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Union President Flip-Flops as Political Winds Change

American Federation of Teachers President, Randi Weingarten, officially changed her long-held position on masking in schools. She released a statement last week praising the CDC’s new masking guidelines, which re-categorized much of the country as having low COVID-transmission, and advised that people in such areas will not need to wear masks. Weingarten referred to these guidelines as “long-needed new metrics” that would give us a “safe off-ramp from universal masking”. She unequivocally declared that “[t]he CDC’s guidance is informed by science, not politics”.

However, less than a month ago, Weingarten suggested on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that for her to support an end to burdensome mask requirements, the spread of COVID had to be “low enough so that there’s no dissemination or transmission in schools.” As COVID is likely here to stay, masking until zero transmission would amount to a forever-masking policy.

Weingarten’s sudden about-face on masking isn’t the result of many months of soul-searching, nor are her two different positions separated by years of scientific debate on the efficacy of masking for children—these statements are three weeks apart. If the change in CDC guidelines was truly “long-needed,” why did Weingarten publicly support indefinite masking up until her statement on Friday? Despite her claims, Weingarten is not a longtime advocate of removing masks and getting students and teachers back to normal; she has instead changed her position to fit the political fashions of the moment.

On masking and other COVID restrictions, the political winds are blowing in a different direction today than they were three weeks ago. On Thursday, Impact Research, a Democrat-run research firm started by President Biden’s campaign pollster, released a memo urging Democrats to ease up on mandatory masking and “[d]eclare the crisis phase of COVID-19 over and push for feeling and acting more normal”. The next day, the CDC changed its guidelines. On Sunday, Congress lifted its mask mandate just in time for President Biden’s State of the Union address, and the same day, the Mayor of New York announced that he’s considering lifting mask and vaccine mandates. California, Oregon, and Washington are set to end their school mask mandates in early March.

In short, the science hasn’t changed in the three weeks between Weingarten’s statements—the politics have.

Unions are deeply involved in politics and policymaking. At the highest levels, they behave like any other special interest group, funneling money from their members into political campaigns and lobbying government agencies. Even the CDC, which has a duty to advise the public based on science, instead took input from powerful teachers unions in crafting masking guidelines in 2021. Union officials have no compunction about admitting that they interfere in public health policy—Weingarten even claimed that she asked the CDC to change their guidelines this time around.

CDC guidelines on masking are influenced by Randi Weingarten and other union officials, yet they herald new guidelines as scientific breakthroughs rather than the fruit of their own lobbying efforts. In reality, none of this has much to do with science at all.

Union officials had a hand in creating the CDC guidelines that kept teachers and students in masks for far too long, and now they’re trying to take credit for removing masking restrictions and earn praise for solving a problem of their own design. Powerful union officials like Randi Weingarten only follow the science when it comes as a result of their lobbying, at a time that is most politically expedient for them.

Patrick Moran

Patrick J. Moran is a Staff Attorney at Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector employees offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights. Prior to joining Americans for Fair Treatment, Patrick served as an attorney for the USDA. Before that, he was a legal associate at the Cato Institute, where he focused on First Amendment issues, including religious liberty and free speech. Patrick received his law degree from the University of Florida, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from University at Albany, SUNY. As a native New Yorker, he works to ensure that public-sector employees in his home state know their constitutional rights and receive fair treatment under the law. Patrick lives in Maryland with his wife.