Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, made headlines on Sunday when she came out to support vaccine mandates for educators after having previously opposed them.
Weingarten drew praise for reevaluating her stance since AFT is the second-largest teachers union in the country, with 1.7 million members, and has played a prominent role in shaping school policies amid the pandemic.
But the union itself has not changed its position on mandates ― only Weingarten personally. In a conversation with HuffPost on Monday, the labor leader clarified she was speaking as an individual, albeit an influential one.
Last fall, the union’s executive council issued a resolution stating that the COVID-19 vaccines were the best way to fight the coronavirus but that receiving the vaccine should not be mandatory for teachers. The council may issue a new resolution superseding that earlier one, but it has not yet done so.
Weingarten told HuffPost that her union’s leaders try to manage the group’s membership’s conflicting views. “You represent everybody within a union,” Weingarten said. “We’re a democracy, just like the United States. We’re a big tent, and we represent everyone, and we have to create a consensus within our membership, particularly when you’re talking about something that affects everybody. You have to go through that kind of process of really talking to people.”
Many other labor leaders face the same internal dynamic as public and private employers alike move to implement vaccine mandates. Several states plan to require that public workers be vaccinated as a condition of employment, and employers like Tyson Foods plan to do the same. (In some cases, people who remain unvaccinated would have to undergo regular COVID-19 testing.)
A few labor groups have balked at these plans, including leading unions for firefighters and meatpacking workers and the other major teachers union, the National Education Association.
Other labor leaders, however, have been more enthusiastic. Before he died of a heart attack last week, former AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said he supported mandates because they would make all workers safer.
If the U.S. had a better vaccination rate, we might not be talking about mandates. Right now, around 71% of adults have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccines authorized for emergency use, but in a dozen states, that rate is still below 60%. Caseloads and hospitalizations are rising across the country as the delta variant spreads, threatening in-person schools and the economy at large.
On the whole, teachers have been remarkably accepting of the vaccine compared to the general population, Weingarten noted. Nearly 90% of educators and school staff are vaccinated, according to the White House. Weingarten said this success story had been lost amid the anger at teachers’ unions during the pandemic.