Teacher Unions Are ‘Bargaining for the Common Good’

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Teachers at West Seattle Elementary School begin walking a picket line Wednesday morning, September 9, 2015, in Seattle after last-minute negotiations over wages and other issues failed to avert a strike in Washington state's largest school district. 

This week, the Los Angeles school board voted to approve a new bargaining agreement with UTLA, the city’s teachers union. Local community organizations—like Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, InnerCity Struggle, and the Advancement Project—hailed the “groundbreaking” agreement for directing more resources towards students in high-needs schools. Some specific items UTLA bargained for included hiring a Pupil Services and Attendance counselor for high-poverty high schools, and hiring a new teacher for the 55 most needy elementary schools in order to reduce class size. Union members voted overwhelmingly in support of this new contract a week earlier.

“We commend UTLA’s innovative leadership in leveraging its bargaining power to deliver real and impactful investments for low income communities of color,” said John Kim, the Advancement Project’s executive director, in a statement.

UTLA’s president, Alex Caputo-Pearl, said in an interview that his union sees collective bargaining as an important tool available to fight for equity and justice. “A lot of people consider teacher union contract negotiations to be about narrower issues like salaries, benefits, and work rules—and all of those are important and we deal with those—but we’re using these agreements to expand what the union goes to the table for.” Caputo-Pearl says UTLA can ultimately be a vehicle to push for collaborative policy alongside community organizations. “We’re bargaining for the common good,” he declared.

This idea of “bargaining for the common good”—and working in partnership with local allies—is not a new idea for labor unions, but its potential has never been fully realized, and past efforts have not gone deep enough. One major obstacle has been that labor law tries to limit unions to bargaining just over issues of wages and benefits.

“Unions have been significantly hobbled by the legal regime, and a lack of imagination to challenge it,” says Stephen Lerner, a longtime labor organizer.

But now, partly because of the historic action the Chicago Teachers Union took in 2012, when its members went on strike not just for themselves, but also for increased public services for the broader community, more and more unions have started to reconsider their fundamental roles and responsibilities. By expanding their bargaining demands beyond wages and benefits, unions are recognizing that they can more fully support, and engage their community partners—and get those community groups to support them in return.

“I think there’s a growing feeling that if you operate within the confines of the law, you restrict the things that potentially give you power,” says Lerner. “We have to be willing to go beyond what the law allows.”

In 2014, leaders from public sector unions and community organizations gathered at Georgetown University for a national conference, entitled “Bargaining for the Common Good,” aimed at charting this new path forward. Writing in Dissent, Joseph A. McCartin, the director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown, said that three distinct priorities emerged from the proceedings: using the bargaining process as a way to challenge the relationships between government and the private-sector; working with community allies to create new, shared goals that help advance both worker and citizen power; and recognizing militancy and collective action will likely be necessary if workers and citizens are to reduce inequality and strengthen democracy.

The time had come, in sum, to politicize bargaining.

A burst of activity followed the Georgetown conference. “It’s been amazing to see how many unions, community groups, and people have adopted the ‘bargaining for common good’ frame and language,” says Lerner.

This past December in Minneapolis, a coalition of unions and community groups brought 2,000 people together to craft a collective agenda for social justice. “Participants highlighted the immense control wielded by a dozen huge corporations, including U.S. Bank, Target, and Wells Fargo, over Minnesota’s economy,” wrote McCartin, and “agreed to collaborate on an array of interlocking campaigns and direct actions in 2016.” Since then, the groups have already successfully pushed for paid sick leave in Minneapolis, and similar ordinances are on the horizon in Saint Paul and Duluth. Groups that can endorse candidates are also working together “with an eye toward building independent political power and wielding greater influence in state elections,” says Dan McGrath of TakeAction Minnesota.

Last summer in Seattle, teachers went on strike for five days—their first strike against the district in 30 years—winning not only cost-of-living increases, but also a guarantee for daily recess for all elementary school students, and the creation of “equity committees” to address the disproportionate discipline of black and brown students.

In Saint Paul, the teachers union began to rethink collective bargaining as far back as 2013, convening regular meetings with parents and community members to formulate a shared vision. When the school district refused to negotiate with the union over their community-driven proposals, insisting that teachers could only bargain on matters related to wages and benefits, the union stood its ground.

Teachers held “walk-ins,” launched social media campaigns, and threatened to go on strike. In the end, teachers won expanded preschool programming, reduced class sizes, reduced testing, and established more equitable access to nurses, librarians, counselors, and social workers. “I had negotiated almost a dozen previous contracts for the [union],” said Mary Cathryn Ricker, the former Saint Paul teachers union president. “But, for the first time, I felt that signing a contract was just one step in building a larger movement.”

Ricker now serves as executive vice-president for the American Federation of Teachers, but the work she started in Saint Paul continues. This year the union negotiated a new contract, filled with more community-oriented provisions, such as increased funding for alternatives to punitive discipline policies.    

“For too many years we just dealt with the problems we saw from within the walls of our classroom, but now we understand that our contract is the most powerful document we have to improve the learning conditions for our students,” says Denise Rodriguez, the current Saint Paul local president, in an interview.

Caputo-Pearl cites the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a network that formed in 2014 comprising ten national organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, as a key factor helping to drive this labor shift. “They’ve helped us reframe the conversation around bargaining and move this process forward,” he says.

Indeed, the effort is growing.

Last month, the NEA and the Center for Innovation in Worker Organization at Rutgers organized a two-day conference for teacher union locals across the Northeast region, focused on bargaining for the common good. It was the first geographic gathering of its kind. Participants explored how to bargain for issues like adequate nutrition for children, strong public libraries, longer recess, and smaller class sizes. A host of community organizations came, as well as representatives from the Seattle and Chicago teachers locals, who spoke about their own “common good” organizing.

“The members loved hearing about unions being on the offense, rather than the defense,” says Lerner.

“We offered locals a chance to think more deeply about their upcoming contract negotiations,” says Secky Fascione, NEA’s director of organizing. “We’re really watching these ‘a ha’ light bulb moments happen for members when they realize that bargaining can once again be a powerful tool for the issues most prevalent in our lives.”

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