News Story

Weingarten: ‘We spent every day ... trying to get schools open’

Teachers union head, testifying under oath, denies a long, clear public record

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told members of Congress recently that the union she leads was a strong advocate for opening up schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. The record of the nation’s second-largest teachers union, including its Detroit affiliate, says otherwise.

“We spent every day from February (2020) on trying to get schools open,” Weingarten told the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis. “We knew that remote education was not a substitute for opening schools. We know that young people learn and connect best in person, so opening schools safely – even during a pandemic – guided our actions.”

But the Detroit Federation of Teachers, the union affiliate in Michigan’s largest school district, was a strong critic of reopening schools for in-person learning, as were affiliates in other states. Detroit union members authorized what they called a “safety strike,” with 91% of those voting in August 2020 to give their approval.

A subset of union members, organized under the name of By Any Means Necessary, called on the district to cancel in-person summer school that year. It also filed lawsuits to stop summer school classes and to reinstate remote teaching options once those had been curtailed.

The Detroit union also released a video, in which several members voiced their opposition to returning to the classroom. “We cannot stand by as our students, families and the Detroit community are put in harm’s way with face-to-face instruction,” one member said.

Another emphasized online instruction, saying, “We all need support to become the best online learners that we can possibly be.”

A spokesman for the Michigan Education Association, the state’s other large union, said his members would defend any other union that opted to strike.

“We will defend them publicly and if necessary through legal action,” said David Crim.

Other locals in Weingarten’s union fought the return to teaching in person.

“New York delays opening schools as unions balk,” according to an account in the Sept. 2, 2020, New York Times.

In Illinois, roughly three-quarters of the members of the Chicago Teachers Union who voted in a January 2022 election favored stopping in-person instruction.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot condemned the move, saying “there is no basis in the data, in science, in common sense to shut down an entire school system,” according to Chalkbeat.

The presence of a powerful union in a district meant it was more likely for school classrooms to stay closed for an extended period. That’s one finding of a University of Nevada professor who looked at pandemic-era school closings around the country.

Districts in which the union was the most powerful “were less likely to ever open for in-person instruction during the fall [2020] semester, and spent more weeks overall in distance learning,” Bradley D. Marianno wrote for the Brookings Institution.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.