Exactly 50 years to the day that the fledgling UFT went on strike against the Board of Education for the first time, the union on Nov. 7 celebrated its own members at its annual Teacher Union Day Awards Ceremony. AFT President Randi Weingarten received the Charles Cogen Award.
Thank you, Michael. And thank you all. Being with my UFT family always feels like coming home. Teacher Union Day was always my favorite of the UFT rituals because it is a way to honor our own—generation to generation. I was honored to present the Cogen award each year I did, so you can imagine that receiving this honor makes this one of the most special days of my life.
Randi Weingarten receives the Charles Cogen Award from UFT president Michael Mulgrew. Photo by Miller Photography.
I’d like to first say a few words about the man for whom this award is named, Charles Cogen, as well as my two predecessors Al Shanker and Sandy Feldman. All three were presidents of both the UFT and the AFT. Charlie led the strike that secured bargaining rights for the city’s public school teachers. But that strike and the work that lay ahead was not about the fight—it was to secure a voice for teachers, and a greater measure of economic dignity for them, and to use collective bargaining as a tool to secure conditions that improved teaching and learning. (Sound Familiar?) Sandy and Al are best remembered by others for their clout and savviness in building this amazing union, and the bread and butter work they did for the members.
And although Charlie, Al, Sandy and I were very different in personality and style, we share much in common. We saw (and see) the labor movement—and teachers unions, in particular—as the cross-section—the pivotal catalyst—of economic and educational opportunity. One the great equalizer for young people, and the other the great equalizer for working people.
Al and Sandy dedicated their lives to make our country a more just place, and for public schools to be places of greatness. They fought for kids as much as they fought for the adults who served them. They knew that the fight for economic security and professional dignity that workers rightly deserve went hand in hand with the fight to ensure that our schools and our public institutions were the best they could be. And speaking of dignity and respect, no group of workers deserves that dignity and respect more then the educators of our city, our state and our nation, who because of what they do everyday in their classrooms, and every night at home preparing, are the fiduciaries and guardians of the next generation, and of America's future and vitality.
Unions are about collective action and collective responsibility, and no union president can be successful in the service of the members we represent or the kids we teach without an army of remarkable activists, leaders and staff. And that is what Teacher Union Day is about—a day to stop, reflect, and honor those who do the work on behalf of our union and our members.
You work for our members, who regardless of their dedication, never get the respect and recognition they deserve. And they, particularly in times like this, need their union to fight for them.
Our union, the UFT, has always been an unwavering champion both of respect and dignity for our members, and of opportunity for our students. I hope you are as proud of that as I am.
But, today, we are fighting for these things as we experience some of the fiercest attacks I have witnessed—on teachers, public education and teacher unionism. You see this at home; I see it across the country. Waiting for “Superman” was representative of these attacks. These attacks disrespect teachers. They are divorced from our everyday classroom realities and they distract from what really needs to be done to improve teaching and learning in our schools. Worse, they harm children—even though these attacks are cloaked in doing it “for the children.”
Stripped of all their pretense, they are really about dismantling the middle-class safety net—pensions, health benefits and decent salaries—that the labor movement through collective bargaining helped create. [Ironically, the very same folks whose economic policies have resulted in the worst income disparity between rich and poor, the highest poverty rate, and the lowest rate of unionization in decades—in other words, the same people who helped create the economic anxiety Americans feel, which were reflected in the recent election results—were the big winners of this election season.]
Demonizing teachers and trying to undercut their unions is offensive and demoralizing, of course. And it is being done quite deliberately, because we are the last of the great enterprises in America—public or private—that is still highly unionized. But the real danger is that these attacks seriously undermine confidence in public education.
Public schools—which are still the key to a vibrant, fair, tolerant, democratic society, public schools which are really the only vehicle that can lead a great nation to new economic heights—are being buffeted by a barrage of supposed silver bullets. For example:
- The fixation with the almighty standarized test score and everything that flows from that;
- The notion that simply hanging a “charter” sign above a school door will impart some magic fairy dust that will help prepare every child (even the 49 million public school students who don’t go to charter schools) for the knowledge economy; and
- My favorite: that teachers and their unions are responsible for everything bad that happens in society, and if only they could get rid of this mythical epidemic of “bad” teachers everything would be good in the world. (I understand that the Chancellor tried to blame the UFT for bedbugs in schools). Now separate from the fact that there is a big difference between fighting for fairness for teachers and protecting "bad” teachers, the very predicate here is what is so disturbing. All these so-called “reforms” are premised on two beliefs. One: that teachers can do it all. And two: that neither educators nor our union really cares about kids. And that it takes “private enterprise”—consultants and managers from the business world, to simply shake us up, put the fear of g-d in us and “Presto, chango!” all kids will succeed. But the bottom line is that, no matter what the evidence to the contrary, no matter how noxious their premise is, no matter that these ideas will not improve education for all children, they are gaining currency, particularly in this environment of high-anxiety and austerity.
So painting us all with a broad brush of incompetence or indifference—while shifting all responsibility for education onto individual teachers (and the fight we must engage in to combat it)—run the risk of further eroding the public confidence that is essential to maintaining strong, supported public schools.
The last time this happened in New York City—a bad economy combined with a mayor who insidiously used new higher standards and assessments as a pretext to promote vouchers—we teamed up with the Chancellor to create the Chancellor’s District. But, back then, unlike now, we had a Chancellor we trusted and could work with.
