My parents were not union activists. My mother was a teacher who went on strike at terrific financial sacrifice to the family, and my father was an electrical engineer who lost his job through no fault of his own. It made me question the central notion of capitalism—that if you work hard, you'll have plenty of opportunity.
After finishing law school, I went to work on Wall Street and then became counsel at the United Federation of Teachers, the union for educators in New York City public schools. In 1998, I became president. When I first joined UFT, the city was still working through the ravages of the 1970s fiscal crisis. Schools were in disrepair and teachers were paid poorly relative to their counterparts in the suburbs.
As president, my first priority was teacher pay. One of the toughest debates was over merit pay. Bonuses for output are common in the private sector, but in public education most of the focus should be on the inputs for student success. We agreed to merit pay that recognizes the importance of collaborative efforts. We also switched our position to support mayoral control of city schools because we felt there had to be more accountability. None were easy stances.
Running for president of the American Federation of Teachers was the hardest choice I've made. I loved the challenges of New York, but there's so much work to do on the national level. Education is about creating opportunities for kids to realize their dreams while the labor movement is about trying to create opportunity in an employment setting. Teachers have been unfairly vilified for the challenges in education. There is not a bad-teacher epidemic. I think anti-union sentiment has become more vocal with the demise of the middle class. There are so few workers in unions right now that people don't see how they can help.
The Knowledge Economy requires us to transform our schools from the Industrial Age, where they're still set. Most parents send their kids to public schools and believe they're doing a good job. We need to do a better job.