Bargaining for the Common Good (BCG) campaigns are expanding and spreading across the country. These campaigns offer important lessons on how unions, racial justice organizations, and other community groups can go on offense and win in these challenging times. The upcoming Janus decision at the Supreme Court, which threatens the membership and financial base of public-sector unions, makes this all the more crucial. In essence, BCG campaigns are when union and community groups together leverage contract negotiations for broader, shared gains.
Far from being new, much of BCG builds on what have been essential elements of building the labor movement from its earliest inception. The “mixed assemblies” of the Knights of Labor (founded in 1869) acted as community of unions working in conjunction with the organization’s trade assemblies. Unions and community groups have been partners in bargaining, budget, and political fights for years. Labor’s greatest battles—from the sit-down strikes of the 1930s to the United Farm Workers strikes in the 1960s, to the Memphis sanitation workers (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees [AFSCME]) strikes—all depended on deep community support that also reflected the values and needs of the whole community.
More recently, Jobs with Justice was founded in 1987 with the vision of lifting up workers’ rights struggles as part of a larger campaign for economic and social justice, particularly in the face of growing attacks on the right to organize and bargain. In 1996, the AFL-CIO through its Department of Field Mobilization launched its Union Cities strategy, working with key Central Labor Councils to reimagine labor’s relationship with community groups. This work included mapping corporate power structures, developing and building an infrastructure for political work, increasing diversity in leadership and activists, and supporting organizing of unrepresented workers in local communities.
Digging a little deeper, however, it is clear that the history of too many labor–community alliances were transactional in nature: “Support us on this campaign and we will support or fund you in some way.” When in fact what went unrecognized are the unified values and needs of community and labor, what’s good for a group of workers is generally also what’s good for the community, and, conversely, organized labor can exercise muscle and leverage access to power for broader shared community interests.
BCG aims to avoid transactional relationships between community and labor by building lasting alignments between unions and community groups, not merely temporary alliances of convenience.
When unions and their community allies develop strategy, demands, and actions together from the beginning of a campaign, the results can be impressive. Consider some recent examples that illustrate the potential:
- The Fix LA campaign: Prior to going into bargaining with Los Angeles in 2014, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 721 and AFSCME locals joined with community allies to craft demands that would push back against an austerity agenda that was hurting both municipal workers and the people they served. Under the banner “Fix LA,” city workers and community and racial justice groups documented how exorbitant Wall Street fees were draining the municipal budget and starving city The campaign won a commitment from the city of Los Angeles to hire five thousand workers from disadvantaged communities into a range of jobs in Public Works, General Services, Recreation and Parks, the Airport, and a city-financed revenue commission to identify alternatives to high-fee Wall Street loans, closing a variety of local tax loopholes to raise revenue and avoid dependence on predatory Wall Street loans. The campaign’s narrative and power successfully fought off concession demands from the city.
- With an almost 60-person bargaining team and an agenda created with community input, the National Education Association (NEA) affiliate, Sacramento City Teachers Association won a considerable decrease in testing, salary increases, lower class sizes and an agreement to work with the mayor on a ballot initiative to fund arts, music and restorative practices.
- AFSCME 3299: AFSCME Local 3299, which represents workers in the University of California (UC) system, joined with students and other coalition partners to document and expose how the university’s endowments were invested in hedge funds that had poor returns, high fees, and socially irresponsible investments. They have now built into their bargaining demands a proposal to create local-hire and training programs for disadvantaged workers and to ensure that UC follows “fair-chance” hiring procedures. They are also proposing expanding their existing immigrant rights language. In a past con- tract campaign, they won non-discrimination provisions that restrict UC’s ability to use government-initiated immigration-document re-verification against Now, in 2017, they are demanding that UC make stronger commitments not to collaborate with immigration enforcement.
- Chicago Teachers Union: In their 2017 contract negotiations, Chicago teachers, who have been pioneering common good bargaining since their successful2012 strike, won contract language around a series of creative demands that had strong community support, such as funding community schools, limiting charters, preventing school closings, and mutually supporting progressive revenue solutions at the state level.
