The Teacher Unions Reinvigorating Progressive Politics

As a hallmark of America’s resurgent labor movement, teacher unions have turned their influence into political power that confronts conventional policy approaches.

Lauren Anderson is a senior at Harvard College, where she is studying social studies and economics. Broadly interested in using progressive public policy to address structural inequality, Lauren hopes to pursue a career in public policy or academia, and as an #FESFellow2020 will report on features of American political and economic life that will impact the 2020 election. 

This article originally appeared in the Harvard Political Review.


In 2012, former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel failed to gain the endorsement of the Chicago Teachers Union and subsequently lost his reelection bid. In 2018, California gubernatorial candidate Antonia Villareigosa’s charter school sympathies lost him the endorsement of the California Teachers Union — and eventually the election. A year later, Andy Beshear narrowly defeated Kentucky’s Republican governor with the aid of mobilized teachers.  

Teacher unions are no strangers to politics: Their capacity to donate immense sums of money and engage their membership in campaign activities have historically contributed to the success of Democratic candidates in conservative states or the downfall of moderate Democrats in areas more hospitable to progressive agendas. The three Democratic candidates — Emmanuel, Villareigosa, and Beshear — all owe their campaign losses and successes to teacher organizing.

Though they have given their support to the Biden-Harris ticket in this year’s election, teacher union’s political impact runs deeper than aid to campaigns: They have contributed to the growth of America’s newfound progressive movement, which may play a critical role in November’s outcome. Teacher union’s support for progressive agendas has bolstered the American left, which may become the ideological arena upon which Democrats and Republicans duel for votes in key swing states. 


Red for Ed: Bargaining for the Common Good

Twenty-two thousand educators walked out of their classrooms in West Virginia in February 2018. Across the state, teachers went on strike, demanding a pay increase financed by proposed changes to the state’s revenue collection. 

This single day of protest in West Virginia quickly initiated the nationwide social movement, Red for Ed. A moniker to describe the color worn by protestors, the term also notes the geographic location where many of the strikes took place: states led by Republican legislatures. By the end of 2018, educators in 10Republican-led states had walked out of their classrooms, demanding that their public education systems receive funding increases.

In Arizona, where public sector union strikes are illegal and collective bargaining is severely curtailed, organizers began school walk-ins to circumvent these rules. According to Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas, these walk-ins were a key component of the union’s strategy. “The idea was to bring in your community members — your parents, your supporters — and to have conversations about how important the school is, how important the community is, how important the educators are in creating real educational opportunities for our students,” he told the HPR. “We had over 100,000 people at 1,200 school sites across the state participate.”

Although on strike for improved teacher pay and benefits — an increase in public expenditures typically unpopular among conservative bases —  Red for Ed garnered success because it posited public education as central to a community’s social and economic health. Instead of creating adversaries amongst community members, teacher unions used collective bargaining to organize local stakeholders around demands that would benefit both teachers and the community at large. 

“Strikes were based on a natural connection to the community,” explained Rebecca Tarlau, a professor of education and labor and employment relations at Pennsylvania State University, in an interview with the HPR. “In West Virginia, community resources were so poor that the fight for school resources became a community fight. Teachers knew when they went on strike that students depended on school for food, so they had to find ways to work with the community and deliver these resources.”

Importantly, Red for Ed reinvigorated union bargaining and strikes as key political forces. A number of Republican politicians who opposed teacher strikes soon lost their primary elections in 2018. Even more, common good demands allowed teacher unions to craft community coalitions with the goal of systematic, progressive reform in local governance and finance.

When teachers in West Virginia and Arizona fought for increased pay, their state governments acquiesced. However, state governors proposed that raises be at the expense of other social programs. To that, teachers responded with a resounding “no.” “Teachers didn’t want to be the reason funds were taken away from other social services. They argued there was the capacity to issue progressive taxing to pay for raises. Teachers said, ‘Don’t pit us against other poor people when we have money to tax the rich,’” noted Tarlau.

By forging community coalitions, teacher unions across conservative areas made progressive government expenditures a popular idea. In some states, teacher unions successfully convinced their state legislatures to pass budget increases — marking their ability to generate support for public spending and progressive policies. 


Blue State Revolt

Republican-led states were not alone in their wave of teacher activism. Strikes affiliated with Red for Ed also emerged across Democratic strongholds, targeting moderate Democrats with sympathies to school privatization and reducing expenditures on public education. 

Following the Great Recession, teacher unions in the nation’s largest urban areas began to challenge their historic allyship with moderate Democrats. The Caucus of Rank and File Educators, a bloc of politically progressive educators, was established in 2008 and by 2010 had assumed leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union. In 2014, the traditionally moderate United Teachers Los Angeles came under the leadership of Union Power — a progressive teachers caucus that formed in response to the success of the CTU’s shift to the political left. 

