American Labor Movement at a Crossroads

Remarks by AFT President Randi Weingarten
The American Labor Movement at a Crossroads: New Thinking, New Organizing, New Strategies
Washington, DC
January 15, 2015

(As prepared for delivery.)


Our history in the United States of fighting back against inequality, of fighting for justice and opportunity and access is rich: the New Deal; the Great Society; equal rights for women; civil rights; LGBT rights. All won with the critical support of the American labor movement.

But today, our movement is at a crossroads: Globalization. Technological changes. Diminished union density. A view that we are an “antiquated brand.” And aggressive, well-funded legislative and judicial challenges by anti-union forces to break our infrastructure: Right-to-work. Paycheck deception. Harris v. Quinn. Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association.

I don’t need to tell this room the many challenges our movement faces.

At the same time, workers need a voice now more than ever before: Decades of wage stagnation. Rising economic inequality. A shrinking middle class. Devastating student debt. Dwindling retirement security. Jobs that are constantly shifting. The first generation that’s doing worse than their parents. Working families that are feeling squeezed. One of every two students in public education is poor. And they need a voice. They need us.

So, the question becomes: How can we renew the American labor movement so we can face these challenges, be the voice working people want and the robust engine our economy needs? Are we flexible enough, forward-thinking enough, to meet the demands of a 21st-century economy? Can our infrastructure adapt to meet the needs of new generations?

And make no mistake, this is on us. It’s our responsibility. Sure, we’ve faced assaults from the Wal-Marts and the Koch brothers, the Scott Walkers and the Sam Alitos, the hedge-funders.

They all understand the potential power of American labor, which is why they do what they do. But we can’t simply focus on what they have done. We must focus on what we should do. We can’t lose sight of the power of a movement of labor, of the solidarity of working people.

We’ve retooled before. Forgive me for a moment, but I’m a history teacher. Look at the 1920s, when the ranks of the American labor movement were decimated. Unbridled corporate power was skyrocketing. And totalitarian states that destroyed independent labor movements had developed abroad, with echoes here in the United States. But rather than accepting its fate, the American labor movement developed a vision and a strategy for its renewal that would lead, in two short decades, to its height.

When confronted with a new era of American capitalism dominated by mass industries like auto and steel, American unions developed a model of industrial unionism that revived and reinvigorated the labor movement and made it into a force for decades of social, economic and political reforms.

And today, as we face a new global economy, one centered much less on industry and much more on knowledge, we must again develop a new model of unionism for the 21st century. We are in the technology era, moving at the speed of light. We can no longer operate as if we’re in a factory. The knowledge era has arrived.

As circumstances change, our nation changes, the world changes. We too must change.


Now, I’m sure a few of you are thinking, “But if we abandon industrial unionism, we are waving the white flag.” Let me be clear: We will never wave the white flag, because we will never surrender our values. At the same time, we can’t conflate industrial unionism with the labor movement itself. Our strategy and tactics are different from our values.

We believe that the labor movement should provide collective voice to working people, the means to organize.

We believe that to provide collective voice, the labor movement should foster solidarity and democracy in its ranks, promoting member activism. We believe that the labor movement should organize for economic justice, political power and dignity for all working people. We believe that the labor movement should organize for social justice, seeking dignity for all rather than prosperity for a few.

And when you believe in economic and educational justice and opportunity in democracy, in voting rights and social justice, that leads you not simply to the fight, but to the work to ensure that all communities have access to high-quality public services.

These enduring values have guided our efforts within the American Federation of Teachers to develop a new paradigm of unionism. Today, I would like to highlight four areas of our work as a union that we have rethought in significant ways:

  • our engagement with community;
  • our focus on the quality of the public services our members provide;
  • our “‘internal” organizing and member mobilization; and
  • our “external” organizing of the unorganized.


As a nation, our pendulum has constantly swung from individualism to collectivism and back again.

