A debate on Bargaining for the Common Good

Bargaining for the Common Good has become a much celebrated concept among labor activists, academics, and journalists, with many calling for all unions, even those in the private sector, to adopt the approach. 

But is Bargaining for the Common Good a model that all unions should be taking up? What are the limitations or challenges to doing so? Does a common good approach muddle a class-based understanding of power? How susceptible is the approach to being co-opted by a labor bureaucracy with a track record for shifting the focus of unions away from organizing at the workplace?

What follows is a three-way debate on these questions between Organizing Work publisher Marianne Garneau, labor organizer and journalist Chris Brooks, veteran union negotiator Joe Burns, author of the forthcoming Class Struggle Unionism. This is part 1 of the debate. Part 2, about the private sector, will run tomorrow.

The origins of Bargaining for the Common Good

Chris Brooks: The 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike for the “Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve” came in the wake of several concerted attacks against teacher unions, from former governor Scott Walker’s suspension of public sector union bargaining rights in Wisconsin, to Davis Guggenheim’s anti-union screed Waiting for “Superman,” to the bipartisan support for President Obama’s pro-charter Race to the Top federal legislation. Pushing back against a growing narrative that teacher unions undermined public interest by contributing to a failing public school system, the CTU strike  connected workplace fights with broader social demands. 

This approach is now called “Bargaining for the Common Good” and is closely aligned with a new militant wing of the teachers’ union movement, but it is starting to pick up steam in other industries and is being studied and promoted as an approach by engaged labor academics

Under the Bargaining for the Common Good umbrella, teacher union locals have demanded class size limits, an end to standardized tests, expansion of preschool programs, policies forbidding employers from collaborating with ICE agents, a shift away from racist and punitive models of student discipline, and even rent control to expand the availability of affordable housing for working class families. 

But the approach has expanded beyond public schools. During the pandemic, healthcare workers have rallied around expansive demands, such as Medicare for All, the use of the Defense Production Act to retool our country’s manufacturing capacity to focus on necessary medical supplies, nationalization of the hospital industry to coordinate resources , and even defunding the police to better fund public health. 

In fact, as Marianne has argued, it’s clear that the most effective advocates for rational public health policies during the pandemic have been unions. 

The way I see it, the unions that have adopted the Bargaining for the Common Good framework have all done the same important things: they’ve developed meaningful, long-term alliances with progressive community organizations to fight for big picture demands, they’ve pushed the envelope (if not outright broken the law) on what unions can fight for at the bargaining table and on the picket line, and they’ve super-charged worker militancy and strikes with meaningful community support.

But both of you have a more critical view of this approach. Can you both outline for me what you see as the shortcomings or limitations of Bargaining for the Common Good?

Joe Burns: Bargaining for the Common Good really came out of public sector bargaining where it hits at the correct strategy but has some problems. When theorists apply it to the private sector it becomes a big problem. 

For private sector strikes, Bargaining for the Common Good is not a good framework.  While we need broad-based unionism, actual strike activity by private sector unions is about impacting employers economically, not community support.  There are tons of examples where private sector strikes had tremendous community support but lost the strike because the employer was able to continue production and permanently replace workers.  

Arguing against community support may sound like heresy to some people, but the reality is broad-based demands are not the key element to winning private sector strikes. For those of us on the left of the labor movement, it’s time to have a serious discussion of what a militant, fighting labor movement looks like. That is not going to come out of a Bargaining for the Common Good discussion.  

In the late 1970s and 1980s, a class-struggle wing of the labor movement put forward strike activity fighting the sellouts in the union movement, and militancy — which meant violating labor law — as key to labor’s revival. This put them at odds with the union leadership and in support of rank-and-file reform movements. That sort of discussion is a lot different than arguing that we need to put forward broad demands. 

For public sector unions, bargaining for the common good captures what is essentially a correct strategy but twists the perspective. For public workers, the strategy of tying demands in the workplace to broader community demands is key to winning strikes. This is made easier because issues such as class size and school policies like student discipline are workplace concerns with obvious and powerful connections to the community.    

If teachers are bargaining over class size or counselors in every school, is that bargaining over the common good or just an expanded notion of teacher concerns? As a bargainer, I would bet at the actual bargaining tables the union negotiators are arguing there is a connection to their ability to do their job.  

I think the better perspective is that we must reject attempts to narrow the proper concerns of unions. Unions should be fighting for broader class demands.  

