The Resurgence of Teacher Unions

By Arlene Inouye and Jackson Potter

Illustrator: Joe Brusky

A version of this article was originally published by the Forge: Organizing Strategy and Practice ( It contributes to the growing discussions and organizing among education workers to promote social justice unionism. Arlene Inouye and Jackson Potter, authors of this article and contributors to Rethinking Schools’ book Teacher Unions and Social Justice, have been committed to a vision of social justice unionism for years. Their essays cover a broad range of important issues, including building ongoing community alliances, promoting democracy within their unions, and building support and power among a union’s membership. Although UTLA and the CTU are among the largest teacher union locals in the country, the tactics and strategies outlined in these essays can be useful for union locals of any size. To stay in touch with others who promote social justice teacher unionism visit and sign up for our e-newsletter.  

—Rethinking Schools editors

Two members of the Chicago Teachers Union’s (CTU) bargaining team visited Los Angeles in the summer of 2018, months into the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) contract campaign, to share lessons from their historic 2012 strike. Their presentation received a standing ovation. However, the contract demands that garnered the most applause and energy were for green spaces and community gardens at schools, affordable housing for students and their families, and efforts to expand a new union/community model for sustainable community schools with wraparound supports and culturally relevant curriculum. 

A renewed orientation toward social justice unionism has transformed contract bargaining for teacher unions over the past decade. In the five years leading up to the 2018 contract campaign and subsequent strike, UTLA organizers held thousands of conversations — in person, on the phone, at rallies, in groups, and one on one — with members, allies, and parents. Through this spadework, the union built broad consensus around demands that would have an impact outside the classrooms as well as inside. 

Putting common good demands at the core of our bargaining is no small part of the story behind the resurgence of teacher unions over the last decade. No less than 20 teacher strikes in the past eight years have injected hope and momentum into the labor movement’s landscape. From Arizona to West Virginia to St. Paul, teachers waged strikes that led to unprecedented victories in school investment, class sizes, staffing formulas, and common good demands after decades of underfunding, privatization, and demonization of public school teachers and staff. In most of these efforts, teachers have won because they’ve run strong contract campaigns focused on what organizer and author Jane McAlevey refers to as “structure tests.” Organizers engaged every member to take part in escalating actions that advanced a clear set of public good demands. 

In this article, we look at two case studies: the 2019 UTLA and CTU strikes. By detailing the methods we used to prepare and launch our largely successful contract campaigns, we hope we can help revive a labor movement that has remained largely dormant, even in the midst of historic teacher strikes. Now is the time to build on the grassroots organizing of teacher unions and grow a more militant labor movement across the country. 

Los Angeles 2019 
by Arlene Inouye

UTLA’s six-day strike in January 2019 was only the third strike in our union’s 50-year history. UTLA is the second-largest teacher union in the country, with 35,000 educators in a school district with 90 percent students of color, 85 percent low-income students, and large populations of foster, homeless, and special needs students. Because there are more than 1,000 schools spread across the district, we had to be intentional about each step of our organizing plan. We knew that to win, our members needed to feel connected to each other and to the union and receive clear and consistent information (e.g., infographics on the key issues). We also needed to build union structures that engaged and empowered workers by recruiting leaders at every school and supporting them with UTLA staff. 

UTLA was a testing ground for how to build a strong union. In the five years leading up to the strike, a group of progressive leaders had transformed UTLA from a service model with a backlog of 3,000 grievances to an organized, fighting union. We won all officer positions and a majority of the Board of Director positions with a commitment to take on the fundamental issues facing teachers and schools: 

nformation, engage personally on the issues, and take sequential actions that required greater investment and risk. To do this, we had to build relationships and structures. 

Because of the sheer size and spread of our members, UTLA divides the city into eight areas with four elected board of directors members and a steering committee from each area responsible for supporting school sites. One of our initial steps was to make it a priority for every school site to have a chapter chair and regular school site meetings. The UTLA area leaders, along with two staff organizers, recruited chapter leaders and trained them in how to have one-on-one conversations and build Chapter Action Teams (CATs).

Ideally, one CAT leader took responsibility for 10 members with whom they engaged regularly on union issues, including members who worked at multiple schools, such as counselors, psychologists, therapists, and nurses. The CAT training included how to identify leaders, map a school site, and have difficult one-on-one conversations, including techniques such as redirecting and “inoculating” members. When the district put out memos saying that our members couldn’t talk to parents or that special education teachers couldn’t strike, the CAT leaders helped members work through their fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD). The CAT leader training also addressed how members could walk each other through FUD. Initially, members gave multiple reasons why they couldn’t strike. Many of their concerns were compelling, such as “I’m a single mom; I can’t afford to strike.” Members allayed these fears by reminding each other what we were striking for, and how the gains were greater than the risks.

