’t just advocate for their own wages or their own pensions. They advocate for the teaching and the learning conditions that kids need. In fact, what we’re seeing right now is that teachers and other educators are very focused on two things. The disinvestment that has happened in America, particularly since the great recession of 10 years ago. And also the freedom to teach. So we have two campaigns running right now, funding our future, which is about how we have the conditions of teaching and learning in schools that kids need to soar.
And how we enabled teachers to have the freedom to teach not just the pay for living wage but the freedom to actually meet the needs of children. And when I go around the country, this is where educators are wanting every single public school to be a place where parents want to send their kids and educators want to work and, and kids are engaged and thrive.
What have these movements taught you about social change?
Well, so let me push back a bit in terms of, with the exception of what initially happened in West Virginia. Every one of the teacher demonstrations as well as the fight back against violence have been mobilized through organization that it is a combination of, it is the vehicle of the union or of other kids getting together that has created a sustained campaign to try to right an injustice.
I guess I was intentionally provocative. Some people who write about both these movements talk about mobilizing in contrast to the sort of sort of slow work of organizing. They’re seen as dialectics, just like the Arab Spring.
And what I’m saying is that any one of them that have been successful and ultimately what happened in West Virginia is that the union became the infrastructure for that strike, which is part of the reason it was successful, is that you can’t just have a spark. You need to have a sustained plan to actually make the change real. Because a spark, I mean, look at the Arab spring, there was no second step. And so what we learned is that in many of the strikes, you have to have the next step of how are we going to sustain this?
How are we going to make sure that we see a win and then sustain this? And so that’s the difference between, for example, what happened in Los Angeles versus say, you know, what happened in Oklahoma, Oklahoma lots of people stayed out and, we have actually turned some seats blue from red in the election.
But what we didn’t do is create enough of a sustained movement so that we could win the gubernatorial election in November of 18, in California, in LA. What’s happening is we went from a, which got huge which, which was prepared for, for over two years, which involved lots of, of, of community groups and school teachers and the city. Then a month before the strike understood how successful it was going to be when 50,000 people were on the street in a rally. When you have 30,000 teachers and the city of LA is not used to having people on the street in demonstrations and rallies. It’s a car city. People traveled by car, they don’t go to downtown in the middle of a Saturday afternoon. And so it was a wake up call and then the seven, the eight days particularly in the rain and seeing all those teachers out and parents with them, it was a sustained movement.
And then after the strike there has been a whole bunch of things including that we’re in knee deep in a campaign for a parcel tax, which the mayor is leading, which even some of the adversaries to the strike like billionaire Eli Brode is now supporting, like Austin Buettner who was the head of the school board and a big adversary of us during the strike, is part of, so we’re trying to create a paradigm shift and it’s only through both mobilization and the spark about values where people come together, combined with organization that you have the power to make that change. And that’s what we’re trying to do. And I think the Parkland kids saw that because you had great momentum for several weeks and then it stopped. And ultimately what they saw as well as the gun prevention groups of which we are very involved in, three or four of them, we said, let’s do, let’s, let’s focus on the next election.
Let’s focus on trying to do some common sense things all throughout the country. So it is both that spark, which is really important to get people’s attention and say, no, we’re part of this. We need to be part of this. But then also the organization that takes values and uses power to transfer them into action.
You know, Tim Snyder writes about this in his on tyranny book, the erosion of institutions. we need to make institutions better, like the institution of democracy. We need to strengthen it. We need to make it better. The institution of public education. We need to make a better press. The press needs to be more accountable sometimes. But these institutions are actually really important. And I think what has happened is that people think that institutions can be replaced by social media, by just the spark and you need the spark and and strengthening an institution to have the power of the change.
Yup. Yup. So this will be a question that interests maybe, again, the outsiders more, than the insiders to the United States. But you know, we’re all very interested in the fact that there’s going to be a presidential election this year and we’re all desperately interested in the variety and range of candidates that appear in the lineup.
I was wondering if you had any thoughts about that space in particular. I’m curious about your thoughts around perspectives on unions and union issues and education and education issues. And also, I guess this question is about how presidential candidates can also use these ideas of organizing that you’ve just described and how that might affect their likely success.
