- Interview by
- Eric Blanc
After inspiring teachers and labor unions nationwide through its strike in January, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) continues to push the envelope. Last Thursday, UTLA — which represents 34,000 educators in the country’s second largest school district — took the unprecedented step of voting to endorse Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. Jacobin’s Eric Blanc spoke with UTLA secretary Arlene Inouye about the political stakes of the endorsement.
UTLA is the first teachers’ union in the country to endorse a presidential candidate for the primary. Why did you decide to make this move?
We’ve been so inspired by Bernie. Year after year, he’s shown us all his commitment to social transformation. He gives us hope for deep structural change and he’s really raised our expectations.
As a woman of color and a union leader, I know this is what we need if we are ever going to have the schools our students deserve and a nation that changes course for a sustainable future. Other candidates offer something to educators, but they are not building a progressive working-class movement.
We wanted to shape history this time, rather than have it shape us. We learned from the process in 2016 about what happens when our national affiliates — NEA [National Education Association] and AFT [American Federation of Teachers] — do an early endorsement of a candidate — Hillary Clinton — without having a sense of the pulse of the membership. Fortunately, this year the affiliates have learned from that experience, and they are surveying members and providing candidate forums for input.
We chose to be proactive in UTLA, and for the first time in our history, we have endorsed a presidential candidate in the primary. As UTLA, we felt that we had an opportunity and responsibility to leverage the political power we have collectively built up through our strike.
It’s a very urgent time, an urgent moment. Our schools continue to be in crisis from a neoliberal corporate agenda that defunds and privatizes public education — we need to turn the tide. And we saw that Bernie Sanders was aligned with our values, our policies, and our commitment to dramatically transform this nation. So it was critical that our union stick its neck out, that we take a bold stand.
We decided to put ourselves out there so our members and the community would realize that we’re not just about bread-and-butter issues, not just about wages, and even not just about what happens inside the classroom. We’re about changing the existing political framework, we’re fighting to challenge and reverse our government’s priorities — to the advantage of educators, students, and working-class people.
When we explained this, the overwhelming majority of our members understood. Of course, there were some members who didn’t agree; there’s always some costs to taking this type of bold stance. But we felt it was worth it — it’s a step forward for us and, hopefully, for this whole nation.
There are a lot of Democratic candidates out there saying they support public education. Why did UTLA choose to support Bernie Sanders?
Bernie Sanders is the first viable major candidate in decades to take a stand against privatization, the charter-school billionaires, high-stakes testing — and to stand up for a massive redistribution of funds to schools and social services. His broad and comprehensive platform elevates the issues that we care about, like health care for all (including mental health resources) as a human right. Bernie believes in building a national transformative movement to redistribute wealth and create real, lasting change.
So we’re thrilled Bernie put himself forward to fight for all of us. His comprehensive agenda includes critical issues like stopping climate change, canceling student debt, passing Medicare for All, and stopping the criminalization of immigrants. These are critical issues for our nation, for our survival. We feel the urgency.
Bernie is the only candidate to consistently and systematically support the working class and labor unions. As his Workplace Democracy Act makes clear, he understands that winning real changes requires rebuilding our unions, so that we have the power we need to challenge and defeat the billionaires.
What planks of Bernie’s Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education did your members feel most strongly about?
One was his proposal to triple Title 1 funding so that we can provide low-income students with all the support they need. Our schools have been underfunded for decades — we desperately need to bring back the value of public education.
Many members also felt strongly about his clear stance on banning for-profit charter schools and putting a moratorium on federal funding for all new charter expansion. Privatization has drained the public coffer, creating an unequal and unfair situation for public schools, whose funding is getting siphoned to charters and vouchers.
Another compelling part of the plan is that it puts $5 billion toward sustainable community schools that can provide wraparound services and really engage students in the type of education they and their community need. That’s our alternative to the charters.
We don’t want working-class people to keep on getting pushed out of Los Angeles — that’s why we need a massive reinvestment in our schools, which are 90 percent students of color and 85 percent low income. It’s time we invest in schools that are valued and desired by the community, that provide the curriculum, resources, and services that meet the needs of the students right where they live. That’s Bernie’s vision, and it’s our vision.
Can you speak a bit more about how Bernie has supported Los Angeles educators?
Bernie backed our fight for the Schools LA Students Deserve, and he was the first national politician to declare his support for our strike in January. And he didn’t just support us in words: he called on people nationwide to make donations to our strike fund, leading to a cascade of donations and an increase in the fund of over $100,000.
After that, he came and spoke to our UTLA leadership conference in July, in which all our chapter chairs — hundreds across the city — came together to hear about and discuss the direction of our union. Bernie spoke about his Thurgood Marshall plan, and he really won people over; the conference ended up giving him a standing ovation. And he didn’t only speak to us, he also met with and listened to our members and heard out their issues and concerns.
