WASHINGTON—Statement of American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus on the retirement of AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson after her storied career as a union activist and national union leader. Johnson served for nine years as the secretary-treasurer of the union, after serving as executive vice president for four. She began her career as a teacher’s aide in Baltimore Public Schools, organizing her fellow paraprofessionals in the Baltimore Teachers Union.
“Very few people leave behind a legacy quite like my friend, colleague and sister Dr. Lorretta Johnson. While there can be no doubt that she has earned her retirement many times over, Lorretta’s departure leaves a hole in my heart and in the heart of our movement. She is a powerhouse in every sense of the word. Her decency, her keen eye for bargaining and her familial spirit have helped build this union into what it is today—but Lorretta never forgets where she came from. Since the 1960s, she has been building power for working people, and exercising that power in City Hall, in the Maryland Legislature and in the halls of Congress.
“I asked Lorretta to run with me in 2008 when I first ran for AFT president because I wanted a running mate who understood the union movement from the ground up; who knew what it was like to make $2.25 an hour with no benefits as a teacher’s aide; who knew what it was like to organize a local, go out on strike and negotiate tough contracts—and who could give voice to the education professionals who do so much to take care of our kids and make our schools run. She was all of that and so much more. She remains a giant, an icon in the labor movement and my friend. We will all miss her terribly.”
“Dr. Lorretta Johnson has been an inspiration to every person in the AFT. For me, as a former paraprofessional, I have found a kindred spirit in Lorretta, as we stand up for school support staff and fight for their voice at work and in their communities. She is a fierce advocate for justice and a role model for educators of color and women at every level of the labor movement. She makes me proud to be part of this union. That’s what she does; she makes us union proud.
“She has helped lead this union with grit, determination and wisdom. It is an honor, and a daily challenge, for me to be serving in a position she once held. We are proud to walk faithfully in her footsteps and to carry on her great legacy of fighting for the people who need it most.”
After beginning her union career in Baltimore, where she negotiated her first contract in 1970 and was arrested during the Baltimore teachers’ strike of 1974, Johnson served as president of the Baltimore Teachers Union for 35 years, as president of AFT-Maryland for 17 years, and as an AFT vice president for 30 years. She was elected AFT executive vice president in 2008 and AFT secretary-treasurer in 2011. Long active in the AFL-CIO, she served as vice president of the Metropolitan Baltimore Council AFL-CIO for 30 years and currently serves as an AFL-CIO vice president.
In 2014, Johnson chaired the AFT Racial Equity Task Force, leading the AFT to become the first public sector union in modern history to issue a substantive, action-oriented report on achieving racial equity in America, “Reclaiming the Promise of Racial Equity in Education, Economics and Our Criminal Justice System.”
Over her decades of activism in Baltimore and statewide, Johnson built strong relationships with mayors and governors, which served AFT members throughout Maryland. As she likes to say, “We teach in red towns and blue ones. We have to make relationships across party lines or we don’t win at the bargaining table. And everything we bargain for is political.”