We heard from many new leaders who stepped up to be the chapter leader at their school that, for the first time, they felt that the union needed them. At a citywide meeting for all chapter leaders during the 2018 winter break, we had more than 1,000 school site chapter leaders — nearly double what we usually had. We passed out picket signs and told assembled leaders about the latest district roadblocks meant to keep us from striking. The leaders yelled, “Strike! Strike! Strike!” Although we weren’t able to get CAT leaders at every school in the district, this remains an ongoing and critical effort. Building Chapter Action Teams requires members to take an active role in the union and creates a school culture of accountability and community — essential when organizing for a strike.

Structure Tests

One of the first things we did to build an engaged and strike-ready membership was to clean up our data. In past years, we did not have the correct contact information for most members, making the kind of one-on-one organizing we set out to do nearly impossible. To remedy this, we launched a union-wide outreach campaign to secure accurate information from members through our chapter chairs, CAT teams, and staff. Our new research team designed and created a database with thousands of updated emails and cell phone numbers, which allowed us to track on our cell phones and computers every action that members took. 

Each action was a structure test to see where we were strong and where we needed to focus our organizing efforts. We started with regional rallies in November 2014 and led our first citywide rally in February 2015. 15,000 members attended, making it the largest action since the 1989 strike. A pivotal structure test was the membership-wide union election vote in February 2016. The “Build the Future, Fund the Fight” campaign, including a 30 percent dues increase, was on the ballot. A majority of UTLA members voted, and a resounding 82 percent voted yes, giving us confidence that members supported the direction the union was taking. Other structure tests included petitions about members’ willingness to take actions and put themselves on the line. Although effective at first, petitions eventually became routine and less of a gauge of commitment and involvement. Structure tests need to be adapted so they are most effective at any given time.

In another powerful structure test, we called upon UTLA members to wear red on Tuesdays — moving our members to publicly identify with UTLA and sparking conversations with colleagues, parents, and school administration about union issues. Wearing red affirmed members’ identity as part of a union collective and allowed us to see how strong we were at each school site. We then used this information to direct our organizing efforts — recruiting more CAT leaders or offering additional support to existing leaders. 

We used social media to publicize all of our organizing efforts as well as members’ stories about their working conditions, from having 40 students in a class to not having a nurse at the school site. We also produced weekly (later daily) videos explaining where we were in contract bargaining so that our members had up-to-date information leading up to the strike. Finally, we featured parents, students, community, and union members as they expressed their solidarity with us, underscoring the broad coalition we were building around our common good demands. 

Forging Strong Relationships with Parents and Students

For our strike to be successful, UTLA needed to gain the trust of community, civil rights, and advocacy organizations, some of whom we had strained relationships with. In the past, some community groups disagreed with the union over issues such as seniority, curriculum reform, and suspension and other harsh discipline policies that disproportionately impacted Black and Brown students. Other progressive organizations resented UTLA because they never heard from us unless we needed their support. 

This changed in 2014 when the new UTLA leadership reached out to progressive organizations across the city to repair the harms of the past and attempt to build mutually respectful relationships. We also hired an experienced community organizer to work with rank-and-file educators to build a school-based infrastructure through which teachers could organize parents and students around broader public education and community challenges. 

We started with an educational roundtable with community organizations and advocacy groups. But instead of building unity and consensus, the meetings brought out fundamental differences, particularly around the expansion of charter schools. Some of the local progressive groups relied on funding from charter school corporations, making it difficult if not impossible to work together. So we pivoted, forging a coalition modeled after the national AFT and NEA Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS), which had generated enthusiasm across the country in 2013 and 2014 for its coordinated national fight against corporate educational reform by teacher unions, community organizations, and youth-led networks.

After months of discussion, we formed a new coalition called Reclaim Our Schools LA, or ROSLA. The coalition brought together four anchor groups: The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), Students Deserve, and UTLA. Together we agreed to build a movement for broad-based education reform that would engage teachers, students, parents, and community members. As Leigh Dingerson wrote in a 2019 report on ROSLA, “The cornerstone of the campaign was the agreement by each anchor group on several key practices: the development of a shared analysis, strategy, and platform; a commitment to leadership development and grassroots voice; a systematic and scientific approach to organizing; and bold, escalating action.” 

