Building Class Power By Fighting For The Common Good
Above photo: Rebel Lens.
As activists orient to the post-election landscape, we’re having lots of conversations about building power for the long term. We’re taking stock of the types of power we need and how they can reinforce each other – narrative, organizing, mobilizing, and electoral power, to name a few. And despite the decline in union membership and strength, workers’ collective bargaining power also offers a means of making gains for broader communities. “Bargaining for the Common Good” (BCG) makes this real.
Unions that adopt a BCG framework incorporate community demands alongside their workplace demands in contract bargaining. For example, the Chicago Teachers Union worked with students, parents, and community allies to bargain for higher wages as well as smaller class sizes and a nurse in every school, and to oppose school closures.
In 2014, unions, student groups, community organizations, and racial justice organizations came together to form the Bargaining for the Common Good Network.
Finding the common enemy
The BCG framework requires unions and community groups to do deeper analysis and find common targets. They need to take a broader view of who the opposition is, looking at the state and the major corporations that may be the ultimate powers individual campaigns and movements need to confront. BCG brings together key working-class forces and recognizes that people are exploited in the workplace as well as oppressed in other aspects of their lives. It requires labor to expand its ranks and find ways to build an intersectional movement.
Members of United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) have been working with students and parents for decades to fight institutional racism throughout the school system. This began through the Coalition for Educational Justice and increasingly became integrated into the union. Inspired in part by the Chicago Teachers Union, the UTLA began to expand their bargaining demands to include proposals developed in collaboration with students, teachers, and community allies. “If a subject falls outside the norm but we think it’s important to sustaining the civic institution of public education, we won’t hesitate to make it an issue,” Alex Caputo-Pearl, Vice-President/NEA of the UTLA, explained in an interview.
The union spent four years preparing for their 2018 contract negotiations, and knew it was likely they would have to strike given their ambitious goals. These included expanded school funding, smaller class sizes and a cap on charter schools, alongside the student and community demands for green space in schools, restrictions on random student searches (“wanding”) and establishment of a million-dollar legal defense fund for students facing deportation. They struck for six days in January 2019, with over 30,000 teachers, and more than 10,000 parents, students and community allies on the picket lines. The union won a historic agreement, with gains on almost all of their demands.
From the public to the private sector
This approach may come more naturally to unions where the demands are already politicized, such as teachers’ unions fighting the establishment charter schools. It is harder in the private sector – but not impossible. A community group and a union may both be dealing with the same private equity firm behind the scenes. For example, hotel workers, environmentalists and housing rights advocates could join forces against the private equity firm Blackstone Group, which is the largest shareholder in Hilton Hotels as well as one of the largest landlords in several cities. It also is backing a large infrastructure company developing in the Amazon rainforest. Organizers and writers are working to make this kind of information accessible.
It can be challenging, however, to launch a community campaign against a corporation when the corporation is the source of jobs.
The Communications Workers of America (CWA) has talked a lot about how to increase public access to the internet. “But it is not simple to figure out how to put forward a program that talks about increasing public access to the Internet and at the same time syncs up with our members perceptions of whether or not they’re going to get the work, because they’re dependent on a model in which the private sector delivers the Internet,” says Bob Master, assistant to the Vice President of CWA District 1. “That’s their work.” Despite the challenges, the CWA is a strong supporter of the BCG project.
While it may be harder to build campaigns in the private sector, the BCG analysis is still necessary, according to Greg Nammacher, Secretary Treasurer of SEIU Local 26 in Minneapolis:
We are all in a web of an economy that really is ruled by a set of puppet-masters. Whether you are a subcontracted security officer or janitor cleaning a Fortune 500 building, or you are a public worker working for the government that is supported by the tax base of that same corporation, or a teacher, again supported by the tax levy on that same corporation: Our economies are profoundly centralized and power is profoundly concentrated and all of us, although we have different people that sign our checks, are really, if you trace the money, controlled by very small number of folks.
Many studies have noted the increasing market concentration in many sectors. A 2011 study mapped just 147 trans-national corporations – primarily banks – that have disproportionate power in the global economy. Ownership in these companies overlaps significantly, making this core tightly interconnected.
“I want to understand what your issue is then I want to figure out if the person that will say yes to your issue is the same person that will say yes to my issue,” says Nammacher. “The same corporate Fortune 500 companies that dictate the outcome of our contracts are also dictating the outcome of these demands in the community.”
