The Union Leader Who Says She Can Get Teachers Back in Schools

During the Trump era, they had launched a successful and widely admired national protest movement, RedforEd, to demand higher pay and public school funding. A wave of teacher walkouts in 2018 and 2019 attracted broad public support, including from the parents whose lives were disrupted by strikes.

When the coronavirus swept the nation last year, teachers knew their power.

“You cannot say, ‘Well, half a loaf in a pandemic is going to be good enough,’” Ms. Weingarten said. “Half a loaf is what teachers have been dealing with for most of their lives.”

Starting in the fall, politics became a major predictor of whether a county’s schools were open. Even today, support for Mr. Trump is associated with in-person school. In Democratic-leaning America, where unions are powerful, classrooms are often empty.

A body of international research now suggests that in-school transmission of Covid-19 can be effectively mitigated with precautions such as masks and social distancing, especially where local virus rates are controlled. But with the emergence of dangerous new variants and a slow vaccine rollout, teachers remain skeptical.

Can Ms. Weingarten, 63, reassure them?

The A.F.T. represents some of the biggest districts in cities that dominate education politics, like New York, Chicago and Washington. Another A.F.T. local, in San Francisco, also reached a tentative deal on Sunday to establish health and safety guidelines for reopening schools.

Ms. Weingarten was inspired to get involved in union activism as a teenager, when she saw her mother, a teacher, go on strike in Rockland County, a northern suburb of New York City.

Her first job in organized labor was as a lawyer for the A.F.T.’s New York City local, the United Federation of Teachers. She led that union from 1998 to 2009, during a period of extraordinary conflict with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his hard-charging schools chancellor, Joel Klein. The two men sought to expand the city’s largely non-unionized charter schools and use student standardized tests to evaluate teachers.

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Jonny Richards

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