Building a strong, organized teachers union: A conversation with Alex Caputo-Pearl

Coral del Mar Murphy-Marcos

After leading one of the largest educator unions in the country, Alex Caputo-Pearl wants to help other organizers reach victories akin to those won during his time at United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA).

Caputo-Pearl is a practitioner-in-residence at the Labor Center, where he focuses on building on the Leadership Development Program’s partnerships with the National Education Association, UTLA, and other educator unions. He served as the United Teachers Los Angeles President from 2014-2020 and UTLA National Education Association (NEA) vice president from 2020–2023, helping build a high-participation union with democratic structures that won strikes, and community/racial justice demands in bargaining. Caputo-Pearl worked with teams of elected leaders, members, and staff to transform ULTA’s staff structure, built and expanded community coalitions, and led progressive electoral and coalition work at the local, state, and national levels.

The Labor Center sat down with Caputo-Pearl to delve into some of the work he’s completing during his residency, his role during the 2019 UTLA teacher’s strike, and his upcoming book about the teacher’s labor movement in recent years.

LC: How did you first get involved with union organizing?

Alex Caputo-Pearl: In high school, I was involved in some racial justice organizing. In college, I got very involved in the Central American solidarity movement and the South African divestment movement. Then I started teaching in South LA. I pretty quickly got involved with an organization here in Los Angeles called the Labor Community Strategy Center, and that’s where I really learned the skills and methods of true organizing. We were doing a door-to-door campaign in the Wilmington area of Los Angeles around environmental justice. We were also organizing transit dependent bus riders to form a bus riders union.

LC: What was your role in the 2019 UTLA teacher’s strike?

Alex Caputo-Pearl: In the late 1990s, other teachers and I were working with parents and students. We formed an organization called Coalition for Educational Justice. And we also, at the same time, got very involved in the progressive caucus of the teachers union in Los Angeles, United Teachers Los Angeles. And over the years, we built up both that community aspect of our work through Coalition for Educational Justice and also built up a strong progressive caucus called PEAC, Progressive Educators for Action.

In 2014, PEAC worked in collaboration with a couple of other caucuses in United Teachers Los Angeles to form a broader caucus called Union Power. We ran a plan to take the leadership spots of the teachers union, and we won citywide officer seats and a majority of the board of directors as the Union Power caucus. I was the presidential candidate. I was UTLA President from 2014 to 2020, when I termed out after two terms. In those years, we shifted from a service union that was disorganized and losing lots of battles to an organizing union model that was much more focused on building collective power, building coalitions with parents and youth and bringing bargaining for the common good demands to the table.

LC: Tell me about your work with the NEA.

Alex Caputo-Pearl: After I was termed out as president, I stayed with the team and ran for the UTLA NEA vice president position, and engaged more state and national work. In 2021, UTLA and other progressive local teacher unions around the country worked with NEA and the Midwest Academy to form something called the NEA Strategic Campaign Institute. This institute was a way for us to work with about 50 local teachers unions around the country and support them in building towards more of an organizing model, a strategic campaign model and a racial justice model of unionism.

LC: What have you been working on at the Labor Center?

Alex Caputo-Pearl: It’s three strands of work with the Labor Center right now.

Number one, I’m helping to deepen the partnership between the NEA Strategic Campaign Institute and the UC Berkeley Labor Center. For example, the NEA Institute has now institutionalized an annual program of the Skills To Win training that Jane McAlevey developed, and that is led by Jane, Danielle Mahones, Katie Miles, and others from the Labor Center. It’s an annual training that is just for NEA locals. Another part of deepening that partnership has been that Jane has been brought into some of the discussions around NEA’s national campaign to promote and uplift public education.

The second strand that I’ve been working on at the UC Berkeley Labor Center is working with a broad team to assist in this year’s Skills to Win program for NEA locals, a 6-week program.  Jane and Katie have led the program, and I’ve worked with NEA coaches and NEA elected leaders from across the country to support them. Jane, Katie, and the team used this year, prior to the launch of the 2024 six week course, to train a team of NEA elected leaders to be trainers in the Skills To Win program, which is very exciting because it means that this kind of training can last and grow within NEA with organic NEA leaders leading. For example, elected leaders from California, Texas, North Carolina, Maryland, and other places have become trainers.

The second piece was the team recruiting about 35 locals that ended up participating across the country. They made it from everywhere from Florida to Texas, to Oregon, to Oklahoma to Wisconsin.  We recruited these locals to participate in this round of the Skills To Win curriculum. What comes out of the training is that each local develops their own structure tests that help them advance their organizing in their local area.

The third strand of work that I’ve been doing with the UC Berkeley Labor Center this year is working with Jane in writing about the 2014 to 2020 period of UTLA. I’m writing about the transformation of the union in those years, and getting under the hood of the car of how to actually transform a union. There’s been a lot written about the upsurge in teachers unions over the last 10 years, but not much has been written about how it actually happened – about the internal struggles within the union and the external struggles within the local/state/national setting that affects the transformation process. The UC Berkeley Labor Center has partnered with the UCLA Labor Center to fund a graduate student researcher who’s been working with me on this writing.

Labor Center: What’s next for you?

Alex Caputo- Pearl: I’m a proud UTLA member and very involved in community school work in Los Angeles. One of the things that we won in the 2019 strike, and then we have built on rounds of bargaining and school board resolutions since the 2019 strike, was an investment in something called a Community Schools Model. It’s a model where the school community votes and  parents, students and educators get increased decision making power. There’s a democratic component to it. They invest more and they actually get additional staff positions to invest more in parent engagement and community engagement.

Community Schools take on issues of racial justice, whether it be schools providing services that are needed in communities of color and working class communities, or really working to shift curriculum towards more of a racial justice model of curriculum, or encouraging the community to get more involved in racial justice struggles in the community, like if there’s a struggle for more park space or for better public transportation or more housing.

The second thing that I’m going to be doing is continuing this writing on the 2014 to 2020 period in UTLA. The graduate student researcher who is working with me is doing many interviews, which are critical and illuminating.  My aim is for it to be like a “people’s history of how to transform a union.” It’s going to  take some time and so I will be continuing writing. The goal is for it so be a deep, grounded source that will help workers across the country transform their unions.