As the chilling images of nurses in improvised masks using garbage bags as protective gowns make clear, the COVID-19 crisis is putting all of our structures to the test, laying bare our failing systems. The American system of collective bargaining, which was on life support before this crisis hit, is one of these.  Collective bargaining has been in retreat for decades in both the share of workers it covers and the degree of empowerment it offers. As the COVID-19 crisis deepens, we have a chance to end that long retreat. If we are to emerge from this crisis with a fairer and more democratic nation, we must reinvent collective bargaining to meet the demands of our time.  As this crisis demonstrates workers need a voice over more than their basic needs on the job. They need a voice in shaping the relationship between their jobs and the communities in which they live. For their part, those communities have a vital interest in ensuring that workers’ voices are heard so that they can help meet the communities’ needs. This is what happened recently as teachers from Los Angeles to Chicago to Boston called for school closings to slow the pandemic, even as they also demanded a host of interventions to protect the most vulnerable members of their communities. This is the essence of Bargaining for the Common Good. 

Bargaining for the Common Good (BCG) is a recent phenomenon, but one with deep roots and many precedents in U.S. labor history.  As a contemporary phenomenon, its outlines became clear through a series of campaigns first led by teachers and other public sector workers pushing back against the austerity regime that held sway in the aftermath of the Great Recession.  Teachers in Chicago and St. Paul, and public sector workers in Oregon and San Diego were among the early pioneers of this approach. They understood that there was no way to confront the dynamics of austerity—and especially its devastating impacts on our most vulnerable communities—unless workers and those communities joined together around a shared analysis to advance common goals. Unions decided to bring community allies into their bargaining campaigns, to invite the community to help shape their demands. Each side approached bargaining campaigns as organizing opportunities that would help build ongoing alignments capable of challenging the entrenched patterns of wealth and power that limited the horizons of possibility on their jobs and in their communities.

The term Bargaining for the Common Good was not used in the first of these campaigns, but by the time many of the local union and community-based pioneers of this approach gathered for a seminal conference in Washington, DC, in 2014, that term emerged to define their vision. One of the hallmarks of their thinking was the sense that the time had come to defy the ossified and patriarchal structures of bargaining as they had taken shape since World War II. It was becoming increasingly evident to them that the world of the early twenty-first century differed starkly from the world which had given birth to the limited form of collective bargaining that persisted in both public and private sectors.  

Even as it sought to break new ground, BCG harked back to U.S. labor’s past. At its inception in the United States, collective bargaining was an expansive concept through which workers sought to address big goals. When U.S. workers launched strikes across the country for the 8-hour workday on May 1, 1886, their demands transcended individual workplaces, industries, and sectors. When the first teachers union formed under the leadership of Margaret Haley in Chicago, their first priority was tax reform. When workers fought for their rights during the early twentieth century, the term that best captured what they desired to win through collective bargaining was “industrial democracy.” For John L. Lewis, industrial democracy meant workers’ “increased participation in the wealth they produce”--nothing less than “the freedom, happiness, and security which should be the inheritance of all Americans.” 

In both the private and public sectors, workers began with broad goals for collective bargaining.  Illustrative of this was an ambitious 1945-46 strike against General Motors by the United Auto Workers (UAW) that set the pattern for postwar America. The union sought not only a 35 percent raise to make up for wartime pay freezes, it demanded that GM not pass along the costs of the increase to consumers by raising car prices. Moreover, it demanded that GM open its books so the union could show that it would still make money after paying the union’s desired wage increase. In short, the UAW demanded a say in how the company ran its business and interacted with its consumers as well as workers. Of course, GM resisted with all of its might and the union was forced in the end to accept a (much smaller) pay increase, and give up its effort to win a voice in managerial decisions. Private sector unions would not get so bold again. The passage of the Taft-Hartley Act a year later in 1947 helped see to that. The kind of collective bargaining that emerged in the decades that followed at GM and other private sector companies saw unions generally agree to let employers run their businesses as they saw fit as long as they met workers’ wage and benefits demands.  