- Bank workers and Wells Fargo: The common good approach to labor–community alignment is not confined to public-sector settings. Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the Committee for Better Banks have been organizing bank workers with the twin goals of winning better wages and benefits for workers and challenging a business model that forces workers to sell predatory financial products as a condition of employment. Bank workers from the organizing committee were the early whistle-blowers on Wells Fargo’s fake account cheating scandal demonstrating that worker and consumer rights are intertwined—you can’t win one without the other.
What Do the Various Campaigns Have in Common?
While campaigns using this approach vary according to scope, sector, and geography, they draw from a menu of nine key elements.
1. Expanding the scope of bargaining: Central to the attack on unions, and on public-sector unions in particular, is the claim that unions and their members are selfish and greedy; their sole goal is to protect wages, benefits, and pensions, at the expense of local community Unionized public workers are caught in a trap: On one hand, they are called selfish for defending existing benefits and, on the other hand, traditional bargaining is limited to negotiations over those very same economic issues. Only by breaking out of the narrow confines of traditional bargaining can we avoid this trap. BCG radically repositions the union by fundamentally and publicly redefining who we are through what we and our partners are demanding in bar- gaining. Instead of being a defense of the status quo, bargaining becomes a primary vehicle to lift up and popularize a common vision embraced by both the community and union members about what kind of schools and public services we need.
2. Unifying identities: Union members wear multiple hats—they are union members (or potential members); they are parents, homeowners or renters, tax- payers, neighbors, human beings with their own gender, racial, and class identities. BCG campaigns engage all those identities and their attendant hopes and dreams for a better future. BCG takes both community and labor struggles and centers them in the heart of union work—the bargaining table—and uses bargaining to connect traditional worker issues and broader community issues.
3. Community at the table: How many times have you and/or your organization been called on to send bodies to a rally or sign on to someone else’s letter or petition? Maybe too many to count? We have all been there. What sets BCG apart from other strategies is that community members and union members are asked to pull up chairs to the decision- making table from the very beginning. They are both present as the vision and issue platform are being crafted. And they are together to negotiate wins.
4. Strengthening internal organizing and member engagement: Union members are rarely more engaged with their organizations than during bargaining. BCG campaigns approach bargaining in ways that further deepen and expand member engagement. Union members involved in BCG campaigns often report feeling energized and prouder than ever to be union because they know that they are not only fighting for themselves and their coworkers but also for their neighbors and the broader community they often serve.
5. Confronting systemic/racial injustice: Traditional collective bargaining has proven to be an inadequate instrument with which to confront systemic injustices like institutionalized racism, the roots of which invariably extend beyond the confines of the workplace and are deeply embedded in the structure of communities and reinforced by a broad range of policies. By breaking out of the box of traditional bargaining, BCG campaigns have been able to identify and attack systemic injustices. For example, teachers unions embracing BCG have attempted to break the school-to-prison pipeline by calling for an end to disciplinary policies that tend to criminalize students and demanding wraparound services that can better serve vulnerable populations.
6. Identifying, exposing, and calling to account those who are really calling the shots: In the public sector, BCG campaigns work on researching and naming those who are profiting from the austerity agenda. Long before bargaining begins, BCG campaigns do deep research to map the corporate power structure that dominates the setting of government priorities. They identify the corporate actors who claim there is not enough money to fund public services, while profiting from tax cuts and generous public subsidies. Exposing the facts and forces behind lucrative privatization schemes, and showing who benefits from cuts to public services and taxes, reframes the dominant narrative and undercuts the calls for austerity. In private-sector fights, this same approach helps uncover the role that hedge funds, private equity, and what Teddy Roosevelt once called “malefactors of great wealth” are playing in shaping corporate priorities that favor downsizing, outsourcing, and deunionizing work.