But now, we have something more important. Community Bonds. Proudly, I have watched you build on the work your predecessors started—from organizing paras and family providers, to reaching out to parents, engaging in school- and district-based decision-making, growing Dial-a-Teacher and the UFT scholarship fund, promoting the One Nation March and community schools. You are making parents full partners with us and our members. Our work with community, and the alignment of our union with the parents of this city, is one of the principal ways to meet and beat back the challenges that face us.
And challenges we have—particularly now where the economy is the major driver—and where the American people have spoken this week about needing to make choices. And yet, where public education was an issue in this election—and in most cases it was not, public schools and public school teachers trumped those who want to denigrate us, such as in the election of Vincent Gray in D.C., or of Senator Perkin and Senator-elect Avella here.
But bottom line, in this period of austerity, there will be choices. And we must choose to continue to work to improve public education, and build public confidence in public education. Because who else but us will hold in our hearts and heads the obligation to ensure that every child can both dream their dreams and achieve them. Simultaneously, we must fight to hold everyone—elected leaders, those responsible for schools, as well as the media—to the same high standards, and to continue to invest in public schools.
The labor movement’s vision—of good jobs, widespread economic opportunity, a social compact binds us together and is a mark of a civilized society—is one that will set America on the right path.
Those ideals are more powerful and enduring than those who claim to distrust government (yet want their earmarks), or who equate healthcare reform with socialism (yet want to maintain Medicare and social security) or who think eroding the safety net when millions of people are hungry, jobless, homeless and increasingly hopeless is somehow an appropriate course of action. I have no doubt that our ideals will prevail. But I have no doubt it will not be easy.
But, look around you. We don’t have to do this alone. We have never achieved anything of worth alone, or without fighting for it.
Our challenge today is to earn the trust of our members and of the public we serve at a time when distrust in our institutions is higher than it’s ever been. The social contract that is so central to our beliefs—which holds the American dream—has frayed. We must play for the long-term, not the short-term. Tuesday’s results remind us that there will be setbacks, but that we must never let up. It will not be easy—the economic upheaval that’s affecting all of us risks separating us from those who work without the benefit of a union, or who are out of work or constantly fearful. We must not be perceived as islands of privilege. We must be beacons of what’s possible.
And we must use all our tools—politics, mobilization, communication, and our ability to educate and lead—for the public good, for opportunity for all, for democracy, for the resources kids need.
We face daunting challenges. But I urge you not to be afraid—and don’t be afraid to fight. Imagine how our sisters and brothers 50 years ago, led by President Charlie Cogen, must have felt as they went on strike—a step that teachers in NYC had never taken before, an act that was illegal—to achieve their ideals and goals. Even belonging to a teachers union was viewed by many as unprofessional and somehow at cross-purposes with teachers’ commitment to their students and their profession.
Of course, we know better—being an active member of a union is central to achieving good schools for kids and for our professional goals.
So we are not afraid to fight, but we must fight smart and fight for what is right. For a vision of public education and public service where we are the best that we can be. For ideals, like our insistence that public officials invest in children and follow the evidence of what works, not simply their own ideology or do things because of political expediency.
I want to close on a personal note. I want to thank you. There are so many people in the room who have supported me through thick and thin. That includes an amazing network of friends and family who have supported me, even when I was too pre-occupied to reciprocate.
And I want to thank my union family. The staff directors with whom I served—Tom, Elizabeth, Jeff, Michael, Leroy and Ellie. And those who I worked with intensely and well into more nights than we care to remember on negotiations, elections, legislation and budgets, class size, special education and other educational issues, health and safety, arbitrations and lawsuits, and the endless number of concerns that are ever-present when you represent 200,000 people in more than 1,500 worksites. And our activists—including those receiving awards today, our chapter leaders, teacher center specialists and ed liasons, COPE volunteers, district and special reps, borough reps and officers, and everyone I have omitted because of time (and senior moments). You are the backbone of this union. You have always been the backbone. And it is a wonderful joy to watch how you have joined forces behind Michael Mulgrew’s tenacious and formidable leadership in some of the toughest times we have ever faced.
Finally, I want to thank our members. I loved being in schools in New York, and I loved seeing our members engaged in our work. The relationships between educators and kids; the trust and reliance our members had on their chapter leaders; and the chapter leaders had on the district, special and borough reps. This was evident on a daily basis, and especially evident in times of great challenge or during the extraordinary emergencies we have experienced.
I miss being among you day-in and day-out, but I admire so much that this solidarity and resolve remains steadfast. Generation to Generation.
I wish I had a magic wand to make our critics and their baseless, ignorant insults disappear. But I never had and we never will. Their definition of teacher unionism is farcical, and malevolent. It will take our tenacity to beat it back. So let’s reaffirm what we stand for. And make no apology for it. Our union fights for the tools and conditions our members need to best help their students. We help our members secure professional latitude, voice and support, and the economic security they deserve to provide for their families. We are tireless champions of opportunity and democracy and of social and economic justice—for all. We are driven by our values and strengthened by the bonds of solidarity.
That was true when President Cogen had the best job in the world—UFT president—and is just as true under the skillful leadership of President Mulgrew. I thank you all for this honor, and most importantly, for making a difference every day.