Bargaining for the common good in the coronavirus era

Marianne Garneau argues that the coronavirus pandemic has shown unions to be the most effective institutions at fighting for the public interest

Recently, Arizona teachers waged a sick-out, an “overwhelming” mass action in the name of “health and safety,” given that their school district was set to reopen despite the state not meeting the benchmarks it had itself set for safe in-person instruction. The action forced the administration of the 7-school district to reverse course on its plan for reopening. Similarly, the Chicago Unified School District announced earlier this month that classrooms would be closed and learning would be online-only hours after the Chicago Teachers Union threatened a strike vote.

At this point, 13 of the 15 largest school districts in the US have decided to only hold classes online, in spite of tremendous pressure from government and business to open schools for in-person learning in the hope of reanimating the economy. The impetus to close, which is clearly the only safe option, has come almost entirely from unions.

In general, those who have been most effectively advocating for public health during the coronavirus pandemic have been unions and workers. That includes health care workers who have demanded PPE and adequate staffing to continue caring for the onslaught of coronavirus and other patients around the clock, and for that matter grocery workers and transit workers who have demanded safer conditions.

Bargaining for the common good

In recent years, some corners of the labor movement, including the Chicago Teachers Union, have touted a strategy called “bargaining for the common good.” The idea is to address issues of concern to the broader community at the bargaining table, beyond the normal scope of contract issues. The example with CTU was addressing homelessness, which affects 17,000 students in their district; the union proposed an affordable housing plan and the city ultimately agreed, much more modestly, to appoint support staff for homeless students in schools.

The theory is, this approach not only does good, but crucially brings with it public support – members of the community are more likely to back the workers and their potential strike if they have a material interest in seeing the contract settled in the union’s favor. In some ways, bargaining for the common good is a cunning pushback against employer attempts to paint unions as selfishly looking out for their members’ interests — all that propaganda about “lazy” and “incompetent” teachers protected by unions at kids’ expense.

Nice as this sounds, this line of thinking leapfrogs over an important reality, which is that workers’ interests and the public interest are already aligned, at least far more often than people realize. When workers — especially teachers or nurses — bargain over even their own working conditions (class sizes, resources, staff-to-patient ratios), that is a matter of the common good, or at least the good of the working class, which is the vast majority of society. The basic bargaining issues that come across the table are quite often ones that make communities healthier and stronger, that draw resources to important public institutions like health care, transportation, schooling, and libraries. This is not just a matter of staffing levels, but other issues of quality of service, and thus quality of life.

Even beyond that, any worker compensation is compensation of working people in the community, and when a union is able to raise the wages for their members, that often raises the floor, including for unskilled and non-union workers. For as much as unions are painted as chauvinistically getting a better deal for their members, or even gatekeeping around “good jobs,” the majority of union activity is a fight against the boss in recognition that raises and working conditions don’t come out of other workers’ wages and working conditions, they come out of owners’ profits and prerogatives (or bloated administrations, or public spending on corporate interests). The gains unions make — including with respect to things like safety and health — are gains for workers who are themselves members of the public. If bosses and public administrations have the ability sometimes to pass that buck by making cuts elsewhere, that’s an argument to broaden the institutions of working class power that have been effective in advancing our interests against capitalists’. Historically, that has meant unions.

Working-class interest is general interest

Anti-worker propaganda from both liberals and conservatives has succeeded in framing every union fight as chauvinistic, narrow self-interest, even if the workers involved are deemed “worthy.” Our response to that cannot just be to implicitly concede the point and reach out to “the public” to tack on issues of interest to them. Instead, we have to reclaim the working class’s interest as the general interest. Bargaining for the common good somewhat implicitly agrees that workers are a special interest group that can contingently be bundled with others’ interests. (Granted that teachers’ unions, and no less the CTU, have long opposed this rhetoric.) This also comes from a left viewpoint that sees unions as narrow, economistic institutions that have to step outside of workplace fights and ally with other institutions in order to gerrymander a broader social relevance. But as we can see from these pandemic-era fights in health care and education, that simply isn’t true. The ones keeping patients and children and other members of the community safe right now are the workers forcing public policy through their struggles on the job.

A ton of emphasis has been placed in recent years on garnering public support for union battles – the thought is that without that broader support, unions cannot win against employers. While public support has a huge effect on worker morale, it’s not entirely clear how much effect it actually has on employers, including public ones. (For that matter, just look at how many Democrat or social democrat-mandated governments have spent their time in office bringing unions to heel or slashing services, turning against the very platforms that put them there.)

In fact, contrary to the widespread belief about the importance of public support and the narrowness of unions, the battles that have been won swiftly and decisively during this period of coronavirus have been won by workers withdrawing their labor or threatening to do so. Against a draconian push at nearly all levels of government and business to minimize the pandemic, short-change public health and re-open the economy at any cost, workers and their unions have been some of the only groups successfully pushing back in defense of the public’s health and safety. They have done so by leveraging the real power they have, their labor – not by marshaling public support. After all, this is a time when public interest is being steamrolled. While employers and government have been willing to expose the working class to COVID-19, organized labor has been the bulwark effectively bargaining for the public’s health and the common good.

Marianne Garneau is an organizer with the Industrial Workers of the World and the publisher of Organizing Work.