Teachers’ union leader Randi Weingarten doesn’t look like a stereotypical union boss. But when the diminutive Jewish lawyer in a black pantsuit and pearl earrings repeatedly banged her fist on a podium to punctuate a defense of her union before a small group of educators in Washington in April, she matched any old-school cigar chomper from the George Meany era.
Weingarten, 52, is president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers and former president of the United Federation of Teachers, the AFT’S New York City chapter. She is the latest Jewish leader of a once heavily Jewish union — the hand-picked successor of the hand-picked successor of Albert Shanker, the Jewish labor legend who built the UFT.
During his heyday, Shanker was among the most prominent Jews in a labor movement with a storied Jewish history. That prominence later fell on the shoulders of Andy Stern, president of the 2.2 million-member Service Employees International Union, until his unexpected resignation in mid-April. Jews still hold the top positions at a number of unions, including Communications Workers of America and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. But thanks to the battle she is currently in, the most noted Jew in labor right now is Weingarten, a New York-bred member of a Conservative synagogue and an alumna of Ramah summer camps.
Weingarten expects between 150,000 and 300,000 teacher layoffs nationwide this year. And though she accepts the reality of the economic crisis and government cuts driving these layoffs, she is determined to fend off what she sees as efforts by some officials to use this as a chance to undermine teacher protections. The effort starts with her own base in New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the schools chancellor, Joel Klein, are challenging a state law that requires them to lay off teachers in reverse order of their hiring. Bloomberg complains that the cuts will affect all teachers hired since 2007, regardless of their merit.
Weingarten defends the law, through gritted teeth. “There is no good way to lay teachers off,” she said. But in the absence of an agreed upon system for dismissing teachers based on performance, she sees the system now in place as the only viable option.
“I am very disappointed in Mayor Bloomberg,” Weingarten told the Forward. “Raising this right now is simply a way of diverting attention from the magnitude of the layoffs that he has proposed.”
It’s the kind of crisis in which Shanker, who died in 1997, excelled. His successors operate in his shadow, even 13 years later. In her combative rhetorical style and her political power playing, Weingarten is in many ways an heir to his legacy. But times have changed, as has the union. The Jewish dominance of the UFT has given way to a more diverse coalition, and Weingarten’s successor at the head of the UFT is the first non-Jew to head that union in nearly 50 years. Moreover, while Weingarten talks tough, she has never led her union into a strike — a contrast with Shanker, whose militancy led him to be jailed multiple times for breaking state laws barring public employee walkouts.
Weingarten grew up in Rockland County, N.Y., where her parents were founding members of the New City (N.Y.) Jewish Center. She recalled fondly three summers that she spent at the Conservative movement’s Ramah camps in Glen Spey, N.Y., and Palmer, Mass. Later, she traveled to Israel with Ramah.
“[I] almost stayed,” she said.
Weingarten is a member of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, a New York synagogue that focuses on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews. She came out publicly as a lesbian in 2007. Though elected to head the Washington-based AFT in 2008, she has not yet joined a synagogue in Washington. She says that she kept kosher and observed the Sabbath for years, and considers herself “deeply religious.”
Shanker’s Jewishness came to the fore quite visibly during the 1968 New York City strikes over the firings of predominantly Jewish teachers by a locally elected neighborhood school board in the heavily black school district of Ocean Hill-Brownsville. Part of a struggle over community control of public schools, the controversy stirred fierce racial tensions and has been seen as part of the collapse of the supposed civil rights era alliance between blacks and Jews.
At that point, the UFT’s membership was between 60% and 70% Jewish, according to one historian. No numbers exist for the current ethnic makeup of the UFT or the AFT, but observers say that the UFT is far more diverse than it was during Shanker’s reign. Labor conflicts between New York teachers and community members no longer carry a necessarily Jewish tinge. But in New York, Jewish concerns are never far from the public conversation.
Weingarten herself was embroiled in one such conversation in 2007, during a fight over the establishment of an Arabic-language public school in New York. She was initially supportive of the school, which was the target of heavy criticism by some Jewish and pro-Israel groups. But after Debbie Almontaser, the woman chosen to be the school’s principal, failed to condemn T-shirts bearing the words “Intifada NYC” in an interview with the New York Post, Weingarten wrote a letter to the Post, strongly criticizing her.
“As someone who traveled to Israel within the year, I know intifada means more than simply ‘shaking off oppression,’ as Almontaser claims,” Weingarten wrote. “[B]oth parents and teachers have every right to be concerned about children attending a school run by someone who doesn’t instinctively denounce campaigns or ideas tied to violence.”
A panel of federal appellate judges later found that the Post had quoted Almontaser “incorrectly and misleadingly” on the “shaking off oppression” quote that so disturbed Weingarten. But a New York Times story published at the time reported that Department of Education officials considered Weingarten’s letter to be the final straw in determining that Almontaser would need to be replaced. She resigned days later. This year, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined that bias was present in the DOE’s decision to force Almontaser to resign.