Over the past decades, the idea of collective voice and action has been undermined in the name of innovation, disruption and globalization. And that’s led to more working families feeling squeezed—even after they’ve worked hard, even after they’ve played by the rules. Today, I think it’s fair to say that the pendulum is beginning to swing back toward the notion that it does take a village, toward collectivism. We saw this in the Wisconsin Statehouse, with Occupy, with the movement after Ferguson, with the incredible show of solidarity we saw this weekend in France.

These are streaks of activism, moments of engagement. They are not movements.

The impulse for unity—for peace, for democracy, for liberty, for the ladder of economic and educational opportunity—is there. It’s not just what we’ve seen this week in Paris or during the Arab Spring. You see it on Twitter every nanosecond. People want to come together. Our challenge is to work together to build new movements, build a new vision for collective action.

Community must become the new “density” of American unionism. We can no longer focus—as industrial unionism did—exclusively on the workplace or rely on our own density to set market standards, raise wages or improve working conditions.

Today, public education has the greatest union density of any major sector of the American economy, but a singular focus on the four walls of the schoolhouse no longer works for our K-12 members. We need a new approach, one that builds power through partnership with community.

The national AFT and increasing numbers of our locals are building organic relationships with community. These relationships aren’t transactional. It’s a real two-way street. And we’re working to rethink how we engage community in everything we do.

Here are some examples:

  • Later today, Mary Cathryn Ricker, the AFT’s executive vice president, will describe how her local in St. Paul, Minn., made the community into active participants in the negotiations for its collective bargaining agreement.
  • The success of the 2012 strike of the Chicago Teachers Union resulted, in large measure, from the strength of its community engagement.
  • Nationally, the AFT has joined with community and education organizations in the formation of the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, which takes on a broad array of issues, from curriculum and high-stakes testing to social services and school discipline.
  • In the wake of the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, for example, the AFT and its locals have intensified our focus on issues of racial justice and ensuring the judicial system is just for all.
  • When scores of young women began coming forward to share how their colleges failed to deal with accusations of rampant sexual assault, our union helped to change policies on campus, including my sharing my own story of sexual assault nearly 30 years ago.


The AFT is a public sector union with members in education, healthcare and local government. From austerity to privatization, we find ourselves on the frontlines of these battles daily. Ensuring the quality of the services we provide is key to fending off these attacks.

Quality can no longer be the province of management, as it was within the framework of industrial unionism. Then, unions negotiated wages, working conditions and due process. But the employer alone decided how to organize and deliver goods and services, and with that prerogative, limited the voices and ideas of those closest to the work.

Today, we’re focused on securing the voice of our members in the important decisions of their workplaces, be it a school or a hospital, a daycare center, a government office or a university.

For example, in New York City, the United Federation of Teachers has negotiated PROSE schools, in which school staffs can adopt educational innovations that waive Department of Education and contractual regulations with a supermajority vote of 65 percent. Real teacher voice in their school’s educational direction is a far richer, more robust expression of fundamental union values than any system of industrial-style regulation.

This is what I call solution-driven unionism. Actually, this is what California’s ABC Unified School District—where labor-management collaboration is a reality—called solution-driven unionism.

Solution-driven unionism is rooted in solving problems, not winning arguments. It’s about building the power we need to negotiate as real partners. It takes power to stand up for our values and to find common ground. It takes power to fight back and to fight forward. It’s a “both/and.” That’s how you move forward.

So, even as we’re under attack, as budgets are cut or services are privatized, we are focused on advancing a proactive, high-quality education agenda that will help all students succeed.

We can reclaim the promise of public education if we invest in strong neighborhood public schools that are safe, collaborative and welcoming environments for students, for parents, for educators and for the broader community. Schools where teachers and school staff are well-prepared, well-supported, have manageable class sizes and time to collaborate. Schools with rigorous standards aligned to an engaging curriculum that focuses on teaching and learning, not on testing, and that includes art and music and civics and the sciences—where all kids’ instructional needs are met. Schools with multiple pathways to graduation. Schools with evaluation systems that are not about sorting and firing but are about teaching and learning. And schools with wraparound services to address our children’s social, emotional and health needs.


