Weingarten's War

The Teacher Boss Puts Bloomberg on the 'Bad Step'

On Saturday, United Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, whose power in state and city politics exceeds that of all but the top elected officials, declared war on Mike Bloomberg. In an extraordinary reversal of the praise she was offering him as recently as late February, Weingarten targeted Bloomberg as if she believes he is a one-term mayor, pitting her 120,000-member union against him earlier and in harsher terms than it ever used against his anti-education predecessor, Rudy Giuliani.

Emboldened no doubt by the astounding success of her recent Albany lobbying efforts, which led to a legislative budget that restores most of the steep education cuts proposed by Governor Pataki, Weingarten turned her union's annual spring conference at the Hilton Hotel into a protest rally against the mayor. She blasted the mayor's school reorganization plan in a 45-minute tirade complete with a bobblehead doll and giant overhead screens that repeatedly flashed "They Just Don't Get It," though she'd joined the Bloomberg team in a recent press conference celebrating the plan.

At her side on the dais as she addressed 2,000 applauding teachers and paraprofessionals were Comptroller Bill Thompson and Council Speaker Gifford Miller, two of the Democrats who may wind up challenging the mayor in 2005, or running to succeed him should he decide not to seek re-election. Weingarten's war, accompanied by Bloomberg's submarining poll numbers and the emergence last week of the mayor's first putative opponent, Brooklyn congressman Anthony Weiner, are the strongest indications that his big-money advantage may not be enough to presumptively re-elect him.

The reasons for the turnaround are mysterious. Weingarten just filed a lawsuit against the administration, accusing it of discriminating against minorities by laying off 848 UFT-represented paras. She's bonkers over the mayor's decision to invoke a budgetary emergency and reduce sabbaticals, but that only affects a portion of the thousand or so teachers who annually collect as much as 70 percent of their salaries while taking a year off, ostensibly for developmental coursework. She's particularly upset, she told the Voice in an abbreviated interview, that the Bloomberg administration dismissed her offer "to explore a moratorium on sabbaticals to avert the para layoffs," cutting the perks unilaterally rather than in a tradeoff with the union.

Finally, in Weingarten's role as chair of the Municipal Labor Committee, which incorporates all the city unions, she's enraged that Bloomberg didn't accept the charade concessions she offered to meet his $600 million gap-closing goal.

But the unstated reason for this unusual attack on a sitting mayor who just awarded the union its biggest contract ever, raising salaries by 16 to 22 percent, is the new control he now has over the schools, a power he wrested from the legislature last year. Instead of dealing with a Board of Education whose everyday invisible decisions were vetted by the union, Weingarten is now confronted by a mayoral department, whose chancellor is determined to exercise managerial control.

In her speech, Weingarten could not distinguish between problems with the plan that are legitimate union matters—such as whether the new curriculum forces many teachers "to abandon the successful instructional practices" they've developed—and those that are a management prerogative, like the regional structure she contemptuously derided. Though she renamed the Children First plan Control First, assailing its "hierarchical command-and-control system," it's clearly her own lack of control over a wholesale reorganization that's driving the very public critique.

She was in such a rush to denounce it—in front of more cameras than may have ever covered a UFT conference—that she officially declared the repudiation of a resolution supporting the plan passed by the union's delegate assembly without going back for another vote (so much for union democracy). She assailed the new "six-figure executives" on school organization charts that she said "the CEO mayor" was "more comfortable with" than teachers without mentioning that the Bloomberg plan, according to Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, cuts six-figure district administrative positions from 207 to 193. She savaged the plan for not reducing class size "across the board" but never acknowledged that it does slash English classes in middle school from 35 students to 28, a stunning improvement in a fiscal firestorm.

The grandiose conclusion of the speech—a challenge to Chancellor Joel Klein and his deputies to teach a weekly class—was designed to portray them as out of touch with school realities, culminating with her snickering offer to allow UFT officers "to mentor" Klein et al. "during their internships." Ironically, Weingarten is an attorney like Klein and represented the union until 1998, when UFT president Sandra Feldman moved up to the national presidency and installed Weingarten as her successor, handpicking her over a cadre of elected union leaders who were also career teachers.

In urging Klein "to walk in the shoes of teachers" on Saturday, she described how she'd done it, claiming that she "taught, sometimes full time, sometimes part time, at Clara Barton High School for six years." Actually, records reviewed by the Voice indicate that she taught 122 days as a per diem teacher from September 1991 through June 1994, roughly one in four days. She then did what she told the Voice was her only full-time term in the fall semester of 1994, followed by 33 days as a per diem teacher in the spring of 1995.

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