7. Challenging wealth inequality: BCG campaigns call attention to one of the greatest injustices of our time—the fact that the public sector is being starved for funds as a small sliver of Americans wallow in unprecedented wealth, paying taxes at a rate that is but a fraction of what the wealthy paid in the post–World War II era. We need progressive revenue solutions. To win them, we need to show how wealth has been increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small elite. Building this into our campaigns helps create the public environment that allows us to eliminate tax loopholes and raise the revenue needed to fund good schools and public services. For example, closing the carried interest loophole (that benefits primarily private-equity and hedge-fund managers) would by some estimates lead to $3.5 billion dollars in additional tax revenue in New York State alone.
8. Putting capital to work for the common good: Many union pension funds have been hurt not just by inadequate funding and skipped contributions but also by investing in high-fee hedge and private- equity funds that often provide mediocre returns. Many of the funds invest in companies that damage society (e.g., private prisons), and many fund managers use their mega-earnings to fund candidates and organizations that advocate privatizing public services and schools. BCG campaigns can demand that pension funds invest in projects that provide good returns and benefits to the community, putting billions of dollars of workers’ capital to use benefiting underserved communities.
9. Building a positive perception of organized labor: In recent years, labor has been struggling with negative press— losses have bred defensiveness; defensiveness has led to more losses. BCG tries to turn this around. BCG campaigns recognize that unions cannot reverse the damage to the public perception of unions on their own. When unions and communities stand together for the common good, it has a transformational impact on workers and communities. BCG seeks to ensure that everyone succeeds and wins, especially those who need us most.
Case Study in Going on Offense
The National Education Association represents more than three million public school educators, making it the largest professional organization and labor union in the country. At a time of extraordinary challenges facing public education across the country, and incessant attacks on teacher unions as “part of the problem,” NEA chooses to proactively focus on ensuring every student has the support, tools, and time to learn that lead to success. Educators partnering with parents and community leaders understand quality public schools in every neighborhood impact the broader success or failure of a com- munity, including the devastating impacts of institutional racism. Since participating in the initial BCG gathering in 2014, NEA and its affiliates across the country—in cities like St. Paul, Minnesota; Sacramento, California; Seattle, Washington; and more—are making BCG a cornerstone of their organizing for economic and racial justice.
Public schools are a part of the social fabric of every community. From kindergarten through higher education, students, parents, educators, and community partners strive to make the world a better place through education. When resources are drained from public education, students and communities suffer; students do not have the textbooks or equipment to advance their learning, educators do not have the tools they need to be most effective, crime rates rise when extracurricular programs and activities are cut, and sometimes students do not have access to the nutritious food they need to power their brains to learn. Those results can have devastating impacts on communities.
Also, research shows that when schools are declared “failing” or subject to state takeover— which disproportionately happens in communities of color—wholesale community disenfranchisement takes place. Civic engagement declines when there are not compelling local elections like school board races. Opportunities for community leader- ship and voice disappear. This impact of education policy steeped in institutional racism hurts too many urban and also rural communities.
When public education is defunded, the impact is collective, so it is in the best interest of whole communities to band together in a collective fight for the quality schools that all stu- dents deserve. BCG is a natural fit.
Groundbreaking Work in St. Paul, Minnesota
In their 2013 and 2015 contract campaigns, the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT), an affiliate of both American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and NEA, won a set of demands that went far beyond those normally considered within the scope of bargaining. SPFT bargained for reduced class sizes; increased the number of school nurses, counselors, social workers, and librarians in the district; took on standardized testing; and expanded parent-led family engagement programs. They also won funding for restorative practices and mechanisms to address institutional racism.
Restorative practices represent a radical shift in the way members of a school community relate to each other, focusing on intentional relationship building and shared problem solving. SPFT began looking at bringing restorative practices to Saint Paul Public Schools as an alternative to punitive discipline policies that were pushing students of color out of the class- room and into the school-to-prison pipeline. Now embarking in their second year of the restorative practice program, restorative practices have transformed the way our pilot schools function because when restorative practices are successful, students, educators, and parents build deep, lasting relationships within their communities. These kinds of alternative policies can be won through a bargaining for common good approach that brings parent and family voices together with educators at the bargaining table—leverage that most parents do not have absent the partnership with the union.