Even for public sector unions, whose immediate target is a city or state government, private sector corporations also influence outcomes. These could be a bank, private equity firm, or real estate developer – or even be a private sector trade association such as the National Restaurant Association.
As Becky Givan of the Rutgers faculty union puts it, “the employers are all working together. They’re all in trade associations, they are all using the same investment advisors. There’s a lot of crossover of who’s on their board and who’s setting their policies, and so if we don’t build power with an understanding of that we will always be in a weaker position.”
There is a lot of collaboration between private sector and state actors. Labor organizer and journalist Chris Brooks points out that the UAW has lost many campaigns to organize auto plants in the South because the union must fight not only the employer and strong business associations, but hostile state governments.
The number of unions that are able to win their demands on their own is small and dwindling, given both the size of the labor movement and the growing power of employers. While some union leaders live in the past, holding onto their connections to politicians or past relations with employers, a growing number realize they cannot win without building broader alliances within their sector and industry, with members of their communities, and with other movements.
Labor and environmental justice in Minneapolis
Nammacher describes how such common struggle developed for Local 26 SEIU and its community allies in Minneapolis-St. Paul. The union represents janitors who work for subcontractors for large companies. “We were clear that we wanted to take on some of the biggest companies in the Twin Cities to win our contracts, to raise wages and benefits for our members,” he says. “We were also clear that we were not going to be able to win that by ourselves. These companies were too big and too powerful to cough up what we wanted if it was just the workers going after them.”
The union reached out to allies in the environmental movement, and first held a meeting at the leadership level to compare demands and do a power map. The union found that the owners of the buildings where the janitors worked were “the same building owners that could have a significant impact on climate because such a large percentage of the pollution that was coming out of the big buildings was driving the carbon levels coming out of Minnesota,” says Nammacher.
The union then surveyed its membership and found a significant number very concerned about climate change, and worried about the chemicals they were required to use, often without training. Members also spoke about climate justice from the perspective of climate refugees. Nammacher tells of a woman from Ecuador who said,
“Our own land where we grew up was no longer usable because of the changing climate, and that’s why I had to migrate to Minnesota. I’m really here because of that. And the idea that I could put pressure back on our own buildings where we clean every night in order to do something to stop the changing climate that is forcing my other relatives to leave their farms is an exciting idea.”
Members had already connected their work issues and climate issues. “It was really us at leadership that had not thought about how to bridge these things that kind of live in different activist silos in our country,” says Nammacher.
From there the union worked with stewards to do education and lead discussions. They built a contract campaign that included environmental demands as well as the usual wage and working condition ones. They invited community allies to open bargaining sessions.
Fighting for an ethical workplace
The BCG approach has been used in a few places where workers do not yet have unions but have organized together to demand improvements that benefit employees and their broader community.
For example, CWA has used the BCG framework in their Bank Workers organizing project. Erin Mahoney, Organizing Coordinator for CWA District 1, explains that when bank workers came together to talk with one another, they found that many of their issues also impacted bank customers, such as sales goals that compelled bank workers to sell accounts to customers who did not need them. Wells Fargo set up sales goals and metrics that were so extreme and difficult to meet that it forced bank employees to do anything necessary to meet them, including setting up fake accounts. Workers tried to blow the whistle but had little power on their own to stop it. In fact, when customers began noticing fees and complained, some managers blamed workers.
Just communicating these common experiences helped lead to collective action. “A lot of the work with bank workers has been sort of a community model, not necessarily an election model,” explains Mahoney. “We’ve made a lot of change by just bringing together bank workers that are willing to get together and speak up and organize with each other.”
According to Mahoney, “it wasn’t until workers came together as an organized group with the power of labor and community that they were really able to stop the sales goals.” Finally blame was placed were it belonged: on bank management.
Wells Fargo workers don’t have a union yet, but they acted collectively to make changes that benefited workers and clients. And their organizing had spillover effects. Earlier this year, bank workers at Beneficial State Bank successfully unionized with CWA, the first union victory for bank workers in over 40 years. One employee, Desiree Jackson, had worked Wells Fargo before moving to Beneficial. “As our bank grows, I want to make sure we don’t grow in the direction that Wells Fargo and Bank of America did,” she noted. “I want to build on what we have and make sure we keep moving in a direction that is true to our values.”
Solidarity to build leverage
In addition to innovative approaches to bargaining and alliance building, the BCG network developed a new tool to increase labor’s leverage, called “Mapping for the Common Good.” By putting union contracts on a map, organizers can look for overlap by sector, industry and region. Where will workers be bargaining a new contract in the coming year? Can we develop contract demands, and line up contract campaigns? Can we find allies working on issues in our communities that may share common demands or targets?