The coalition expanded our set of demands beyond wages, hours, and working conditions. We held regular meetings to discuss priority issues to take into negotiations, including expanding green space on campus and stopping independent charter schools from co-locating on our public school campuses. Students were most concerned with the demeaning school district policy of wanding students and their belongings for weapons; they wanted to replace the police presence on campus with restorative justice programs and student supports, such as counselors. We also introduced other issues that we weren’t able to agree on, such as repurposing vacant buildings that the district owned as low-income housing. The students mounted their own campaign leading up to the strike, including a button campaign, one-on-one conversations, and Black Lives Matter at Schools events. During the strike, students led and spoke on the picket line and at rallies. ROSLA also created its own strike school, “La Escuelita de Líderes,” where community members learned the latest information about the strike and practiced how to speak to the media. Parents, students, and community members of ROSLA held evening picketing actions at school board members’ homes and were leaders on the picket line. Each action contributed to the strike’s strength and momentum. 

In the end, 60,000 to 70,000 parents, community members, students, and teachers took to the streets of L.A., demanding not just smaller class sizes, nurses at every school, and more counselors, librarians, special education programs, 

and ethnic studies programs, but also green spaces, an immigrant support fund, an end to the discriminatory practice of wanding, funding for community schools, and support for a statewide legislative charter school accountability measure. The power we built within our schools and the broader community allowed us to make gains in all of these critical areas, not just the wages and working conditions typically negotiated over in union contracts. We have continued to build on these wins over the past two years. For example, the Board of Education recently put forward a resolution funding more green space and community schools.

We won because we systematically built up our union to be a collective power — engaging the public and empowering new and dedicated chapter leaders, who continue to lead us forward today. 

Chicago 2019
by Jackson Potter 

The Chicago Teachers Union members were inspired by the historic wins in the UTLA contract to gain green space, class size reductions, sustainable community schools, and affordable housing. Too often we focus on the thousands of members inside our bargaining units rather than the millions who can benefit from our advocacy outside of them. 

A number of people on CTU staff and in the rank and file made regular pilgrimages to L.A. to learn from and expand upon shared tactics, organizational forms, and movement goals. When it was our turn to strike, we incorporated many of the lessons from their strike, such as: 

  • Organizing all leaders of the union on common good demands. These demands had to be seen as integral to the entire contract package by union leaders and members. In L.A., every speaker repeated these community-based priorities to joyous applause from their member leaders, who clearly had talked about them plenty and integrated them as their own key demands. 
  • Tracking member data. UTLA tracked all organizing conversations, attendance at rallies, mock votes, actual votes, and wear-red Tuesdays. We fortified some of our systems trying to emulate them. 
  • Using social media. We emulated UTLA’s excellent use of social media and member profiles in explaining key contract demands, bargaining updates, and actions.

Slow and Steady Organizing

In the last months of 2018, the Chicago Teachers Union collected hundreds of proposals from our 27,000 members. We intentionally built our big bargaining team to include key member leaders in special education, bilingual education, early childhood programs, members who work primarily with homeless students, and paraprofessionals — the lowest-paid group in our bargaining unit, school clerks and teacher assistants, who are 84 percent Black and Latinx women. 

In the end, we developed a democratically determined list of 400 proposals, which we then whittled down to a more concise and manageable bargaining submission. We demanded that the city prohibit coordination between the school district and ICE in locating or identifying undocumented students and families, and called for the dissolution of the city’s gang database, which overwhelmingly targeted students of color and perpetuated the school-to-prison pipeline.

We also demanded the school district provide affordable housing for all 18,000 homeless students through a real estate transfer tax, corporate head tax, and/or surplus from the city’s ubiquitous tax increment financing program (TIF). TIF dollars are diverted from libraries, schools, and parks, mainly to fund the vanity projects of the rich in downtown Chicago. We were the first group in the city to force the mayor to release TIF funds back to schools and other taxing bodies. Our ability to fund many of the programs and staffing formulas of all our contracts from 2012 to the present has been dependent on our ability to win new revenue, like that from TIF surpluses, into our schools. Each of our proposals explicitly referenced new revenue, to the chagrin of district and city management.

To popularize these common good demands, we built on a decade of slow and steady organizing. Since 2011, the CTU has run a summer organizing institute. The program provides 30 to 40 emerging leaders with high-level organizing training, political education, and campaign planning skills. We encourage applications from key groups in the union — such as special education teachers, clerks and teacher assistants, bilingual educators, and members working directly with immigrant communities, clinicians, or Black neighborhoods targeted for school closures. This new crop of leaders was able to lead committee work and campaigns that morphed into contract demands relevant to those critical areas. 