Saint Paul’s contract negotiations in 2015 also resulted in an agreement to form a task force, including SPFT members, district officials, and parents to examine the financial institutions with which the school district does business. This task force was created in response to the predatory lending practices of banks like Wells Fargo and US Bank, which have a major presence in the Twin Cities. SPFT also proposed that the school district stop doing business with any financial institution that forecloses on students while the school year is in progress.
As part of their 2017 negotiations, SPFT is targeting large corporations and nonprofits— specifically private colleges and medical institutions—to repair the harm they have done in Saint Paul by avoiding taxes or taking corporate welfare. Every year, the school district faces budget shortfalls and inadequate funding for public schools. This happens in spite of Minnesota being an economically healthy state. SPFT has embarked on a popular education campaign, bringing in both members and parents as trainers, to educate the community about who stole the money that rightfully belongs in our public schools. The TIGER (Teaching and Inquiring about Greed, Equity, and Racism) explores tax avoidance by large corporations, wealthy non-profits that refuse to help their community by funding public schools, and law- makers that are complicit in defunding our pub- lic education system. The next step for the TIGER team is to directly negotiate with corporations and large non-profits to find a sustain- able way to fund public education in Saint Paul.
How did they achieve such significant victories? First, the SPFT opened up their bargaining process, intentionally inviting additional members and community partners into the process. Parent engagement was especially critical to these successes, with parents having a voice in identifying priorities for bargaining and coming to negotiations and campaign actions. SPFT also empowers its rank-and-file members, equipping them with the tools to be organizers. Finally, bold leadership by Presidents Mary Cathryn Ricker, Denise Rodriguez, and Nick Faber was also key to SPFT making a cultural shift within the union.
These successes also led to the creation of a special training institute—the Saint Paul Institute (SPI)—in 2016, which now offers training for other locals on BCG. In 2016 to 2017, twenty-six teams of 130 educators over- all from locals in seventeen different states participated in SPI. These teams were comprised of both member leaders and staff.
The relentless legal, political, and economic attacks on the public sector and the broader movement for social justice will grow worse in the years ahead. To fully realize the potential of BCG requires both expanding and sharpening its application. A community of those who have been involved in this work is now seeking to refine and expand BCG in ways that create easier on-ramps for involvement, using reproducible tools, educational materials, and contract language, while creating vehicles that make it possible to connect and support BCG campaigns in multiple locations. BCG activists are now exploring how to link multiple contracts with common expiration dates by creating common timelines, targets, messaging, and actions that span affiliate unions, cities, and states.
Three developments in BCG work are especially promising. These are the efforts of BCG activists to deepen and expand their focus on racial justice and immigrant rights as a necessary component of anti-austerity campaigns, to develop regional convenings, and to map out sectoral networks capable of advancing the work.
1. Deepening the focus on Racial Justice: In March 2017, a major conference sponsored by the Center for Innovation in Worker Organization at Rutgers University, the Kalmanovitz Initiative at Georgetown, and the Action Center for Race and the Economy drew 150 key activists and leaders from racial jus- tice groups and unions to Silver Spring, Maryland to explore how BCG can open new avenues to confront racism and white supremacy. The conference planning committee included key unions (the SEIU, AFT, and NEA) and racial justice community organizing groups such as Black Youth Project 100 (BYP 100) in Chicago, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC) of Minnesota, and Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE).
Conference participants worked on developing bargaining demands and campaigns that address structural racism in the workplace and how structural racism impacts the quality and types of services provided by schools and the public sector. By directly challenging racism and highlighting this as part of the analysis of how the public sector is being defunded, they created openings that will allow unions and racial justice groups to connect more strategically.