In a contested first round election, Alex Caputo-Pearl, founder of Union Power, noted that his caucus’ success resulted from changing political sentiments within the union and the communities they serve. “This shows that our members want … a clear vision of quality schools that we build through aggressive organizing with members, parents, and community,” stated Caputo-Pearl after leading the votes in the first round of elections for UTLA in March 2014. 

When Caputo-Pearl became union president later that year, he and other union members made it clear that local organizing would be central to their efforts going forward. Using the input of parents and community members, UTLA devised a set of common good demands — such as an immigration fund and school green spaces — while still championing existing calls for class size reduction and additional support staff. 

Community building and local organizing proved key when UTLA authorized a strike in January 2019. When the organization’s common good demands were left unfulfilled by Los Angeles Unified School District and Mayor Eric Garcetti, parents, teachers, and students participated in a seven-day strike that only ended when the school district agreed to UTLA’s demands. In October 2019, the reorganized Chicago Teachers Union followed UTLA’s lead, authorizing a strike that similarly called for community-wide demands. 

UTLA took its progressive agenda a step further, crafting it into actionable political goals. The organization’s leadership voted to endorse Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the 2020 presidential primary, becoming the first teacher union to do so. In an interview with the HPR, UTLA Secretary Arlene Inouye noted, “Part of our role is to lead — to lead around social and racial justice which are very strong values that we hold. We believe Bernie Sanders manifested that in his policies. He’s not perfect, but he is definitely the one we felt closely aligned to.”


Election 2020: Red vs Ed

Despite frequent strikes and large demands, nearly three-fourths of the general public held a favorable view of teacher unions in 2018 — largely due to their advocacy for issues beyond wage increases. Two years later, however, public sentiment on teacher unions has shifted. 

The simultaneous events of the COVID-19 pandemic and a renewed dialogue on racial injustice have again cast teacher unions as advocates in the fight for common good demands. In most locales where teachers threatened to strike over lack of adequate COVID-19 safety measures, instruction has either partially or fully moved online. Minneapolis Public Schools, among others, have cut ties with local police over concerns of racial biases. Most recently, a coalition led by teachers unions throughout the country organized a National Day of Resistance to highlight their combined demands of charter school moratoriums, police-free schools, and a host of COVID-19 related safety measures. 

However, these demands have created anger amongst some lawmakers, school districts, and conservative groups who claim unions are lobbying their own policy interests in advance of the November election. At the core of their ire is the strategy that initially bought teacher unions public favorability and legislative gains: bargaining for common good demands, which now also includes rent moratoriums, expanded Medicare, and tax increases on the wealthy.

A recent Wall Street Journal editorial painted teacher unions’ present demands as a tactic to stall school and economic reopening until granted an “ideological wish list.” The Kentucky Republican Party accusedteacher unions of “anti-American greatness” for keeping in-person classrooms closed. Further, at a time when American political rhetoric is occupied by a discourse of law and order, a Republican National Convention speech argued that restorative justice policies supported by teacher unions make schools less safe.

“It’s really becoming a line where suburban parents who don’t have the same risks as service and unskilled workers, and who are understanding this virus in a politicized context, are calling for businesses and schools to reopen,” Thomas further noted. “It’s concerning because we had such solidarity with our communities during Red for Ed. But we have parents who aren’t experiencing the same impacts of this virus as working class parents — and they wanted schools open entirely. It was as if we couldn’t communicate the risk.”

While some groups are concerned that teacher union progressive demands are too far reaching and could negatively impact moderate Democrats, their capacity and willingness to launch large-scale voting campaigns in favor of Democratic campaigns may assuage these concerns come November. “Their ability to mobilize millions of teachers across the country for phone banking and get-out-the-vote drives, combined with their monetary resources, could transcend these [concerns],” according to Democrats for Education Reforms’s Charles Barone.

While a number of teacher unions are now mobilizing their resources behind the Biden-Harris ticket, the largest element of their legacy includes the progressive movement they’ve bolstered over the past decade. As long-standing advocates for one of the nation’s few publicly owned sectors, teacher unions continue to lead a successful movement driven by progressive ideas. Their political action has challenged growing financial constraints on public services to create a broader consensus about what constitutes a healthy education system: budget cut reversals, increased corporate and wealth taxes, and community allyship. 

As a hallmark of America’s resurgent labor movement, teacher unions have turned their influence into political power that confronts conventional policy approaches.“We made it clear that we were supporting a lot more radical values,” continued UTLA’s Inouye. “We did hear some complaints, but we were saying, ‘Well has previous action worked for us? Has it worked for unions? It’s clear it hasn’t.’” 

USA and Canada

+1 202-478-4390

+1 202-478-4390

Latest Publications