In the public sector the story was much the same. As government workers began organizing in the late 1950s and early 1960s, many of them saw collective bargaining in the same expansive way industrial workers had seen it in the 1930s. Sounding like the John L. Lewis of the CIO era,  Jerry Wurf, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) told the nation’s mayors that the “democracy of our political life deserves full extension into the labor relations of our public life.” Many public sector workers formed unions in the 1960s in order to help fix the broken agencies in which they worked. One such group were New York City’s social workers. In 1965 they struck New York City, demanding a complete overhaul of the city’s welfare system. Defying a law that made it illegal for city employees to strike, the social workers made demands on behalf of the half-a-million clients who relied on their services: better offices, more caseworkers, and reforms in providing for basic needs, such as a direct clothing grant for welfare clients. “Rehabilitation, Not Humiliation,” became their slogan. They won some of what they wanted and their strike led the city to adopt a collective bargaining law the following year. But that law also prevented municipal unions from advancing such far-reaching demands in future rounds of bargaining by requiring unions to recognize management’s unilateral rights to make policy for city agencies, something the social workers had refused to do. As municipal collective bargaining spread beyond New York and across much of America over the next 15 years, it brought with it these same restrictions. State after state mandated that public sector workers could bargain only for their wages and benefits.  In effect, they were forbidden from representing the needs of those who relied on their services.  

How Collective Bargaining Was Neutered

The narrowed form of collective bargaining that developed first in the private and later in the public sector between the 1930s and the 1970s functioned tolerably well for union members while the conditions that gave rise to this form of bargaining endured.  During those years, unions solidified themselves institutionally, helped lift workers’ standards of living, and meaningfully empowered them. But the conditions under which collective bargaining took shape began to break down almost as soon as workers won the right to bargain.  

As early as 1963, the astute labor observer Paul Jacobs wrote a pamphlet that called collective bargaining “old before its time.” Bargaining had lost its movement luster by then. But it was not until the Reagan era that the increasing impotency of collective bargaining in the private sector started to become clear. By then financialization and the rise of “shareholder capitalism” had begun consolidating power at the top of the economy, giving financial markets increased say over firm management. Power had begun to migrate from the management representatives who sat across from the union at the bargaining table to the financial markets that monitored the firm’s every move. Meanwhile, hedge funds and private equity firms emerged to squeeze value from firms by reorganizing them, divesting them of their pension obligations, and laying off their employees. New monopolies and monopsonies arose in which individual firms, like Amazon, exerted levels of influence over the larger economy not seen since the era of railroad robber barons in the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, the “fissuring” of the labor market, through subcontracting, franchising, and the expansion of globe-spanning supply chains distanced workers from those who held the power to improve their conditions.  

In this increasingly unfavorable context, the form of collective bargaining available to private sector workers was simply inadequate to the changed conditions in which they found themselves.  For those workers who retained collective bargaining it became primarily a defensive tool, a shield against some of the worst realities of the new economy. But even as a defense, its limitations were increasingly obvious. Thus, aggressive employer opposition to unionization wasn’t the only reason why union density declined: workers realized that even if they won a union their ability to actually alter the power dynamics of their firm was increasingly limited.  It is little wonder then that a bare 6 percent of U.S. private sector workers still bargained collectively by 2020.  

The story for government workers was again much the same. The conditions that had existed during the rise of public sector collective bargaining in the 1960s also changed drastically soon after workers won the right to bargain. Public sector bargaining emerged in a world in which the word “privatization” had yet to be coined. (While conservative management guru Peter Drucker called for “reprivatization” in a 1969 essay on “The Sickness of Government,” it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that calls for “privatization” became mainstream.)  In the early years of public sector bargaining, the top marginal federal tax rate exceeded 70 percent, The “tax revolt” that would bring us Proposition 13 in California and similar tax-cutting initiatives in other states had yet to be launched. Cities and states had not yet begun to seriously compete with each other to see who could best foster economic development through tax subsidies. Municipal indebtedness—and subservience to Wall Street—had not yet taken hold (while outstanding state and municipal debt amounted to about 15 percent of GDP in 1970, it grew to 25 percent by 2010). Government workers had barely secured the right to bargain before they faced conditions that threatened to lock them in the iron cage of austerity politics. 

