07/12/2011 10:13 am ET | Updated Sep 11, 2011

AFT President Randi Weingarten Pushes Back At Public Employee Critics

WASHINGTON -- Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, blasted critics of teachers' unions Monday, claiming Republican governors have been trying to break apart a natural coalition of teachers and parents to fundamentally change the quality of life in their states.

With the major education cuts and attempts to eliminate collective bargaining rights in 2011, Weingarten said she's seen "greater ferocity" than ever before in opposition to educators from people like Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) and Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) under the "guise of the budget."

"Let's refuse to be defined by people who are happy to lecture us about the state of public education but wouldn't last 10 minutes in a classroom," Weingarten, head of one of the nation's largest teachers' unions, told a large crowd at the annual national AFT conference.

Weingarten later told reporters: "There's a very different presence and a very different push back" when teachers face the prospect of losing collective bargaining rights along with other public employees. Weingarten said the massive protests in Wisconsin this winter featured a community alliance of educators with fire fighters, snow plow drivers and police officers, which gave the teachers' union greater strength.

Kathy Empie, a Wisconsin educator and past president of the Superior Federation of Teachers, told The Huffington Post the criticism of teachers in her state is the worst she's ever seen.

"At first you didn't understand, really, the magnitude of everything that was happening," Empie said.

Empie and a group of Wisconsin teachers told HuffPost there has been a large network built among public employees in Wisconsin as a result of Republican attempts to make cuts to state workers' benefits and eliminate collective bargaining rights.

But not all educators at the conference had horror stories of their experience in their home states.

Byron Clemens, regional vice president of AFT Missouri, AFL-CIO, was on hand to receive a grant for teacher development in early childhood education. Clemens described his work in St. Louis, Mo., as bottom-up professional development, rather than top-down, taking a lot of input form educators in the classrooms.

"We highlighted our collaboration between the district and the union, and we don't always see eye-to-eye, but we try to do what's best for the students," Clemens told HuffPost.

Clemens pushed back on the idea that there should be an effort to get bad teachers out of the classroom. Instead of closing the door on them, he said, there should be more energy put towards improving all teachers.

"It's in our best interest to up the level of professionalism, [but] at the same time we don't want to keep bad teachers," Clemens said. He explained if a bad teacher cannot be rooted out of the classroom, it's a flaw in the system, not an obstacle created by teachers' unions.

Weingarten cited the successes of countries such as Canada and Finland, which are both out-performing the United States in education, according to The New York Times, and have a much greater union membership rate.

Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman addressed the conference and defended unions, similarly drawing on examples of companies with high union membership.

Krugman said when it comes to state government, where most public employees work, it's useful to see a state as a big school district with a police department.

"If you want to say what does it mean to talk about what is a public worker, the answer is: It's a teacher," Krugman said.

Krugman asserted part of the outrage against public employee unions today stems from an idea, born of the 1970s' recession, that organized labor had too much power.

Weingarten said her side will have a chance to push back against that idea by taking on anti-collective bargaining legislation. The Wisconsin recall elections begin this summer, and Ohio's S.B. 5, which limited collective bargaining rights for teachers and other public employees in Ohio, is up for referendum and could be voted to be repealed in November.