Like I said, for public employees it’s essentially the correct strategy anyway so maybe this is partly semantics. But ideas do matter and I believe the notion that public workers should have way more say over their jobs and support for students is a way more radical way to look at it.  There has been a current in the labor movement for the last thirty years that the way forward is to step away from traditional unionism to embrace alt organizations and community unionism.  

Marianne Garneau: My point in my article was that, as the pandemic has demonstrated, unions already take care of the public good: unions are the ones shutting down schools in areas where the virus is running rampant, they are the ones insisting on PPE and adequate patient care, demanding public transportation be safe, etc. And they are doing so through strikes and the threat of strikes, not by marshalling public support or pressuring politicians. My concern about Bargaining for the Common Good is that it implies that unions are normally chauvinistic institutions, and only in special circumstances do they break out of that. But they already take care of public interest by fighting their own battles at work. More broadly, I want to argue that the workers’ interests — even in the case of the private sector — are the general interest.

Conservatives and progressives

Chris Brooks: There is a lot to unpack here. Let me start by saying that the first concern I have is that someone might interpret what y’all are saying as providing cover to conservative labor leaders who argue that unions are narrow self-interest groups that should only represent the economic interests of their members and not be vehicles for social justice. I think the left wing of the labor movement has rightfully fought this tendency and championed a vision of the unions as one of the most important forces for changing the world on behalf of women, immigrants, queer folks, and all of the working class. 

Joe Burns: I would frankly be a lot more concerned about conservative trade unionists adopting the Bargaining for the Common Good framework to avoid confronting issues like the need to violate labor law or promote worker militancy. Bargaining for the common good is the latest in a string of the latest great initiatives to revive the labor movement, including alt-unionism, social unionism, etc.  These all avoid the difficult questions of power and reform. 

So what I am worried about is that this excellent approach being used by teachers — tying workplace demands to broader community demands — is being repackaged by theorists such as Sarita Gupta, Stephen Lerner, and Joseph McCartin, as a new comprehensive framework that continues this trend of shifting the focus of union strategies away from the workplace, which is the site of working class power. 

When I see the teacher strike wave, I see rank-and-file reform movements, deep activism in the workplace, a rejection of corporate neoliberalism, a willingness to break with Democratic policymakers, a broad and radical conception of the proper subjects of bargaining and a belief in the power of the strike. The Bargaining for the Common Good framework obscures most of that and for that reason will not be likely very threatening to the labor establishment.  

I think you can critique the use of the framework Bargaining for the Common Good and still be in favor of class demands. In fact, previous generations of militant unionists used a class struggle unionism framework which ties the struggles of the workplace into a broader class fight which encompassed the points you are talking about.  

Marianne Garneau: Chris, I think you’re getting my point exactly backwards. You’re saying unions should tie broader community demands into their bargaining and engage in BCG / social movement unionism to prove those mean conservatives wrong that they do actually care about more than their own members.

Instead, I am saying: even when unions bargain entirely ‘narrowly’ over bread-and-butter demands like wages and benefits for their own members, that is not some parochial interest sectioned off against the common interest. That’s the right-wing talking point: that workers bargaining up their own wages is bad for the rest of us (either because it drives up prices for the consumer, or it drives down wages elsewhere, so the argument goes). Rather, I argue that any time the working class pushes wages up — shifts the balance between wages and profits — that is the working class asserting its power in general and it is a good thing. So, unions don’t have to tack on other bargaining demands to validate what they are doing as ‘for the common good’. That’s the problem with the BCG framework: it treats the bread-and-butter stuff as parochial and by implication not something the public would or should support, until matched with other demands. 