Many who attended our organizing institute became new school delegates, members of the union’s executive board, and district organizers who, for a small stipend, helped the CTU identify and mobilize delegates. They were key presenters and advocates in citywide trainings the CTU hosted to prepare for upcoming fights. Eventually, we innovated our annual delegate workshops to include a weekend version that welcomed any and all members to learn the same skills for mapping their schools, leading building-level campaigns, and identifying key contract issues. 

In the buildup to the strike, we charged new delegates, summer organizing grads, and other emerging leaders with strengthening Contract Action Teams (strike teams) in our 500 buildings, recruiting to key union committees that helped draft contract language and related campaigns, and helping coordinate citywide actions and coalition work, from wearing red on Fridays to mobilizing downtown.

Prior to the expiration of our contract, we asked delegates and school leaders to assemble a broader group of members, from every department in their buildings, to act as branches of the phone tree as we mobilized toward a strike. The union’s governing bodies prodded delegates to recruit new members to existing CAT teams to expand leadership and capacity. Once we went on strike, these teams also led pickets, food and flyer distribution, marches, and afternoon citywide action mobilizations by getting their school staff to join in unionwide protests downtown and at places across the city that could illustrate our demands. One afternoon, we sent all 30,000 members to a construction site where the city was subsidizing a luxury residential development with $1 billion, half of which would otherwise go to schools.

We also held monthly meetings to educate members around the importance of affordable housing demands and sanctuary protections for students of color. Prominent leaders in the Grassroots Collaborative and Grassroots Education Movement (coalitions for educational, racial, and social justice in Chicago, of which the CTU is a member) addressed multiple House of Delegates meetings and linked the fight against school closings with the need to advance more affordable housing.

Nevertheless, it was difficult to make these common good positions resonate as contract priorities because most members did not see them as critical for contract settlement. Unlike UTLA, we did not integrate these demands as early in our process. We lost precious time helping members connect broader community demands to their own pressing, school-based issues in organizing conversations, summer outreach, and member training. However, once our governing bodies approved the entire proposal in December 2018, leadership, staff, and key member leaders systematically lifted up common good areas in every membership meeting, communication, organizing discussion, and officer speech — a necessary level of engagement to elevate proposals that go beyond traditional bargaining experiences and the legal constraints of bargaining law. 

Still, there were occasions when members of our own executive board would ask, “Are we just saying these things, or do we mean to implement them?” This is a critical issue, and one we set about addressing in the 2019 contract through a robust set of member-led, community-directed committees to monitor the implementation of these demands. In the aftermath of the 2019 strike, the CTU launched committees on housing, environmental justice, sustainable community schools, and racial justice to enact and monitor our progress in these crucial areas. 

There were occasions when members of our own executive board would ask, “Are we just saying these things or do we mean to implement them?”

As this work suggests, common good contract wins require tremendous staffing, organizational resources, and time to implement and enact. Therefore, we must do a better job of considering the implications of our proposals, the commitments implied, and the ongoing involvement required to properly implement common good demands, including establishing member committees and hosting trainings to maintain member commitment. Anything less risks creating the dynamic that occurred in our executive board: Members see the propagandistic value of common good demands but doubt the intention of the union to follow through. Although we did a better job after the 2019 strike than we had in previous years, with the district losing 60,000 students over the last decade from housing displacement and immigration restrictions, our advocacy in these areas will have to exponentially increase in future contract cycles. In fact, I would argue that our primary demands must center around making Chicago a livable city for our students and their families.   

Once the CTU went on strike on Oct. 17, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot played to our members’ concerns, arguing that the contract was not the “appropriate place” to address the needs of homeless students. Lightfoot claimed she would add more social workers and nurses to the school budget but refused to put it in the collective bargaining agreement. 

By the end of the strike, we had definitive wins in both areas. For the first time, our contract established a guaranteed staffing formula to put social workers and nurses in all schools as well as a method for school communities to vote out police officers in their buildings. We won dedicated staff and resources for homeless students, case manager positions for diverse learner populations, sanctuary language to protect undocumented students from ICE, and living wages for our lowest-paid paraprofessional members. 

Still, we did not secure any additional units of affordable housing. In hindsight, to win on these demands, we would need more robust political education and careful analysis of how our power is intimately linked to student well-being and enrollment levels, as many Black and Latinx families leave the city because of insufficient economic opportunity and high levels of violence. We have to make the case to our members more consistently that their jobs are tied to student enrollment — and the factors that push students and families out of the city — in order for them to fight for housing as a contract priority. 

