Our nation’s teachers unions have had a whiplash of a year, from the statewide teachers’ strikes that have swept the country to last week’s Supreme Court ruling in the Janus v. AFSCME case that could severely hurt their membership. America’s most powerful teachers’ union leader says there is much, much more to come.
For the past decade, Randi Weingarten has led the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers. She has been a prominent voice in battles over public education, organized labor, and national politics. In the dark aftermath of last week’s Janus ruling, which will almost certainly drain members and money from public unions nationwide, she spoke to us about how working class interests can possibly try to survive and thrive in the age of Trump.
Splinter: Is it possible that the Janus ruling was even worse than you thought it would be?
Randi Weingarten: No, I expected it. I helped write the amicus brief for both Friedrichs [a nearly identical case on which the court deadlocked] and for Janus, and I had sat through the Janus hearing, which I found to be absolutely worse than the Friedrichs hearing. Gorsuch said nothing, but Alito and Kennedy clearly had their minds made up. Alito has had his mind made up for six years—how to weaponize the First Amendment against working people. And if you think about it, if you go back and read the Citizens United case, which uses the First Amendment to give corporations unfettered right to participate in politics, and now at the same time they’ve used the First Amendment to limit the rights of workers through their unions to have any power. It is the most ideological court that we’ve seen in modern history, and ideological about corporate power and about unfettered markets.
Splinter: What do you think Anthony Kennedy’s retirement means for labor law?
Weingarten: I know Kennedy gets a good rap because of what he did on marriage and what he did on sustaining Roe v. Wade. As a lesbian who just got married this March, I appreciate that. But on economic issues, Kennedy was a doctrinaire right wing, never see a labor or union or worker right kind of guy. On the economic issues, Kennedy yoked as right as the others in that majority, and it has actually hurt workers’ rights. If there’s any silver lining here, it’s that it’s clear that the union movement at its best is a movement for social and economic change. It is a movement to give workers and their families and their communities power to have a better life. To move into the middle class. And this court, including Kennedy, tried to thwart that at every step.
Splinter: In the post-Janus world, are public unions going to become more radical, more militant, out of necessity?
Weingarten: I think in the post-Janus world, public unions will become more activist and more political. The irony here is that state after state supported the paradigm that had been established by [Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the case that was overturned by Janus] and by state laws because what it did was solve problems at a bargaining table rather than in the streets. And it did create labor peace. And I found it offensive that a guy like Alito, who basically ideologically didn’t want workers to have power and unions to be the vehicle for that, scoffed at the issue of labor peace. If you look at the places in this country that have robust collective bargaining, you’ve seen very few strikes and work stoppages in the public sector, because they solved those problems at the bargaining table. Now, those problems will be solved different ways. Mark my words: don’t count us out. We have prepared for this case since February of 2015, and it has been transformative for our union. Because more than any other issue, situation, case, threat, this has moved locals all throughout America to be much more member-driven in deed, not just in word.
Splinter: What does that mean, exactly?
Weingarten: People think about the value of belonging. People have moved away from “union leader as mommy or daddy.” Union leader as, “you pay us to negotiate a contract,” and being very transactional. People are moving towards union as family. Union as community. Union as connective—that you don’t outsource your power to the leader. That your power is collective. That’s what it means.
Splinter: One of many reasons that unions have declined is that big unions got so institutional that their members felt less connected and inspired by them. Do big union leaders see which way the wind is blowing right now, in terms of activist energy?
Weingarten: We could all do a better job of engagement. Over the course of the last ten years, we have tried to—and this is the center of my speech this summer to my convention—member engagement and community involvement over issues that matter is the path to a better life. That’s the formula. It has been for a long time. I think what’s happened is that the rhetoric of morality is leading the change. You can talk about member engagement, but you have to figure out ways to do it in a way that is real and authentic, and that is not a transaction. We are at the highest level of members ever. Ever...
I think there’s a much more complex reason for the diminishment in private sector labor. I think it has to do with globalization and the anti-union animus, and the fact that both Democrats and Republicans alike did not take the need to nurture unions more seriously... I’m not saying that we are not culpable in this too, but let’s also look at the larger economic issues. Because frankly, the unions were at the height of power in the 50s and 60s and 70s, and during that time, you can’t tell me we weren’t institutional.
Splinter: Are we ever going to see the decline of union density in America turn around, in your lifetime?
Weingarten: It’s creeping up this year. Will it ever turn around? I have to hope in the darkness that it will. Because still to this day, unions are the best vehicle for people to have a shot at the middle class... If we don’t have unions, we would have to invent something like it.
Splinter: Is there any potential for a strong central labor organization in America? What would you like to see change about the AFL-CIO?
Weingarten: The AFL-CIO is going through a futures process, which I very much pushed, prodded, cajoled them to try to do. I think the AFL-CIO needs to be more out there. I don’t think they’re out there enough talking about economic issues. I think this was a period of time where the AFL-CIO could have been out there, very much at the forefront, talking about the importance of lifting worker wages, being a real voice in the debate in a way that they were seen and heard. And I would love for them to play that role. The issues right now on the forefront of workers’ minds are that the economy may be getting better, but workers are left behind... what you have here is Trump running as a populist, trying to use populist language in the most divisive ways, but actually governing as an autocratic kleptocrat whose focus is on policies that enrich the rich and hurt the poor. I think that our movement as a whole needs to be out there in a way that is heard.
Splinter: It could be argued that the AFL has nothing to show for the millions of dollars it spent on political donations in the last presidential election. Do you think the labor movement should spend more money on organizing and less on politics?
Weingarten: I think unions have to spend money on both. We’re never going to compete with the corporate money machine. It’s not an either-or; it is about creating trust and connectiveness. And that starts with the individual unions, not with the AFL-CIO... the reasons why [Trump] won and [Clinton] lost are much more complicated than what labor’s role was. My members voted for her by about 80%.
Splinter: There’s a very real divide in the Democratic Party now—whether the party should move left, or whether it should move to the center to try to peel off Trump voters. Where do you fall on that question?
Weingarten: I think the future of the party includes both, in that the Democratic Party has to be the party of working people, and has to be about their aspirations and their dreams, and fighting for pathways to get there that are clear, that are tangible, that are real, that are not pablum. That are not just nice words. Every president other than Trump has said, “I believe in public education.” Okay. What are your policies to get there? If you actually promote more charters and vouchers and things that make teachers and kids miserable like overtesting them, then people say “you don’t really believe in this.” There’s an authenticity that is required now that is real. The electorate wants to see that you actually, really believe, and are going to work for the people. And I think there’s actually a sweet spot there: health care, education, and the opportunity to have a better life. And within that, the opportunity to be safe in the streets and safe in your schools. The opportunity to be free from discrimination. Jobs and justice, like King said, go hand in hand. But both have to be focused on. If it just becomes identity politics, or just becomes economics, that will not work. People have to believe that you are for jobs and justice in a real, tangible way.
Splinter: Just to press on that—it’s not unthinkable that in a couple of years the Democrats will be choosing between candidates who are essentially socialists and...
Weingarten: I’m much more focused on the 2018 election. I’m not a conspiratorial kind of person. I don’t actually think in those terms. But I’m very concerned that we will not have a democracy two years from now. That norms will have been so violated. All these folks that are much more concerned about 2020 rather than looking right in front of them at 2018 I think are misguided.
Splinter: I’ll interview you in a year and ask you that question again.