For Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, the AFL-CIO is spotlighting various Asian Americans and Pacific Americans who have worked and continue to work at the intersection of civil and labor rights. Our next profile is Arlene Inouye.
Arlene Inouye was born and raised in Los Angeles and has spent her life working for the students and teachers of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Her grandparents immigrated from Japan, and they and her mother were placed in internment camps during World War II. Inouye went on to earn a bachelor's and a master's degree from Long Beach State University and she has been a Spanish bilingual speech and language specialist for 18 years. She has also worked as an adult education teacher, master teacher, mentor, multicultural and human relations trainer, school reform trainer, and financial manager.
After she began working in education, Inouye quickly got in her union. She ascended to leadership roles, including treasurer for the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), as well as various positions with the AFT, the National Education Association and their affiliates. She also serves on the executive board of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance. Most recently, Inouye served as the lead negotiator in the contract talks between UTLA and the LAUSD during the January 2019 teachers strike.
Inouye has a history of activism. In the 1990s, she was working on building peace-based organizations and helping refugees when she launched the Coalition Against Militarism in Our Schools. Unions were among the supporters that made up the coalition and she eventually focused her activism more on collective bargaining rights.
As UTLA's lead negotiator during the weeklong strike, Inouye helped plan strategic efforts that prepared teachers for the work stoppage, built community coalitions and achieved significant gains. She spoke about the value of community:
But what really moved the dial was the fact that we had thirty-two thousand members picketing at every single school, together with fifteen thousand parents and community members. And we had fifty thousand members and supporters out here rallying almost every day. That’s real power. So they knew that if they didn’t meet our demands, we’d prolong the strike—and they didn’t want that. We had tremendous leverage and that’s why we were able to get everything we thought was critical—and more.
And about what it took to win:
We’ve really been building over the past years. I learned that there’s nothing that can stop you when you’re very organized, when you have the structures, the internal systems, the rank-and-file participation, the staff, and when you’re working together for a common agenda. I’m still amazed about what we as a union have been able to accomplish.
We were able to motivate our members and to walk them through the steps of overcoming their real fears and doubts; we were able to help them take a big risk. We stood strong for the issues of all our members, not just our teachers. When you’re inclusive like that you really experience unity. We were all able to come together.
In the end, the teachers won significant victories on behalf of themselves and their students and: a full-time nurse in every school, additional counselors and librarians, smaller class sizes, pay increases without health care concessions, increased oversight for charter schools, and political momentum for a moratorium on charter schools, among other gains. Not only did Inouye help secure victory for the teachers of Los Angeles, she set a standard for other trade unionists to follow.