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MARCH 2006

Women Shaping History:
UFT President Randi Weingarten Speaks Out:
A Family-Friendly Agenda
for Teachers and Child Care Workers

By Emily Sherwood, Ph.D.

There’s hardly a New Yorker today who is not intimately familiar with United Federation of Teachers (UFT) President Randi Weingarten and her passionate crusade for fair salaries and benefits for the 140,000 teachers and other non-supervisory educators who work in the city’s public schools. During the protracted, two-and-a-half year labor dispute during which New York City teachers worked without a contract, a bitter clash that ended in October 2005 with a four year, 15 percent pay hike for teachers but a longer workweek, Weingarten’s message screamed from the front pages of local newspapers: “It’s time to invest in the three R’s. Respect for teachers. Retention of qualified staff. And resources for schools.”

But with the teachers’ contract finally settled, Weingarten is hardly resting on her laurels. “We need to have more family-friendly policies for teachers,” Weingarten told Education Update.  “I would like us to be able to negotiate innovative child care arrangements so that if teachers who have children who are not in school yet, child care opportunities will be available close to where they’re teaching.” And there’s more. “I think educators should have the ability to enjoy professional courtesy so that their school-aged children can attend schools located close to where they are teaching. Right now, that’s the exception rather than the rule,” adds Weingarten. Better maternity policies and the ability to donate days toward caring for an elderly parent or sick child are other benefits that Weingarten would like to see as part of her “family friendly” agenda.

Weingarten’s passion and tenacity are in her blood. Her grandfather, a Jewish medical student in the Ukraine during the Bolshevik revolution, gathered together a group of family members, including members of his in-laws’ family, and fled to the U.S. to escape religious persecution. “He risked everything to come to the United States…He was my hero growing up. He was a tough guy, he was a stubborn guy, and he had a heart of gold,” Weingarten reminisces.

Weingarten cut her teeth on union politics as a child growing up in Rockland County, where she watched her mother, a schoolteacher, “in total solidarity with virtually every other Nyack schoolteacher on strike for six weeks when I was a senior in high school.” Beyond the first-hand experience of watching a labor dispute, Weingarten was dismayed to observe “people making terrible budget decisions that really hurt kids and teachers.” Yet what propelled her most to want to make a difference in the lives of kids was “the comparison between what I got as a student in the Clarkstown school system versus what schoolteachers and kids got in the New York City school system.” Weingarten went on to teach history for six years at the Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn, where she remembers having to “scavenge for chalk” and work with markedly higher class sizes than in the suburbs. “So there’s that fundamental unfairness between the people who, by dint of where they are born or where they live, get a privileged education, versus people who live in the city, kids who are basically minority, who are bereft of those kinds of resources.” After getting a degree from Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Weingarten went on to get her law degree from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, where she also became an adjunct professor.

So what’s next for Randi Weingarten, in addition to leading the UFT, serving as vice-president of the million-member American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and trustee of the New York State United Teachers? Well, she’s added one more job to that rather impressive list of credentials. “The UFT is embarking on the biggest organizing drive that the city has seen in years,” she exclaims. “We’re trying to organize, with ACORN [a community group], 30,000 family day care providers….in an effort to help kids from the youngest ages and the people who serve them.” Over 6,000 family day care workers have already signed cards saying that they want the UFT to represent them, and enabling legislation has been introduced in Albany. Noting that family day care workers, who are mostly black and Hispanic women, get “totally and completely exploited” with low pay, no benefits, and no days off, Weingarten hammers home her message yet again: “They serve as very important teachers to our children…We want to help them with their economic benefits and help the children they serve.”

Indeed, Weingarten’s heroes in life are not the sports stars and hip hop artists who dot the covers of celebrity magazines, but rather, “true heroes in my book are regular, working people who struggle every day…and people who have decided that they will forsake getting rich but are willing to spend their professional lives dedicated to making a difference in the lives of children.” One senses that Randi Weingarten’s job will never be done. But if she continues to rally the crowds and fight for what she believes is right, Weingarten will assuredly improve the lives of generations of families to come.#



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