By James B. Kelleher
DETROIT (Reuters) - In the maelstrom of criticism surrounding America's unionized public teachers, the woman running the second-largest educator union says time has come to collaborate on public school reform rather than resist.
Randi Weingarten, re-elected this week for a third term as president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) with 98 percent of the vote, wants her 1.5 million members to be open to changes that might improve public schools.
That willingness to engage, she says, could win over parents, taxpayers, voters, well-funded pressure groups and cash-strapped cities that have blamed unionized teachers for high costs and poor performing schools.
"We have to unite those we serve and those we represent," Weingarten said in an interview with Reuters at the AFT convention in Detroit. "And we have to think ... what's good for kids and what's fair for teachers?"
Weingarten rebuffed her critics in the union for mistaking collaboration with surrender and said her overwhelming victory in the election showed rank-and-file members supported the move.
"There are a lot of people who are very angry for legitimate reasons and want to hear simply the 'fight back'," Weingarten said. "But this is about fighting for things as well as fighting against things."
Across the United States, public education -- and the often unionized teachers and support staff employed in the sector -- are under attack from reformers who argue the country's schools need to be reformed and partially privatized in order to improve student performance.
Weingarten was attacked by critics for a willingness to throw her support behind deals in places like Philadelphia and Cleveland, where AFT locals bargained away tenure protections, or New Haven, Connecticut, where the union accepted a teacher evaluation system that removes teachers whose students don't perform well on standardized tests.
"Some people would argue what happened in New Haven is not solutions-driven unionism," Weingarten told Reuters. "Do I embrace every single aspect of that agreement? Is everything single aspect of that agreement part of my particular belief system about how education should run? Of course not."
Weingarten's call for greater community outreach strikes many observers as a realistic strategy for building support for public education, long attacked for high costs and poor results.
"She has said she's open to any reform, under certain conditions, except private school vouchers. She's drawn the line there," said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at a liberal-leaning think tank, The Century Foundation, and author of "Tough Liberal" a biography of former AFT President Albert Shanker.
"But on every other issue - charter schools, merit pay for teachers - she has said that the AFT is willing to talk. And I think that's the right track to take."
SUMMER OF DISCONTENTS
But activists in the union, hardened by the layoffs, furloughs, pay freezes and benefit cuts that states and municipalities have forced on teachers nationwide in a weak economy, remain vocal and leery of Weingarten's blueprint for the future.
"We have to ask ourselves what are the solutions that are driving the particular model that Weingarten is talking about," said Jeff Bale, a professor at Michigan State University who spoke at a panel discussion hosted by AFT dissidents from Chicago and Detroit.
"Concessions don't lead to more prestige with the public. Concessions don't win more credibility at the bargaining table. They lead to more concessions."
Critics say Weingarten's willingness to see traditional job protections like tenure disappear and to accept charter schools, merit pay and other changes is a retreat from core principles and plays into the hands of those who want to eliminate public education, privatize government services and curb the ability of workers to unionize.
What the new approach will mean for AFT's membership remains to be seen. Like its bigger counterpart, the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, AFT has seen its full dues paying membership decline in recent years, according to its official filings with the United States Department of Labor.
AFT spokeswoman Carolyn Fiddler says total AFT membership -- which includes retirees and members paying partial dues -- is actually up from "1.5 million and change" in 2010 to "1.5 million and some more change" in 2012, a claim repeated in the state of the union report issued at the Detroit convention.
At the event, officials said AFT, which represents teachers and other school staff as well as healthcare workers, had signed up 79 new bargaining units in 18 states in the past year.
REAL FIGHT LEFT?
Weingarten told Reuters that there was "real fight left" in the AFT. But the question is how widespread and deep it is.
One convention highlight came when the 3,000 delegates, in a spirited floor vote, unanimously backed a "special order of business" promising the union's full support for "AFT educators in hostile bargaining environment who are fighting to defend fair contracts and the right to bargain collectively."
That describes just about every AFT local in the country.
But the resolution specifically cited five cities, including Chicago, the nation's third-largest public school system, where teachers represented by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) have been involved in bitter contract talks with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat, and could walk out beginning on August 18.
At a weekend caucus on the sidelines of the convention, delegates from Chicago and Detroit, where an emergency manager has imposed a 10 percent pay cut on teachers, were skeptical the national union has the appetite for strikes or walkouts.
But they agreed, as William Weir, a Detroit public school teacher put it, that "it's time to do things differently."
Activists seemed especially excited by CTU, which resisted an effort by Emanuel to unilaterally impose a longer school day and won -- a rare victory these days for a teachers union.
Debby Pope, who works in the CTU's grievance unit, said the message from Chicago was simple: old-fashioned hardball, combined with outreach to parents and communities likely to be hurt by public school closings, works better than compromise.
"We will not be heard at the table unless we are out there in the streets seen and heard fighting," she said.
(Edited by Peter Bohan and Mary Milliken)