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.
Strangely, while she told the Voice she was a per diem for the 1995-96 and 1996-97 school years, her records list her as a full-time teacher. Because she was credited with the required two years of full-time service she doesn’t even claim she performed, she was given a permanent certificate in September 1996. She has been on union leave since 1997, accumulating a total of nine years of pensionable city time though she only did one semester of full-time teaching.
In fact, her speech’s obsession with power politics was itself out of touch with the far more professional concerns of teachers at the conference. When the chancellor appeared at the morning soapbox and took questions for more than an hour, teachers raised substantive issues ranging from the science curriculum to the fate of bilingual education. During breaks in the main program, teachers swarmed around the Rhinelander Room at the hotel, which was filled with UFT booths offering teaching guides, and packed workshops that were apolitically educational.
While the teachers at the luncheon were receptive to her attacks on the mayor’s plan, they might just as easily have kept an open mind about it, had Weingarten instead delivered a mixed speech, reviewing its pluses and minuses. That’s what she was doing in January when she bearhugged Klein at a meeting of the union delegate assembly, pushing them to back the changes, though adding a series of caveats to the resolution. Then she was praising Klein’s 10 new regional superintendents as the cream of the crop, and calling Klein “brave” for choosing a single citywide curriculum.
The Times quoted her in February as saying, “I have people telling me, ‘You’re being too open about this, not cautious enough.’ But if the system isn’t working and someone has an idea that could theoretically make things much better, why not try it?” Defying the logic of her own question, she’s now turning her union into a saboteur, prepared to kill the reform from within.
Seismic swings are hardly new for her. She endorsed Alan Hevesi in the mayoral primary of 2001, Freddy Ferrer in the runoff, and Mark Green in the general, but managed to get the best contract in union history from the only candidate she didn’t endorse. She gave the union’s highest honor, its 2002 John Dewey award, to George Pataki to get his support for the new contract, even though she’d presented the same award in 2000 to the lawyers who were suing Pataki to force change in the state aid formula. She endorsed Pataki, only to watch him propose the biggest school cuts ever.
Now, blessed with a mayor who’s made education his top priority, and backed three extraordinary tax increases to help finance schools, Weingarten has bizarrely positioned her union as the advance guard for whatever 2005 campaign emerges against him. Part pout and part powerplay, her sudden swing may make her the center of her own future storm.