Weingarten expressed no second thoughts about her actions.
Though “you always look at things through the lens of who you are,” she said, “none of this had anything to do with my Jewish heritage — other than my knowing what the word ‘intifada’ meant.” Weingarten stressed her support for the school prior to the Post story, even as it came under attack. “I’m probably doubly and triply careful when I’m thinking about a decision such as this, to make sure that my Jewish upbringing doesn’t influence those decisions…. But the use of any word that could remotely, remotely incite violence is something that I think we as educators, and particularly as educational leaders, have to be very careful about.”
Weingarten said of Almontaser: “Look, I regret what happened to her…. I think the DOE set her up. She should never have spoken to the Post that day on the phone. The Department of Education should have done that.”
In an earlier interview, Weingarten said that her Jewishness may have played some part in her decision to make a career in the teachers union, but it was one of many factors.
“I’m sure that the love of learning and the importance of education in Jewish heritage, as well as the importance of giving back in Jewish heritage, had a role,” she said. She also said the fact that she is gay played a role.
A union staff member who worked under Weingarten at the UFT and who asked to remain anonymous because of work o
work at the union, said that one of the criticisms of Weingarten within the union has been that she focuses on the lobbying and legal aspects of union leadership at the expense of galvanizing the membership. Critics of the union say that she also uses this political clout to block meaningful education reform.
No one disputes the union’s political clout. An article in a May edition of the New York Post complained that the UFT and its state affiliate, the New York State United Teachers, spent “some $5 million” on lobbying and campaign contributions to the state legislature last year. NYSUT also retains some of the state’s most powerful lobbyists.
Weingarten, whose AFT boasts a yearly budget of $170 million, is unapologetic.
“There’s a perniciousness directed to teachers’ unions, simply because we are still the most densely organized group of people in America,” she told the Forward. “Everybody understands that our education system has to change…. But what you now have is this huge competition for dollars [and] government officials and so-called reformers who would rather point the finger at teachers and their unions because they can’t politically point the finger anywhere else.”
Among Weingarten’s responses to charges of blocking reform is a proposal announced last January for teacher evaluations that would replace the standardized testing focus embraced by the No Child Left Behind Act. The proposed new framework calls for teachers to be evaluated not only on classroom visits and test scores, but also on reviews of lesson plans and student output.
On May 11, the UFT and NYSUT announced that they had reached an agreement with New York State on a new system for evaluating teachers that hews closely to Weingarten’s framework. The plan still must be approved by the New York State legislature.
Weingarten’s roots in her own union’s rank and file and the day-to-day work of education are not overwhelming. She worked as a teacher in Brooklyn for six years, but was only full-time for half of that period. She also worked as an adviser during these years for UFT union chief Sandra Feldman, Shanker’s immediate successor. Previously, Weingarten worked as an attorney at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, a major New York City law firm.
In that sense, Weingarten embodies an uncomfortable tension that surrounds Jewish labor leadership today. Where working-class Jewish immigrants once led some powerful, heavily Jewish unions, the rank and file of many major unions has been increasingly filled with black and Latino workers while Jews have remained in the leadership, some of them lacking a rank-and-file background.
Aside from a brief, transitional interregnum at the AFT, Jews ran both the UFT and the AFT for almost 50 years. That pattern broke last year when Michael Mulgrew, a non-Jew, was chosen to lead the UFT after Weingarten resigned her position there in 2009.
“The union was looking for strong leadership, and I think in the cases of Feldman and Weingarten they were [Shanker’s] natural successors,” said Richard Kahlenberg, author of an admiring 2007 Shanker biography titled “Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy.”
He continued, “To the credit of the members, they weren’t looking simply for a mirror of themselves in a narrow sense, but rather for the strongest leadership. That translated into two subsequent leaders who also happened to be Jewish.”
Like her predecessors, Weingarten faced no serious opposition as head of the UFT. In 2007 she defeated an opponent with 86.2% of the vote. AFT presidents are chosen by delegates from local unions, the most powerful of which are the UFT and its statewide affiliate, NYSUT.
“You want to make sure that the leadership in the labor movement is reflective of your membership and working people in America in general,” Weingarten said when asked about the ethnic divide between leadership and members. She maintained, however, that it’s not a concern that’s a major part of the conversation.
Weingarten is well spoken, with the sort of passionate delivery that one day could make her a fine deliverer of stump speeches. She already has the impressive skill of being able to punctuate her speeches with references to examples of work done by audience members.
New York Governor David Paterson mentioned her as a potential candidate for appointment to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s senate seat, for which she was ultimately passed over.
“She is probably one of the more polished labor leaders in America,” said Amy Dean, a prominent labor activist. “People think there’s more in her future than simply to remain in perpetuity at the head of the AFT.”
Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at email@example.com
This story "The Leading Jew in Labor Wears Pearls" was written by Josh Nathan-Kazis.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.