The workplace and the community

Chris Brooks: Left-led CIO unions in the first half of the 20th century didn’t make a hard divide between the struggles in the workplace and in the community. If anything, they were trying to connect the dots between how bosses, investors, landlords, and elected officials are all part of the broader capitalist system of exploitation. So I agree that Bargaining for the Common Good seems like an attempt to rebrand what left-led unionists have already been doing for a long time. I also share the concern that the Left might be inadvertently promoting the idea that it is inappropriate for workers to strike and militantly fight “only” for increased wages and better benefits, especially in mission-intensive sectors that are heavily dominated by women, such as teaching, nursing and social work. I don’t think that expanding the fights we have at the bargaining table inevitably results in a denial that higher wages for the working class is in an inherent good. But in practice, Marianne, your argument seems more rhetorical than substantive. Following the 2010 elections, Republicans dominated two-thirds of state governments and over half of state governorships. The GOP quickly went on the offensive to pass both austerity and anti-union legislation in states all across the country, including what were once notable labor strongholds like Wisconsin, and their argument was one of deep resentment towards unions gains: “why should the taxpayers foot the bill for pensions and paying 100% of healthcare premiums for government employees when so few people in the private sector have them?” Bargaining for the Common Good has, I think, powerfully flipped the script on this argument by advancing a politics of solidarity against the politics of resentment. What do you specifically think that unions should have done or should be doing differently to counter the politics of resentment and the austerity and anti-collective bargaining legislation they advanced?

Marianne Garneau: I mean this is the fundamental question of where wages come from — do they come out of other workers’ pockets, or do they come out of profits? I won’t deny that the impulse from both government and business is to always take their pound of flesh from the working class, but the only mechanism for pushing back against that is organizing more workers in both the public and private sectors and striking more effectively to shift the balance of profits versus wages. Spending on schooling, including on teachers’ wages, is a public good, as are wages in the private sector — that’s money in our pockets rather than in CEO compensation or paying for stock buybacks. 

Anti-union laws like in Wisconsin aren’t passed because teachers started living too high on the hog. They’re class war. You have to at least hand it to the business class that they are honest about the fact that they think everyone should suffer and starve. But it’s not for us to take on those talking-points and say “Yeah, we’re asking for higher wages, but we’re also bargaining over stuff that matters to you guys!”

When you talk about “flipping the script” it sounds like you are describing a public relations war as a necessary precondition to winning at the table, but I think the more effective thing is the actual strike. I also disagree with the implication that high teacher salaries breed resentment. Is resentment stoked intentionally? Sure. Business-leaders and the politicians who represent their interests, not to mention the mainstream media, are always going to frame workers earning good wages as spoiled, good benefits as a waste of public money, etc. But if I am a union leader I am going to devote most of my energy to mobilizing my membership to wring concessions, not countering right-wing messaging. 

When teachers forced school closures due to COVID (and this fight is still going on), did they first go to the parents and convince them that was the right tack and in their interests too? No, they just threatened to strike. And there are indeed plenty of parents with whom keeping schools closed was an unpopular choice. But the membership made the call, and (for better or for worse) they didn’t need parents’ permission to do so.

Joe Burns: Left unionists of the CIO period saw union fights as components of a larger struggle between labor and capital in society. Fighting class enemies, such as the landlord, is a part of this broader struggle, as is the struggle against racism and sexism, because unions are organizations that defend the entire working class. But what is central to class-struggle unionism is the understanding that struggles at the point of production are key because that is where wealth and power are created in society.

But the CIO unionists and other unionists would have seen the workers as fighting for broad class demands because it was part and parcel of a class struggle in society.  It is not really the workers setting aside their immediate demands to fight for some supposed “common good” but rather tying in the struggles against a common class enemy.  I think class struggle unionism was a perfectly good framework back then and is a perfectly good framework today. It is far better than muddled and confused alternative formulations that some people have come out with.

Demands and wins

Chris Brooks: Joe, it seems to me that you are overly focused on the language of Bargaining for the Common Good, which I admit is pretty innocuous sounding, rather than focusing on what the unions that have adopted the framework are actually doing, which I think is far more important. Los Angeles teachers were able to win class size limits and a nurse in every school because 34,000 teachers engaged in a powerful six-day strike in 2019. UTLA clearly framed their particular workplace struggles as part of a larger fight against the 1%, pointing out how corporate interest groups and local billionaires are working to cut school funding, diminish services, and privatize what remains. They also exposed how the corporate takeover of public schools being championed by LA Unified School District’s superintendent Austin Buetner, a former investment banker with deep ties to billionaire charter school advocates, was disproportionately hurting Black and Brown students.

Similarly, AFSCME 3299, which represents workers at the University of California, the state’s third largest employer, fought a grueling three-year campaign that included multiple strikes and sympathy strikes with other unions on campus and eventually won a landmark agreement earlier this year that bans outsourcing of university work, provides greater protections for immigrant workers, and greater job opportunities for formerly incarcerated workers. AFSCME 3299 also explicitly tied their contract campaign to the Bargaining for the Common Good framework.

