Teachers’ Unions Are Demanding Police-Free Schools

A major lesson from the recent teachers’ strike wave was the necessity for unions to bargain for the common good of the entire working class. By joining the nationwide protests against police brutality and demanding police-free schools, teachers’ unions have taken that lesson to heart.

A Chicago police officer watches as students arrive at Laura Ward Elementary School on the Westside on August 28, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. Scott Olson / Getty Images

It’s been three weeks since Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Protests continue in cities, suburbs, and even small towns all over the United States.

The sheer volume of political activity makes it hard to focus on any particular development. But there’s something important happening right under our noses that has received far too little attention outside of disconnected local media stories. Across the country, teachers’ unions are joining the movement for police-free schools.

Teachers unions signing on to the police-free schools movement is not only a critical political development that could begin to break down the school-to-prison pipeline, it is also a maturation of the social-movement unionism that animated the teachers’ strike wave. For decades, many unionists have argued that it’s critical to connect the bread-and-butter demands of union members to issues affecting other members of the working class, as well as progressive organizing already happening outside of their unions. The Red for Ed teachers’ strike wave was the best sign yet that this orientation towards social-movement unionism was gaining renewed popularity in the labor movement.

Now, teachers’ unions are broadening their horizons further than at any time in recent history as they take advantage of this moment to join the fight to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.

Bargaining for the Common Good

In February of 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) released a white paper called “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve.” In it, they proposed a new vision for Chicago public education: better staffing, smaller class sizes, better facilities, a less testing-oriented curriculum, and more nurses and counselors. The paper proposed these reforms be funded through progressive taxation. The first sentence of the paper read: “Every student in CPS deserves to have the same quality education as the children of the wealthy.”

The report provided the backdrop for the 2012 CTU strike, which took place later that year. And it also represented a major development in the politics of teachers’ unions: by negotiating for many of the demands raised in the report, the CTU was engaging in what’s called “bargaining for the common good.” The strategy was used to generate public support, which would help them head off an ugly smear campaign, by making it clear that they were striking not only for themselves, but for their students, their students’ families, and the working class of Chicago. The strategy worked.

CTU’s approach had a major impact on the Red for Ed teachers’ strike wave of 2018–19. The slogan that appeared during the CTU strike, “Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions,” was adopted and used across the country.

In early 2019, after months of teachers’ strikes roiling red states, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) waged a powerful strike that set a new bar for bargaining for the common good. Arlene Inouye, cochair of the union’s contract bargaining team, explained at the time that UTLA was not only fighting for higher pay and better working conditions for teachers but was also demanding:

the establishment of a teacher training program; more green space in schools; an end to the discriminatory security wanding of students, which made students of color feel criminalized; housing possibilities in LAUSD; free bus passes for LA students; and the establishment of an immigrant defense fund to pay for undocumented parents’ legal costs.

This expansive political vision that emphasized the well-being of students, particularly working-class and black and brown students, was part of the reason that UTLA garnered so much community support throughout Los Angeles, which, in turn, contributed to the strength and success of the strike.

And when it came time for CTU to strike again later in 2019, they once again showed the nation what it was like to bargain for the common good — for example by demanding that the school district “address deficient sanctuary policies and instead create real sanctuary schools for immigrant and other students,” and even by pressing for more affordable housing in the city of Chicago.

It should come as little surprise, then, that UTLA and CTU are joining the charge during the mass protest movement against racist police brutality that has emerged in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, showing how the labor movement can agitate around issues that extend beyond wages and benefits for members without diminishing the importance of those bread-and-butter concerns.

On June 11, two weeks after the protests against racist police brutality began, UTLA published a statement titled, “Imagine Police-Free Schools With the Supports Students Deserve.” It called for the elimination of the LA School Police, a separate department that serves the Los Angeles Unified School District. The statement read, in part:

We believe that we do not need armed police roaming our halls, we need counselors who are provided with resources, nurses with sufficient medical supplies, and librarians with enough books. That is why we voted to call for the elimination of the LAUSD school police budget and redirect resources to student needs, with a particular focus on the needs of Black students.

We believe that the school police as a body must be eliminated. We believe that school police staff can train to do new jobs outside policing to support students, if they so choose. This is not about the police as people, this is about policing as an inappropriate institution in our schools. Police must be removed from our schools.

Meanwhile, halfway across the country, CTU has stepped up to cosponsor and endorse protests in Chicago. On June 5, CTU published a statement demanding the cancellation of the Chicago Police Department’s contract with Chicago Public Schools, funding for restorative practices instead of punitive ones, and the placement of social workers and student support personnel in every school, among other demands. On social media, CTU began applying pressure on mayor Lori Lightfoot, the school district, and other local power players using the hashtags #PoliceFreeSchools, #CopsOutCPS, #CounselorsNotCops, and #DefundthePolice.

A Police-Free Schools Movement

But while UTLA and CTU have joined an movement led by parents and students to take police out of schools, they aren’t alone — and that fact testifies to the successful exportation of a social movement unionism model to teachers unions across the country.

On June 2, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Education Support Professionals held a rally outside the school board meeting calling for police-free schools. They demanded the school board pass a resolution cutting financial ties with the Minneapolis Police Department that killed George Floyd. The resolution passed.