Lightfoot ultimately adopted the majority of our agenda to curry favor with voters who had rejected school closings, undemocratic school boards, and privatization, in no small part due to the CTU’s advocacy over the preceding 10 years. It eventually took an 11-day strike to force the mayor to adopt many of those demands. Our prior success at broadening the expectations of members, allies, and the public about what a collective bargaining agreement could achieve made gains in common good areas more possible. In particular, the CTU’s previous district and charter school strikes established an experienced, strike-ready, and well-organized membership. 

Labor Solidarity

Another key to the CTU victory in 2019 was labor solidarity. Chicago teachers struck alongside the 7,000-plus school employees in SEIU Local 73, a bargaining unit composed overwhelmingly of Black and Latinx workers who do the schools’ custodial, security, and special education assistant work. The alignment between the two unions was years in the making; the union’s leadership change in 2010 created the conditions to go out on strike together for the first time in 2018. It was also critical for us to lift up the demands of our paraprofessional members who have much in common with their SEIU counterparts; for the first time, by bringing the two unions together, we were able to align contract demands for the lowest-paid union members. 

Both SEIU and the CTU developed differentiated organizing raps and psychometrics to better engage these members and center their interests as key priorities for the entire union. This initially involved a clerks campaign in the immediate aftermath of our 2016 contract fight when the district attempted to eliminate school clerk positions and force teachers to submit their own time cards. We launched online petitions and social media actions to “Save Our Clerks.” Teacher members submitted letters to their principals to express concern for the district plan and solidarity for our clerk colleagues. We even had a raucous bargaining session where delegates from all over the city laid into the district’s head of labor relations about the clerk plan, to the point that he walked out of the room fuming. This was important in building the confidence of our PSRP (paraprofessionals and school-related personnel) leaders that the union would fight for them and signaled to the rest of the membership that these workers’ demands would take priority. The result was that we won the biggest salary increase for PSRPs and the members of SEIU 73 of any single cycle in the history of both unions. 

In addition, both the CTU and UTLA strikes were preceded by wildly successful, visible, and historic strikes in our charter divisions. The success of the 2019 strike in Chicago required years of campaigning to merge the CTU with the Chicago charter school teacher local and to align the 11 charter school contracts with the CTU contracts. The successful merger between the CTU and Chicago ACTS set the stage for the first strike by charter school teachers in U.S. history, when teachers at the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO, now called Acero and the largest charter school operator in the state) led a four-day work stoppage during the winter of 2018. The strike allowed CTU members to see charter teachers as strategic partners in stopping the privatization movement. As a result of the strike, for instance, UNO had to pay its teachers more — and was thereby prevented from opening eight additional schools.

To win more, public sector unions must find ways to align with private sector unions and tap into the hopes and dreams of workers who have not yet unionized. Successful private-public sector organizing experiments take considerable time and resources. The charter merger and contract alignment fight in Chicago took almost a decade, with many hits and misses in between. But until we can develop the conditions for these kinds of class-wide contract fights, labor’s victories will eventually meet their limits. 

* * * 

Both the CTU and UTLA 2019 strikes connect to a rising movement of teachers altering the political and labor landscape across the country. A focus on wealth redistribution to address racial and economic disparities in the city and the schools has been indispensable in creating a vision, organizing raps, public support, and membership commitment to policies that are capable of creating transformational change. We hope to look back on the 2018–2020 strikes in Arizona, Chicago, West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Oakland, Denver, St. Paul, and Los Angeles as the moment when #RedForEd began to supplant austerity and corporate education reform with educational equity and investments in our BIPOC school communities. Although we are far from matching the school funding received by wealthy white suburban districts, our innovative bargaining approach — centered around common good demands to advance racial justice and halt privatization — has positioned the CTU and UTLA to win unprecedented victories.

Arlene Inouye (, UTLA secretary and chair of the UTLA Bargaining Team, led the UTLA Bargaining Team during the 2019 historic strike and during the COVID-19 pandemic. She has a 40-year history as a social justice activist and educational leader, which includes serving with the National Coalition of Education Activists (NCEA) as a parent activist.  

Jackson Potter ( teaches history at Back of the Yards High School in Chicago and is a trustee on the executive board of the CTU. He and Al Ramirez formed the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) in May of 2008 and the Grassroots Education Movement with community organizations shortly thereafter. He served as the first co-chair of CORE, along with future CTU president Karen Lewis. In June 2010, CORE won the general election for the leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union.