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Randi Weingarten

Randi Weingarten '80 speaks to an ILR audience in 2012 as part of Union Days. Photo: Chris Kitchen Photography.

Randi Weingarten '80 on activism, labor, Cornell and inequality

When Randi Weingarten '80 landed at Cornell in 1976, the Ithaca campus was buzzing with the righteous bustle of student activism. The decade-long campaign to unionize a J.P. Stevens Textiles mill, immortalized in the film "Norma Rae," was reaching a climax and the anti-Reagan "Frontlash" movement was taking over the Arts Quad with an aggressive voter-registration push.

Randi Weingarten

Randi Weingarten '80. Photo: Chris Kitchen Photography.

Weingarten, considered by many the country's most active and influential labor leader as president of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers, was in thick of it.

"Frontlash was starting up and you could feel the energy and I loved it," Weingarten recalls. "I'll never forget that two of my friends, Nancy Koch ['80] and Lynne Paltrow ['79] and I, would sit outside in the Ives courtyard for hours just thrashing out the issue of the day. We dove right in."

Weingarten beat a path from ILR to law school and labor litigation via the New York City-based United Federation of Teachers, an AFT affiliate. A six-year stint as a history teacher and UFT member followed at Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn. Along the way, she was guided by the ethos forged in Ithaca.

The ILR School set a particularly high bar: "We used to tease about the school name meaning 'I Love Reading' or 'I Loathe Reading,' but in retrospect, it was highly relevant to what I do now," she says. "Did I always find it really compelling? No. But, it did prepare me for the world."

On top of everything else, Weingarten was president of her sorority, Delta Phi Epsilon. She recalls dancing with friends (who will remain nameless to protect their reputations, she says) on a table at a Collegetown bar to the Motown classic "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" to let off steam.

College also brought serious challenges and setbacks. Last year, Weingarten penned a harrowing piece for Jezebel, revealing that she was sexually assaulted as a rising senior during a summer working in labor relations in Warren, Ohio. She describes the following fall semester as "very tough," but she persisted with the help of friends and faculty.

"I don't know if in 1981 I would be saying the same exact things as I'm saying now," she muses. "But, in retrospect, thinking about the arc of my life and the things that give me a lot of joy, the times at Cornell were some of the most joyful, plus some of the most stressful."

Many of the labor lessons Weingarten absorbed in Ithaca have grown in relevance as collective bargaining declines and social inequality explodes.

"We need to change industrial and labor policy in the United States. We need to grow jobs, good middle-class jobs that actually respect the labor that is brought to them," she says. "At the end of the day, ILR is just as important now for exactly same reasons as it was in the 1940s."

Randi Weingarten with members of Clara Barton High School

Weingarten, then a teacher, with her students at Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn, New York, in 1994. Photo: American Federation of Teachers/Provided.

The AFT is pursuing an ambitious agenda to "reclaim the promise" of America -- not only by fighting back against attacks launched by corporate education "philanthropists" and the Koch brothers -- but by "fighting forward" to build better communities and invest workers' pension funds in infrastructure to share the wealth hoarded by the one percent, Weingarten says.

In other words, a Frontlash.

"We need to offer solutions to make things better. We have to focus on the community and fight to make sure that immigrants are not in the shadows and kids do not fear their parents are going to be deported at any moment," Weingarten says. "We have to fight to make sure African-American boys can walk safely in the streets. It's great that gay people have the right to get married, but what if they feel they can't take time off work if their partner is sick? That is just as important."

Weingarten is prolific on social media with close to 50,000 Twitter followers and she isn't afraid to wade into what she describes as troll-infested waters: "I engage pretty aggressively. Social media is an incredible democratization, but it's also laced with a lot of anger and people don't listen to each other."

Weingarten often returns to campus to encourage activists from a Frontlash successor, the Cornell Organization for Labor Action (COLA), and give speeches on the future of the labor movement. ILR Professor James Gross, who taught Weingarten and continues to nurture current ILR students, remains a touchstone.

"He pushed me academically in a way that I was unwilling to accept in that moment … but now, in retrospect, that kind of pushing and prodding helps you develop resilience that is probably one of the most important characteristics in life," she says.

Entering her eighth year as elected leader of the AFT, and with a presidential election looming, Weingarten isn't going anywhere. "We're fighting so our world and our country is a better place for people who wake up every day and want to have a decent life for themselves and their family. That's why we spend our careers working in the labor movement -- to create a better life for working Americans."

Andrew Crook is a journalist and ILR graduate student (MILR '15) who interned at the American Federation of Teachers this summer.

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