“Nearly five million workers will be in bargaining or preparing for it in 2021, according to the Bargaining for the Common Good network’s research. How do those workers align their campaigns, and their demands, to exponentially increase their wins?” writes Sarah Jaffe. This kind of approach might help if we want to move beyond just talking about a general strike and begin concrete strategizing.
Leverage can come when multiple workplaces line up contracts to act collectively in a sector. As contracts expire at the same time, workers that strike will have more power. Employers will have a harder time breaking strikes or shifting production from one site to another. Even the threat to strike will have more power the more contracts and unions are involved.
The idea isn’t new. Liz Perlman of AFSCME 3299 in California, explains, “Some industries and unions have done that really well. For instance, SEIU 250 very deliberately lined up hospital worker contracts so they could set up pattern bargaining,” She adds, “So this isn’t new. It’s like the mole that you have on your face that you always see every single day but you never pay attention to: how do we line up contracts?” UNITE-HERE did this as well in their national strike against Marriott in 2018.
SEIU 1199NE began to align their contracts in Connecticut a few years ago, along with other unions in the state. They represent several different groups of workers and realized they would have more power if all their contracts expired at the same time. “In June of 2021 there’s about 100,000 workers in Connecticut whose contracts are expiring,” says Norma Martinez-HoSang, Bargaining for the Common Good Project Director for the SEIU State Council. This includes state employees, as well as workers in community colleges, home care, nursing homes, and community services who work for private nonprofit firms.
Union and community groups throughout the state are anticipating the state will issue a severe austerity budget in January 2021. They have built coalition to demand a People’s Recovery Budget, calling on the state find ways to raise revenue and not cut jobs or services. Using the BCG framework, they argue that worker and community interests are aligned.
KB Brower, Organizing Director for the BCG Network, explains how this coalition will combine bargaining with legislative pressure and direct action to push for shared demands, such as a billionaire’s tax and a digital ad tax that would apply to Google, Amazon and Facebook. There are 17 billionaires in the state who made $4 billion just in the first few months of the pandemic are getting rich while working people suffer.
The coalition has already held a number of actions, including a series of car caravans delivering body bags to the homes of some of the state’s billionaires. They had an action at the home of Warren Kanders, a millionaire in Connecticut who makes money off of manufacturing tear gas. “The tear gas that’s used at the US Mexico border and was used against Black Lives Matter protesters during the uprising,” says Brower.
In addition, some of the union partners are looking to expand contract negotiation proposals to include community demands. For example, “1199NE is working to expand the mobile health crisis unit to deliver mental health services to community members instead of calling the cops on them,” Martinez-HoSang says. “The union is allying with the ACLU of Connecticut, the Coalition to End Homelessness and the New Britain Racial Justice Coalition.”
The Connecticut campaign shows how contract mapping can help align multiple unions and organizations around the budget cycle. And 100,000 workers striking in multiple workplaces is a much bigger threat than a few hundred workers at one nursing home. Alex Caputo-Pearl of the UTLA says that the mapping tool is a way of aligning progressive forces around something beyond elections. “While elections are important, I think we all know the limits of elections in terms of trying to keep elected officials accountable, and the real limits of the Democratic Party right now around issues of corporate power, race, policing and so on,” he says.
Time to take risks
Bargaining for the Common Good is no magic solution, of course. It is easy to give lip service to the abstract idea but much harder to put into practice. The BCG network has pushed unions to adopt all the elements of a BCG campaign: engage members, work with allies, find common enemies, center racial justice, and go on the offense. “Obviously it’s challenging and resource intensive so not everybody who’s interested in it or wants to learn more has been able to do it,” Becky Givan notes.
Critics might say these are just the most promising examples and that some union leaders cynically use the BCG framework to promote their own self-interested demands or gain cover for business-as-usual. Marianne Garneau argues that unions already work for the common good when they organize workers and the BCG framework isn’t necessary.
Critics are right to be skeptical, given labor’s track record on revitalization. But unions have no choice but to step up and take risks. They represent over 14 million workers, and are among the largest social justice movement groups in the country. We need a strong labor movement as part of any real hope for progressive change.
Fortunately, some unions, and many rank-and-file workers, are pushing a more militant, bold and inclusive route. Where they can push this bolder and more inclusive strategy, it can have a double benefit. It can strengthen the unions themselves, and use the power of labor to help win community demands.