Well, look, that’s a big question and let’s say that over the course of the last two decades, we’ve had both Democrats as well as Republicans do their fair share of disparaging educators and public education. And we were not fans the secretary of education or the first secretary of education under president Obama, Arnie Duncan, just like we are not fans of the current secretary of education, Betsy DeVos who is probably the most anti-public education person who’s ever occupied that position. And I’m not quite sure what she likes less, whether it’s labour unions or public education, but she doesn’t hide her contempt for workers organizing together or of a focus on the public good as opposed to privatization and competition and the obsequity to the market.
So you have even Democrats in this period of time where money really matters in elections, you have this huge inequity in the United States. I’m sure that you’ve seen it in Australia too, between the rich and everyone else and the wealthy really control the political system and the economic system. So in an economy that Donald Trump says is the best ever, which people were pretty offended by when he says it, but the economy that he says is the best ever. 40% of Americans couldn’t put $400 together for an emergency. So it’s through that lens that we look at where the Democrats are and what we’re seeing is a lot of Democrats kind of coming back to what I call Rooseveltian values, to kind of middle-class economic values where if you work hard and play by the rules, your family should get ahead, meaning your family, your children should do better than you did.
But there needs to be an economy where there’s shared prosperity and there needs to be the opportunity agents like public education. And like a union labor movement that can actually be the kind of check and balance to corporate aggrandisement or oligarchy. And so what is interesting right now is that of the 22 democratic candidates, you’re hearing more and more of them talking about the lives of working people, not the needs of the innovation society and what we need to do to kindajust try to understand that the world is changing and you’ve got to catch up to it. We heard that 10 years ago from, from former Democrats. Now in some ways, because Trump has tapped into this kind of level of frustration. In rural areas of the abandoned belt there’s been a wake up call for Democrats that these issues are really important issues, frankly, that myself and other members of the labour movement had been championing for decades.
So the combination of unions actually being more and more favoured by Americans, public education being more and more favored by Americans. The sense that even the Trump voter basically voted for Trump because he tapped into the frustration that they were left behind. All of this is leading to a much more progressive agenda by virtually all of the democratic candidates. And that’s only music to our ears. We need a democratic candidate who is going to be able to say union without equivocation, who will walk on a picket line, who understands that working people have power through unions, that unions are a vehicle by which they meet aspirations. That politics should be about finding people, ways to have good jobs, living wages, college without unsustainable debt. Healthcare where you’re not one illness away from bankruptcy, a public school that has the resources and the teachers and the curriculum that kids need to thrive and wrap around services so that we can meet kids’ well-being needs. And this is what you’re starting to hear as well as the other big issue, which is economics and the rule of law and the sense that we need a country that actually has a democracy where the rule of law and our constitution is not only to adhere to and respected but not defiled by a current president.
Yeah. Yeah. It’s like the whole game has changed actually. It’s shifted, which is actually what real power looks like. Setting the agenda for all of them to act off. Yeah. It’s amazing.
Exactly. So what, so when you see Elizabeth Warren do a huge proposal for both childcare, for a huge proposal to eliminate student debt, or you see a, a candidate like Kamala Harris do a proposal to increase teacher pay.
You see candidates talking about how important universal coverage for health care is or living wages are or that or, or that public education is foundational to our democracy. And they don’t shy away like Joe Biden, walk the picket line of grocery workers that were on strike. These are really great signs that workers and working people are going to be dominant I hope in this election.
Yeah. So I have only one more question to ask you, Randy, which is more of a reflective question. We’ve talked a lot about the things that you’ve learned across your career about making change in different spaces, whether it’s in the union movement or in politics or, or working with social movements. But we have a lovely listener base of people who are predominantly interested in this question about how to make change from across the world. If there was one thing you could impart or teach or suggest to this audience about how change is made, one thing that you wish you had known earlier on in your career, what would it be?
It will actually be two things, maybe three. Number one is believe in something that is bigger than yourself. And number two, enlarge the tent. I’ve learned that values are really important, but values without power will not move an agenda. And to have power means to build movement and to build movement needs; You have to have community. And to have community means you have to be, you have to listen to people, you have to share values. You have to come together as, as a movement, as a collective, as an organization, which means it can’t just be your ideas. It has to be others’ ideas. You have to enlarge the tent. And the more you do that, and the more you build with other people, a community, you connect, you build alliances, you act in concert on, on values that are just and righteous. Then you make change. It can’t be about you. It has to be about the change that is important for a better life for the fight you are making.
Fantastic. Thank you so much, Randy, for your time. We know you’re incredibly busy and we appreciate every minute. Thank you.