Bernie was also the first to sign our New Deal for Public Schools and back our fight to pass the Schools and Communities First ballot initiative in November 2020, a funding proposal to close corporate tax loopholes and generate $12 billion for education and public services.
So we know Bernie is not just talking about building a social movement — he’s all in to fight for the transformations we need.
I think the strikes and Bernie’s movement complement each other.
We experienced such amazing unity and power in our strike. Just yesterday, I was listening to some of our middle school teachers talk to each other about how the strike changed them forever, about how exciting it had been. And this teachers’ movement just keeps on going. Look at Chicago, the strike last week in Little Rock, and now the walkout coming up in Indiana. Educators everywhere are fighting back.
Our Bernie endorsement is part of the same process of empowerment we saw in the strike. We’re taking a stand. This endorsement process has helped build a sense of hope at a time when working people and unions are feeling our political power and clout.
What we were fighting for in the strike is what Bernie is putting forward in his platform. Funding for education, Medicare for All, labor rights — teachers need that. So it’s just a natural step to say, “We’ve got to get this guy elected to the White House.” We need the things he’s going to be fighting for to transform public education and the country as a whole.
Can you outline what your endorsement process looked like?
We knew we wanted to have a political discussion — we wanted to engage our members in the big political issues. At the beginning of the process, we said that however the vote turns out, it would be positive, because it provided an opportunity to delve into bigger issues with all our members. And that’s what happened: it opened up many people’s awareness about broader fights.
Because it was such a politically important vote, and because we really wanted to make sure all members could make their voice heard and were fully engaged, we developed a process to make a presidential endorsement. We put the question to our school sites and chapter leaders to have an advisory vote that was shared with the policy-making body of UTLA, the House of Representatives.
On September 11, our board of directors voted 35 to 1 to begin an endorsement process. Then our House of Representatives voted 135 to 46 to begin a process to explore endorsing Bernie. Next, in October, we opened a discussion for six weeks and took the question to our nine local area meetings — and the question was simple: Yes or no, should UTLA endorse Bernie?
Eventually, on November 13, every area meeting did a straw poll advisory vote, in which any member could come and vote. Every single area voted in its majority to back Bernie — it was 72.5 percent in favor, representing over five hundred schools. The following day, November 14, we shared the results of that vote with our House of Representatives, and it voted 80 percent to 20 percent to endorse Bernie. So the support was overwhelming.
One of the reasons we began the process early is because we wanted to really influence the primary. At the same time, it’s important to note that no matter who ends up getting the Democratic nomination, we know that we’ll need to unite to defeat Trump.
I would encourage other unions to do a similar process. It meant sticking our necks out. We didn’t have to do it. But it was worth it, because we’ve now succeeded in elevating the political solutions needed to confront the crises we’re facing in public education and the crisis facing working-class people across the country.
Why did UTLA’s leadership decide to make a suggestion for who to endorse and not just do a membership vote on all the different Democratic candidates?
Of course, we could have done a broader straw poll including every candidate, but we thought it was important to give some political leadership and recommend a candidate who aligns with UTLA’s vision on education policy.
We basically said to our members, “Hey all, we think this is the candidate whose vision and politics is aligned with UTLA, who will help us get what we fought for in our strike. The choice is yours: Do you agree?”
We didn’t suggest any other candidate, because Bernie is the only one building a social movement. Nobody else is putting forward his vision, nobody else is about a fundamental social transformation, nobody else is about taking on and taking down the billionaires.
Bernie has inspired us, and now we’re taking a big next step in a way that I hope will really lift up all people.
I saw that after UTLA announced its Bernie endorsement, the AFT national leadership gave the green light to other locals to endorse in the primaries. Do you think other unions should consider endorsing Bernie and initiate similar democratic endorsement processes?
I have been talking to a number of different unions across the country who have reached out to ask about our process.
Teachers are Bernie’s number-one donors, and I want to encourage other teachers’ unions — all unions, really — across the country to endorse. This is our moment. We’ve never had this opportunity before: a viable opening to elect this type of candidate — someone actually on the side of the working class — to be US president.
I would encourage all unions to take a stand, to have a political discussion with their members about this. We have to defeat Trump, and we know that Bernie can win.
So, yes, every union should consider endorsing Bernie. Does Bernie align with your union’s demands and vision? For educators, is he going to fund your schools and stop privatization? Is there any other candidate who will really bring the change that is so desperately needed?
We’ve been hammered so hard for so long. But now we have a chance to win what we really want, what we really need. Bernie represents our opportunity to create the kind of public schools, and the type of society, that we’ve been waiting for.