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This Month's Interview

New AFT president Randi Weingarten calls it the way she sees it.

September/October 2008

At a newschools venture summit in D.C. recently, Randi Weingarten surprised everyone by engaging in a public blow-up with D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Can we expect to see more of this fiery side of Weingarten in her new role as president of the American Federation of Teachers? “New Yorkers are generally known as people who call it as they see it,” she says coyly—just like a real New Yorker. Still, the multitasker says she’ll work with anyone who has a desire to improve public schools. “I’ll fight like hell for our members and the people we serve,” she vows. Weingarten sat in the hot seat to take our questions.

Q: You were always really for Obama—that Clinton endorsement was just obligatory, right?

A: Not true. We said from the start that we had a strong field of candidates, and now we’re going to do everything we can to elect Obama. When it comes to the issues working families care about, the contrast between Obama’s views and McCain’s couldn’t be starker.

Q: Is it true that you are now angling to be both head of the aft and the new Secretary of Education?

A: Being head of the AFT is a full-time job. And don’t forget I’m still president of the United Federation of Teachers (New York City’s teachers’ union). So those two full-time jobs are already getting all of my attention.

Q: Who do you think would make a good choice to lead the Department of Ed?

A: That is a question I would answer privately if Senator Obama asks for my input.

Q: For those of us sick of hearing about d.c., New York, Cincinnati, and Denver, where else is progress happening?

A: Lots of places! Our local in Hamburg, New York, is doing some innovative work to improve the quality of instruction—it has a terrific teacher-mentor program. Two other locals, one in Austin and one in St. Francis, Minnesota, have negotiated changes to compensation that will encourage teachers to work together to raise student achievement.

Q: What will you do if a union local threatens to give away the farm in negotiations, as with the Washington Teachers’ Union? Or, as in Chicago, the union is locked in internal disputes?

A: I’m not going to comment on either of those situations specifically. Generally speaking, I’m going to do everything I can to support local leaders in their efforts to assist our members.

Q: Why are there no good strikes anymore—bitter, protracted stalemates that ultimately result in giant wage increases?

A: Strikes are signs that there has been an absolute breakdown in negotiations. They should be everyone’s last resort. By rallying member support and public opinion around issues that are important to us, we can put pressure on school districts to work closely with the local union to settle contract disputes without threatening to strike. The bottom line is we want to be in the classroom, not on the picket line.

Q: What has surprised you most since you’ve become head of the AFT?

A: It is still so hard to find a decent bagel in D.C.! Now that I’ve mastered the train schedule between New York and D.C., I have to figure out how to ship real New York City bagels down here.

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