“It shouldn’t have taken another killing of a black man at the hands of police to act, but we are thankful the school board listened,” said Greta Callahan, president of the teachers’ union. She added, “This is just the first step in dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline and the racism our students of color face every day.” The union then passed a resolution making further demands related to policing and education in Minneapolis, and urged other teachers’ unions to do the same.

All told, more than a dozen teachers’ unions and caucuses within teachers’ unions have heeded the call.

The Seattle Education Association voted on June 8 to organize around several demands related to the current protest movement, including to “divest all resources, contracts, and funding to the Seattle Police Department” and and to “support the call for a 50% reduction in police funding and the redirection of funds towards prioritizing community-led health and safety strategies,” a proposal that has already been floated by members of the Seattle City Council.

The Oakland Education Association — which also went on strike in early 2019 — has joined the Black Organizing Project to push a resolution to eliminate the school police department and get police out of schools. Though the vote has not yet transpired, their prospects look promising: on June 11, it was reported that a majority of the school board and the school superintendent were on board with the plan.

Just north of Oakland, on June 9, the United Teachers of Richmond were successful in passing a resolution to eliminate police officers from schools in West Contra Costa County, freeing up $1.5 million, which the union is pushing to go to counselors instead, a demand that the union has framed as explicitly anti-racist and focused on the well-being of black students.

It’s important to understand that CTU and UTLA didn’t embrace the social-movement unionism model out of thin air. They were pushed in this direction by reform caucuses that stepped into leadership first in Chicago and then in Los Angeles, the latter inspired by the former. Reform caucuses have a large role to play in pushing teachers’ unions to orient toward social movements.

In New York City, the reform caucus Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) is not in leadership in the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), but in the spirit of reform caucuses elsewhere, the group is calling on UFT to follow the example of CTU and UTLA by demanding that police be removed from New York City schools. One June 2, MORE published a statement that read, in part:

The systematically racist nature of law enforcement in the streets is reproduced in the form of the school-to-prison pipeline. We support our brothers and sister in the Chicago Teachers Union in their excellent statement reproduced below, which demands that the school system sever ties with the police. The UFT should do the same.

In San Antonio, members of the social justice caucus PODER were recently elected to the leadership of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel. PODER has initiated conversations about police-free schools. Speaking before the school board last week, PODER member Luke Amphlett said, “It’s time to break – completely – with the idea of policing youth in our schools.”

The Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association has been pushing to end Milwaukee Public Schools’ contract with the local police department, an initiative joined by its Black Educators Caucus. As a result of their efforts and that of other activist groups, the school board will be voting on a resolution to get police out of schools and “cease any contracts to buy or maintain criminalizing equipment including metal detectors, facial recognition software and social media monitoring software.”

On June 7, the teachers’ union in Madison, Wisconsin, issued a comprehensive list of demands, including “the removal of all School Resource Officers from the four comprehensive high schools with the caveat that this only occurs when all four high schools are properly staffed with counselors, psychologists, social workers, nurses, and mental health specialists,” adding that “it has become apparent from conversations with our children and community that the benefits of having police officers stationed inside our schools is outweighed by the racialized trauma experienced by some of our community members of color.”

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association also went on strike in early 2019, and continues to act in the spirit of social movement unionism. On June 5, the union president said at a protest, “We support the end of police in schools… Let’s make sure our resources go to fund mental health supports.” On June 11, the Denver school board voted unanimously to phase police out of the school system by June 2021. In this case, the call also came from inside the school board, led by twenty-one-year-old black school board director member Tay Anderson and his fellow board member Jennifer Bacon. On social media, the union celebrated and thanked Anderson for his leadership.

A proactive city government was also at play in Portland, Oregon, where on June 4 the superintendent reversed a previous position and announced that the district is “discontinuing the regular presence of school resource officers.” The Portland Association of Teachers applauded the decision, saying, “Thank you Superintendent Guerrero for listening to students and teachers, and offering students more supports, instead of policing, in our schools and classrooms.”

And on June 10, the Boston Teachers Union passed a strongly worded resolution on building an anti-racist union. It read, “Boston Teachers Union calls on BPS to remove all police from schools including Boston School Police, the Boston Police Department (BPD) (including BPD’s school unit), and all other law enforcement. Furthermore, BTU calls for BPS to invest the $4 million dollars it currently spends on the Boston School Police into mental health services and restorative justice practices in our schools.”

The Next Wave

Teachers unions joining the police-free schools movement is not only a critical political development that could begin to break down the school-to-prison pipeline, it is also a maturation of the social-movement unionism that animated the Red for Ed teachers’ strike wave. Teachers’ unions across the United States are bursting with a new confidence and energy from that experience and are continuing to put one of the central lessons from it into action, even when they’re not on strike.

The entire labor movement stands to benefit from more bargaining for the common good, more social-movement unionism, more political consciousness that extends beyond their own interests to the entirety of the working class.

We have already seen many heartening signs during these mass protests that some elements of the labor movement are adopting this orientation, but among unions right now, the nation’s teachers are leading the way.