The BargainingfortheCommonGood.org website already has collected sample bargaining demands and campaign stories from across unions/geographies for those interested in engaging this crucial piece of the struggle.
2. Inaugurating city and regional convenings: BCG activists have become increasingly aware that they can no longer rely on national convenings to advance their work. Attending such gatherings is expensive and requires a bigger time commitment than many local activists can make. This has tended to limit the network’s ability to train new campaigners. But plans are now in the works to change this. Organizers have begun creating a simple half-day curriculum that can be hosted by university labor centers, central labor councils, or community groups as an introduction to BCG. This introductory curriculum would include examples of specific campaigns, contract language, and other organizing materials. As the introduction to BCG becomes more accessible, it will allow groups to hold smaller, more focused meetings. Such meetings could in turn lead to geographically based BCG campaigns founded on common expiration dates and issues.
3. Developing sectoral strategies: Initial BCG work has combined unions and community groups from all different sectors of the economy. The next phase of BCG will be creating a sectoral approach to the work. Two sectors have already witnessed enough BCG activism to sustain the development of a coordinated sectoral strategy:
- K-12 public schools: This is where there is currently the most BCG activity. Focusing on this as a specific slice of BCG will allow us to identify common expiration dates, research common corporate targets that support school privatization, and dig deeper into revenue sources and other solutions needed to create public schools that children and communities need and deserve.
For example, more NEA Locals are bargaining in partnership with communities for student-centered issues, like more recess time, and less standardized testing. In September 2017, a strike was settled in Burlington, Vermont when community members led the way for an improved school-day schedule, even though the union had already won on a health insurance issue that was important to its members.
- Public sector: In light of the blow unions anticipate in Janus v. AFSCME, it will be especially important to expand BCG into other parts of the public sector that have not been as focused as public school unions on the community-based issues related to their work. For example, the SEIU’s San Diego local has built much of its BCG campaign around issues of understaffing leads to: unnecessary extensions in incarceration time between arrest and trial; inability to assess all potentially eligible pre-trial arrestees who could be released without bail are instead left in jail; massive under-enrollments of immigrants, refugees, and low-income residents in social service programs they are eligible for; failure to adequately meet health needs of low-income families, foster youth, homeless, and indigent populations; inability to respond as quickly and comprehensively to health outbreaks like current Hepatitis A because of ongoing nurse shortages.
Two other sectors might soon also give rise to coordinated strategies:
- Higher education: On the labor front, some of the most significant organizing victories in recent years are happening in higher education—ranging from faculty organizing to adjunct, graduate students, and various service and maintenance units (both in-house and outsourced). Higher education also encompasses issues of college affordability, tuition-free college, student debt, outsourcing, academic freedom, and the financialization of higher education. Since the fall of 2017, regional BCG in higher education convenings/conferences has begun to bring unions, organizing groups, students, and groups focused on debt and affordability together to plan a series of campaigns.
- Private sector: To date, there has been relatively little BCG activity in the private sector. CWA’s bank worker organizing campaign has focused on two sets of demands: better wages and benefits for bank workers and the demand that workers not be forced to sell predatory products as a condition of employment. BCG could be as powerful in the private sector as the public sector if unions join together with community partners to expand the scope of organizing and bar- gaining to include critical issues such as food safety, selling dangerous and predatory products, and so on.
- Sectoral strategizing can go hand in hand with issue-centered strategy networks. Some BCG activists are currently dis- cussing the prospects of developing issue-based affinity groups around issues such as climate justice, just transition, and immigrant rights.
BCG as a strategy for going on offense during a time of great challenge for working people in our communities is still in its infancy. The very term “Bargaining for the Common Good” is still only a few years old. Nonetheless, the lessons learned from these campaigns are spreading quickly, and as they do they are encouraging us to rethink collective bargaining for the twenty-first century. This process is leading us to reconceptualize bargaining in ways that confront the economic forces that have been ravaging the lives of working people.