40 years ago, Illinois recognized the collective bargaining rights of teachers

From left, Illinois Education Association President Reg Weaver, Gov. James Thompson, state Sen. Howard Carroll of Chicago and Secretary of State Jim Edgar hold a torch symbolizing funding for Illinois education in 1984.


On Sept. 23, we have the opportunity to reflect on one of the great triumphs of the Illinois labor movement. It marks the 40th anniversary of collective bargaining for teachers and education support staff in Illinois. It is a momentous occasion, and we must take the time to acknowledge the transformative power of collective voice in education, especially at a time when the labor movement is seeing new life and studies show the deep impact unions have on uplifting the economy.

Four decades ago, under the direction of Republican Gov. Jim Thompson and through the intense lobbying efforts of the Illinois Education Association, the state took a significant step toward recognizing the rights of its teachers and education support staff to negotiate fair wages, benefits, working and learning conditions by passing the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act.

The IELRA is the Illinois law that requires school districts to recognize and bargain with education labor unions. This landmark event not only revolutionized the landscape of public education but also empowered teachers and education support staff, like paraprofessionals, bus drivers, nurses and secretaries, to play an active role in shaping the future of education. Together, we continue to advocate for our students, their education and our communities.  

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Prior to the introduction of collective bargaining, Illinois was home to 25 strikes a year on average and more than 200 illegal strikes over the course of a decade. Hundreds of teachers were fired for going on strike and others were arrested for refusing to agree to the contracts their school districts imposed.

Years of inequality, segregation, sexism

Educators faced innumerable challenges. There were no limits on class sizes, far fewer supports and sometimes not enough textbooks and other supplies for students. There were segregated schools and inequitable learning conditions. Wages were often subpar, working conditions were inconsistent and educator voices were often ignored in policy discussions.

Women were not allowed to wear pants and often earned less than their male counterparts. The dawn of collective bargaining in 1983 marked a turning point, giving teachers and education support staff a collective voice and requiring school districts to listen. This shift gave way to public education as we know it today.   

The IEA, the largest union in Illinois, fought for more than a decade to win the right to collectively bargain in Illinois. The law, written by the IEA under the leadership of former IEA President Reg Weaver and signed into law on Sept. 23, 1983, now helps improve students’ learning conditions and educators’ working conditions across the state. 

Collective bargaining fosters collaboration between teachers, education support professionals, administrators, parents and community members, allowing everyone to work together for the betterment of all students. By engaging in meaningful negotiations, educators can advocate for smaller class sizes, access to resources and equitable learning conditions. As Illinois celebrates four decades of collective bargaining, it is also celebrating four decades of improved educational outcomes and an enhanced public education experience for all students. 

On this 40th anniversary of collective bargaining, let us honor this milestone and remember that change is possible when we unite for a common cause.  

Al Llorens is president of the Illinois Education Association.

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