In Partnership with 74

AFT president Weingarten visits town to give LA teachers a boost

Vanessa Romo | February 5, 2015

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Weingarten at AFT convention

Randi Weingarten

As the teachers union’s negotiations with LA Unified drag on, one of the nation’s leading voices for teachers appeared at an event last night hosted by district board member Steve Zimmer and made a strong case for union activity and solidarity.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, delivered a fire-and- brimstone-type address to Zimmer’s class at Occidental College, where he is a professor of Policy Debates and Controversies in Public Education.

During her hour-long remarks, she dropped to her knees, religious-revival style, raised her hands to the sky and thanked teachers for their commitment to children. In alluding to the local school board elections a month from now, she framed them as a battle between the virtuous and the unvirtuous, saying that only by running with a righteous agenda, “can we reclaim the promise of public education.”

“I don’t care if it’s the Broad [Foundation] or the Walton [Family Foundation] or whoever the hell is against us, we can stare them down with our righteousness,” she said, her arms outstretched. “It is community that gives us the moral certainty to make the fight for public education. At one point, an “Amen” came from the back row of the auditorium.

At its core, her speech was a Unionizing 101 seminar, offering a How-To on reversing the current tide of anti-union sentiment taking hold across the country. The cornerstone of her advice: Engage the community early and often — a message that resonates in Los Angeles, where the union-district talks have produced little progress over the last six months of negotiations.

The audience included several people who are already true believers — Zimmer’s board colleague, Bennett Kayser, who is currently embroiled in a relection bid against two challengers, one of them strongly-supported by charter schools; UTLA President, Alex Caputo Pearl; UTLA’s chief negotiator, Betty Forrester and Josh Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers.

While the event was open to the public, no high-ranking district officials attended.

Weingarten also appeared with Caputo-Pearl and Kayser at a rally this morning at the Slawson Southeast Occupation Center.

Speaking last night, she said the greatest mistake by labor unions in general is that most turned away from the community at large, becoming insulated and ignoring what was happening to the people outside of their particular union or industry. As workers in other sectors have lost job protection rights, pensions and other benefits, she said, they have become resentful of the groups who have managed to hang on to theirs.

The job of union members, therefore, is to demonstrate how good working conditions are uplifting for all, she said.

Caputo-Pearl also briefly addressed the group, laying out his union plan to mobilize support in negotiating the “Schools LA Students Deserve” platform, which includes demands for lower class sizes, full staffing and teacher raises.

For years, he said, “UTLA has been a sleeping giant because we didn’t organize our members.” But that is changing, he added, as the union moves into the sixth month of a “blitz” campaign, aimed at establishing a chapter chair at every school.

And to further their respective visions for the future of education, both Caputo-Pearl and Weingarten vowed to do “everything we can” to get Kayser re-elected to the board, keeping the tenuous pro-union balance of power in place within the nation’s second largest school district.

“Now that he’s asked for our help, for us to step in, we will be providing financial support in whatever form we can,” Weingarten said.


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