Compounding the damage, the differential degrees of exposure of public and private sector workers to the gale-force winds of neoliberal economic reorganization created opportunities for anti-union forces to whipsaw one group against the other. Having increasingly shifted private sector workers away from defined benefit pensions and into precarious 401K plans, having halted the growth of their incomes and made their employment increasingly insecure through the threat of downsizing, outsourcing, and offshoring, corporate interests and their political allies pointed to public sector workers as scapegoats. Calling teachers and other government employees a new “elite” who enjoyed job security and benefits that most taxpayers now lacked, they mounted an all-out war against public sector collective bargaining. The battlefield extended from state houses like the one in Madison, Wisconsin, from which Gov. Scott Walker launched his union-destroying Act 10 in 2011 to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sought to undercut public sector union finances in its 2018 Janus v. AFSCME decision. 

Traditional collective bargaining did not give sufficient leverage to workers under these new conditions, whether they worked in public or private sectors. Absent that leverage, inequality exploded; worker insecurity grew, and corporate profits climbed. Austerity regimes persisted amid a post-recession boom, even as the public sector continued on a starvation diet and our shared infrastructure crumbled. As a result, working-class communities suffered, especially those inhabited by black and brown people. Soaring prices, speculation, and gentrification created a housing crisis in a growing number of cities. Underfunded mass transit systems faltered.  Workers continued to be uninsured, underinsured, and exploited by private medical insurers. Schools fell into disrepair, as their students were shunted into one new standardized testing regime after another. Meanwhile, we failed to heed the warning of climate scientists to free ourselves from a destructive fossil fuel economy.  

The Emergence of Bargaining for the Common Good

The situation for unions, workers, and their communities was becoming unsustainable. Old ways of bargaining could not address the new realities of the twenty-first century economy and politics—especially as these new realities were revealed by the Great Recession. The workers hardest hit were women, people of color and white workers who were paid hourly wages, not salary. Bargaining for the Common Good emerged in response to this increasingly undeniable truth.

Looking back, we can identify glimmers of what would become BCG emerging by 2010. Even as Scott Walker was campaigning for the governorship of Wisconsin and the Tea Party was preparing to sweep Republicans to power in Congress, effectively disabling the Obama presidency, new initiatives were beginning to emerge. St. Paul teachers, fresh from a bargaining campaign in which they had demanded that parents of special needs students be allowed into their bargaining sessions, began thinking about how to involve the community more fully in their next contract campaign. In Chicago, meanwhile, reformer Karen Lewis led a slate of Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) to power in the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). The union immediately began laying plans for an innovative bargaining campaign backed up by a credible strike threat when the union’s contract expired in 2012. The CTU cut officers’ salaries and used the savings to expand outreach efforts to build community allies.  

Other ambitious ideas were percolating by 2011. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) approved a campaign in January 2011 called the Fight for a Fair Economy, which saw it commit tens of millions of dollars to community organizing efforts among workers earning low wages in multiple cities, out of which would eventually emerge the Fight for $15. In July 2011, Jobs with Justice, the national network of unions and community allies, joined with the National Domestic Workers Alliance to create the Caring Across Generations campaign, a national initiative to transform the long-term care system and empower care workers that would in time unite over 200 organizations. In September 2011 the Occupy Wall Street movement erupted, seeding new and unexpected alliances among unions and their allies in many cities and making exploding inequality and the predatory nature of financialized capitalism subjects of mainstream public discussion.

Taken together, these developments indicated a growing awareness that an analysis of race, class and gender must inform bargaining, new initiatives were necessary to deal with new times and that unions and communities needed to come together to develop them. The 2012 Chicago teachers strike helped point the way forward. Prior to their walkout the union spent two years building community relationships, involving community allies in shaping their bargaining demands. They went into their 2012 strike demanding things that weren’t permissible in traditional bargaining: that the Chicago Public Schools claw back money it had lost to toxic interest rate swaps, that the city use Tax Increment Financing (TIF) money to help the schools rather than squandering it on the Chicago Board of Trade or Hyatt hotels, that schools provide wraparound services for their students. The good will the union built with parents and other community allies helped it force Chicago’s “austeritarian” Mayor Rahm Emanuel to blink in his showdown with the teachers.  