A union is its members and is at its strongest when its members are active and engaged. When our adversaries are trying to divide members from their union, an active membership provides a needed counterweight.

For example, in Michigan, in the face of the new right-to-work law and concerted anti-union campaigns to encourage “free-riding,” the AFT successfully signed up 92 percent of the workers in our collective bargaining units.

But to fully engage our members, we can’t just be service providers, a model that defined industrial unionism. The relationship between a union and its members can’t be transactional or contractual. It should be transformational, a real movement.

We must adopt an organizing model that focuses on activating and empowering members through collective action. And this model can go beyond workplace campaigns and job actions. It’s far harder to marginalize the pre-K teacher on the frontlines, talking about why she needs paid sick leave, or the ER nurse explaining why she needs the best training to provide the best services. And the empowerment that comes along with engagement is catalytic.

Member activism and mobilization is particularly important with the millennial generation. On the whole, millennials are more politically progressive and open to collective action, more insistent that their voice be included in important workplace decisions. Vast income inequality and crippling college debt are their norm, and they want to change it. Even though we can be the change agent, as adjuncts and graduate students on campuses are seeing more and more, millennials need to be actively won over by the labor movement.

To do this, we must engage them in ways that reflect their preferred modes of communication—in small, informal gatherings and, digitally, through social media.

Social media has extraordinary organizing potential, and the labor movement needs to adopt it in our work. Some of you know that I am not just an evangelist for social media and organizing among millennials. While I still believe real, not virtual, contact is best, I do my best to walk that social-media walk, spending an inordinate amount of time, everyone in my life reminds me, communicating with AFT members on Twitter and Facebook. But I think it is important for membership activism and mobilization in the AFT that our national union president be accessible to her rank-and-file members, and my presence in social media helps make that possible.


Every worker deserves a voice. And so, new organizing becomes essential not only for those currently in unions, but also for the welfare of all working people.

At the AFT, new organizing has allowed us to grow our membership during a time when teacher unions and public sector unions have been under serious attack. Later today, the AFT’s chief of staff, Jessica Smith, will discuss that organizing work in some detail.

But let me give a few spoilers—sorry Jessica. It involves a mix of traditional and nontraditional organizing and organizational forms:

  • full union membership, and associate union membership;
  • classic workplace organizing, and organizing of a bargaining unit cast across thousands of home daycare sites;
  • traditional single-employer collective bargaining, and multiemployer collective bargaining;
  • organizing projects that are organized around a single employer, and organizing projects that, in a throwback to the earliest days of teacher unions, include all of the adjuncts in metropolitan Philadelphia in a single organization; and
  • in our charter school work, organizing some of the most bitterly anti-union employers in the nation.

We need to be innovative in our organizing. That is what a lot of this conference is about. Traditional workplace organizing along the lines of an industrial union is not the best fit for the current landscape of American work and the American worker. While we have had some success using different approaches in different contexts, we are still in the early stages of this experimental work, and are just now beginning to draw lessons from it.

So many of the speakers today are doing this work, confronting these new realities so we can help workers and their families fulfill the same goals and aspirations we had when we joined the American labor movement.


The renewal of the American labor movement is no small undertaking. We cannot be glib about the challenges before us, or claim quick, easy victories that fool ourselves and others that transformation is not needed. We must figure out how old and new power can come together.

We know from our history, we know from the power we see every day in working people coming together and speaking out, that renewal can take place. We know that the enduring values of the American labor movement provide a strong foundation for a renewed American unionism that will give collective voice to working people in a 21st-century global knowledge economy. We know that the building blocks of a renewed American unionism are to be found within the American labor movement—in the new thinking, the new organizing and the new strategies that have developed within our ranks. We know that the critical process of drawing upon this new thinking, this new organizing and these new strategies to build a renewed unionism has just begun, and that is why we are gathered here today.

Today, I challenge you to share and learn as much as you can, to be skeptical, to think outside the box, to think big. It will take all of us to chart a new course forward. Thank you.