Five years ago, the Democratic Socialists of America declared that infiltrating teachers' unions would be a prime way for socialists to boost the far-left movement's power and numbers. The "strategic" decision appears to be paying off, with unions across the country adopting some of the radical political group's top initiatives.
The DSA, the nation's largest socialist organization, made the pitch in a 2018 pamphlet titled "Why Socialists Should Become Teachers." It argues that "socialists should take jobs as teachers (and other school-based workers) for the political, economic, and social potential the industry holds." The decision to get in the education industry, the pamphlet says, is a "strategic" route to toppling the capitalist economy.
"While teachers don't make a product that is sold on the market, we are necessary in the reproduction of a capitalist economy and the perpetuation of classes," according to the pamphlet, which was written by West Virginia socialists after teachers in the state went on strike. "It is teachers who train, both socially and technically, the workers of the future."
"There is a growing national network of educators in DSA working to transform our schools, our unions, and our society," the pamphlet boasts.
The pamphlet came as the socialist group's ranks swelled amid anti-Donald Trump fervor. The group's sprawling platform demands an end to capitalism, prisons, the five-day work week, and "state recognition of the gender binary," along with enshrining "social ownership" of all major industry and infrastructure, energy production, and wealth redistribution.
Since the 2018 directive, the DSA through its local and regional chapters has worked with teachers' unions across the country to push left-wing initiatives that are unrelated to education, including "reparations" for black students and affordable housing developments on school property. DSA members have been elected to lead two major unions in Los Angeles and Boston, and the group's national youth branch, the Young Democratic Socialists of America, held its national conference this year at the Chicago Teachers Union headquarters. Socialists who count themselves as members of the organization are winning school board seats around the country as well.
While the organization's efforts have gone largely unnoticed by the public, those who follow public education closely say the playbook is obvious.
"The DSA is leveraging the education process to advance its unpopular agenda," said Rhyen Staley, a researcher for Parents Defending Education who has tracked the trend and noted that the socialist push comes as students across the country "are struggling to read and write."
The DSA brands itself as a decentralized "political and activist organization" and boasts more than 92,000 members—a more-than-tenfold increase since Trump's election in 2016, when the group included just about 8,000 Democratic Socialists. In Trump's first year in office, the group's ranks more than tripled to 25,000, CNN reported at the time.
The DSA's financial coffers grew as well. Total revenue in 2015 was just over $490,000, according to its tax filings. By 2021, the latest tax year for which DSA filings are available, funds reached nearly $6.9 million.
It is during this period of explosive growth that the DSA embraced the strategic alliance with teachers' unions, which now embrace several socialist policies. The Colorado Education Association, which represents teachers across the state, approved a resolution this April condemning capitalism. It came at the behest of a DSA member, Bryan Lindstrom, who urged the union to commit to dismantling capitalism in favor of "a new, equitable economic system."
Teachers have gone on strike across the country to demand DSA agenda items such as paying reparations to black students, defunding police, building subsidized housing on school land, teaching "climate literacy" through a "racial justice lens," buying electric buses, and instructing students about "structural racism."
In California cities, teachers have gone on strike to demand that district leaders fulfill DSA agenda items. The United Teachers of Los Angeles shut down classrooms for days in March over a platform crafted from the DSA's "Green New Deal" for public schools. Their asks included more campus solar panels and a climate literacy course taught through a "racial justice lens." The union president, Cecily Myart-Cruz, is a DSA member who in 2019 spoke at the organization's national convention.
And shortly after the Los Angeles strike, the Oakland-area DSA chapter helped organize a teachers' union strike for "common good" proposals such as reparations for black students. The DSA coordinated a "solidarity working group" to plan the strike, canvassed for the authorizing votes, and ran a phone bank to finance the walk-out, according to the local chapter calendar.
In exchange for pushing the DSA's policy agenda, the teachers' unions have won a passionate advocate in their political fights. In Chicago, the city's DSA locked arms with the Chicago Teachers Union when the union made lofty demands for school reopenings that even the city's Democratic leadership couldn't get behind. The DSA argued that leaders wanted kids in classrooms only "to keep the gears of the economy moving and the already exorbitant profits for the ruling class flowing" and to "push the march towards privatization of public education."
The DSA's growing ranks in schools have helped the organization enter public school governance as well, with socialists winning seats on local school boards in blue cities where teachers' unions typically sway elections for their chosen candidates. Two members of the Los Angeles DSA were elected to the board of the nation's largest district, Los Angeles Unified—the first in 2019 and the second in 2022. One of them, Jackie Goldberg, is now president of the board. Since 2018, Democratic Socialists have won school board seats in Nevada, Minnesota, Texas, New York, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania.
These school board seats give Democratic Socialists sway over both sides of teacher contract negotiations, Staley said, and further promote DSA policies within school districts. This dynamic played out in Los Angeles this year, when the teachers' union strike for a public school "Green New Deal" coincided with a similar policy push by the district's two DSA-affiliated board members in the name of creating "sustainable, healthy, resilient, and equitable learning environments."
None of these efforts have come as a surprise to union critics like Rebecca Friedrichs, a longtime Southern California teacher who lost her 2016 U.S. Supreme Court case against forced unionization by the California Teachers' Association.
"If you want to bring down a republic, you have to capture the schools first," Friedrichs said. "Groups like the DSA have been the leaders of that."
Neither the DSA nor any of the various unions mentioned responded to requests for comment.