Soon other unions began joining with community allies and making demands that reached beyond the narrow compass of permissible bargaining issues and tackled issues of structural racism and classism. In 2013 St. Paul teachers demanded that their school district cease doing business with any bank that foreclosed on students’ families during the school year. In Los Angeles in 2014 the Fix LA coalition documented that the city paid more in fees to the Wall Street firms that marketed city bonds than it spent maintaining the city’s streets and demanded a thorough overhaul of the city’s relationship to the predatory financial community.  

After representatives from these and other efforts convened in 2014 and adopted the term Bargaining for the Common Good, the impulse of community organizations and unions joining forces to reinvent bargaining spread and dozens of creative new demands emerged: 

  • California university workers demanded that their employer prohibit the use of riot police, SWAT, or excessive police forces during non-violent student and worker actions; 

  • New Jersey teachers demanded their school district hire and support more black teachers, and mandate black history/ethnic studies in K-12; 

  • San Diego public employees demanded the county reform its criminal justice system to prioritize education, early intervention, treatment, and rehabilitation instead of strictly punitive measures; 

  • Maryland teachers demanded that the Board endorse and encourage teachers and students to participate in a Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Schools; 

  • Florida public service workers demanded that their employer increase the amount of available time off to employees who bike, carpool, or use public transit to get to work; 

  • Oklahoma educators demanded that their state institute a higher tax on oil production, gas production, and motor fuels to fund public education; 

  • Oregon state workers demanded that the state investigate banks that have engaged in fraudulent practices and boycott them until the money lost was paid back;

  • With help from the Communications Workers of America, the Committee for Better Banks, demanded that bank workers’ compensation no longer be tied to unfair sales goals that encouraged them to engage in predatory practices. 

The list grew month by month. When the #RedforEd movement erupted in 2018, its demands, not surprisingly, also transcended the narrow confines of permissible bargaining. West Virginia teachers refused to end their strike until all of the state’s employees received the same raise they had been promised; Arizona teachers wanted a ballot initiative that would block tax cuts that had defunded their schools; North Carolina teachers called for Medicaid expansion.  

Bold actions begat bold actions. Inspired by the #RedforEd strikes, the BCG network laid plans in 2019 for national convenings intended to seed campaigns for worker justice in higher education, housing justice, and climate/environmental justice, in communities around the country. It formed a 15-person national advisory committee and recruited 123 new local unions and community organizations into its network. 

At the same time, strikes by the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) in 2019 marked the maturation of BCG. The UTLA walkout in January 2019 saw the union call for the hiring of nurses and librarians, an end to the racially targeted searches of student backpacks, the dedication of school property to green space, legal support for immigrant families, and other issues dear to its community partners. When CTU struck in October, it called for an end to TIF-funded projects like Lincoln Yards through which Chicago lavished tax subsidies on fabulously wealthy investors, and, most importantly, it made housing justice a central demand of its strike, insisting that the school district provide resources for Chicago’s thousands of homeless students. Both strikes scored big wins.  

In taking their stands for innovative and broad-ranging demands, UTLA and CTU were breathing new life into the expansive vision of collective bargaining for which GM’s autoworkers had struck in 1946 and New York City social workers had fought in 1965, a vision akin to the one that mobilized eight-hour strikers in 1886, teacher union pioneers at the turn of the last century, and the advocates of industrial democracy who launched twentieth-century industrial unionism. They did not await reform legislation for permission to undertake this resurrection project. And they recognized that the kind of bargaining they needed could not be confined to workplaces or employment relations, nor could it be animated by unions acting alone. It would need to be a joint project of unions and community allies acting together, acting for each other, and for the common good.  

* * *

Those who have been building this BCG movement over the past decade have given us a promising model for how to mobilize in this time of COVID-19. This is the model embraced by the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) in its March 19 call to action, Facing the Coronavirus as a Just Community: An Agenda for Our Public Schools and Colleges and for the Common Good. “We must turn toward each other and create communities of mutual aid and support,” says the MTA. “Through collective action by our members, other workers, families, and communities, we can organize local, statewide, and national common good campaigns.” 

As we confront, struggle through, and finally overcome the crisis that we now face, let us use this time to connect our experiences to a larger understanding of how our economic model preys on women, people of color and workers making low wages. Let us draw inspiration from the big visions that moved our forebears. Let us use this struggle to come together to reclaim the common good. Let us use this trying time to lay the groundwork for the post-COVID-19 world we want and deserve. 


A Call to Action in This Moment



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