Obviously none of these demands would have been met if the union was only demanding them. Despite living in the richest country in the history of the world, every time a union goes to the bargaining table to demand that schools hire more teachers or that hospitals hire more nurses or that universities or developers in the construction industry be directly responsible for the employees they rely on, employers always have the same answer: “no.” 

Often the employer says a lot more than that. They claim there isn’t enough money. They make threats–to fire other workers, to close schools, to cut spending elsewhere. So I agree that what often gets lost in discussions around Bargaining for the Common Good is that unions have to do a lot more than just make these demands if they hope to win them. Often, they have to be ready and willing to strike. Personally, I think “striking for the common good” is a much more exciting way to frame what is happening. And it helps to clarify how winning demands that benefit the many at the expense of the few will always boil down to questions of power. But I think the unions that have adopted the Bargaining for the Common Good framework have been clear about what it takes to meaningfully fight for these demands and have been using their leverage in the workplace to win them. It seems to me that they are showing how these bigger picture issues, like affordable housing and a lack of universal health insurance coverage and employee misclassification, have their solution in workplace fights and specifically in strikes. They didn’t win them by just organizing outside the workplace, but by organizing both in the workplace and the community. But obviously it was the strike action that was decisive. 

When I look at these fights and the way that the unions involved say they are fighting “for the common good,” it doesn’t seem to be different from when Occupy said “we are the 99%” or when Corbyn’s Labour Party says they are fighting “for the many, not the few.” Like I said, I don’t see anything particularly new in what these unions are doing, Left-led unions have often done much of this, and the term “bargaining for the common good” might be a little dull and innocuous sounding, but when I look at the campaigns these unions are fighting I don’t see muddled middle class mush. I see class struggle under a different name.

Joe Burns:  The LA teacher strike was part of a broader teacher strike wave which can be traced back to the Chicago Teachers Union strike, running through the Red State teacher strikes, and followed by strikes in a number of blue cities. These strikes came out of a political line which emphasized union reform, rank-and-file initiative, rejection of the neoliberal education policies of Democratic mayors in key cities, and the revival of the strike as a key tactic of labor after a near thirty-year absence.  

You want to single out one factor, that they had broad demands and elevate that above everything else. I don’t agree. I think what often happens after big struggles is folks attempt to explain it in ways that fit their set of ideas. Frankly, saying this is all about Bargaining for the Common Good defangs the whole effort and makes it palatable to the labor establishment.  

In my book Strike Back I talk at length about public employee social unionism so please don’t make it out that I am against broad demands. Public employee social unionists have long tied their workplace demands to broader community demands. If you look back historically at the public employee fights of the 1960s, before there were bargaining laws, a lot of the unions proposed all kinds of stuff in their contracts. The early Chicago Teachers had things like class size, lunch programs, and after- school programs. They made bargaining demands on behalf of the community they served. Welfare workers in New York won the ability to give emergency financial assistance to their clients. They actually got that in their contract in 1965, but when AFSCME took over a couple years later it got taken out. 

All of these examples predate the concept of “Bargaining for the Common Good” and were developed independently from that framework. So not only is Bargaining for the Common Good an unnecessary rebranding of good work that is already happening, but I think it changes the focus

The problem is that there are many unions out there that will cynically employ this framework. It’s not hard to imagine some SEIU staffers sitting around asking “what would be a good PR message for what this strike is about?” And that is not how the workers should or would talk about it.  And of course, they might go to the table with “common good” demands for the sake of building public support just to immediately trade those in. See Steve Early’s Civil Wars in US Labor for many examples of that.  

Marianne Garneau: For that matter I think it’s worth distinguishing between different kinds of “broader good” demands at the table, even in the case of public sector unions. Class size is both a working condition and an issue of concern to the public: it bears directly on workload for teachers and on the quality of the educational environment for students (which parents have an immediate stake in, and the community as a whole has a broader stake in). The same goes for after-school programs or school lunches or nurses or librarians.

However, there are other issues that unions have raised under the auspices of BCG that I suspect they have no actual confidence or even intention to win, like building new housing. I suspect that these demands are raised for the sake of drumming up community support and making alliances with other organizations, i.e. “we’ll signal-boost your signature demands in exchange for you vocally supporting our members during bargaining and turning your people out to our rallies and to pressure public officials.” 

And I think those two things are different in kind. I think the latter is a more cynical gesture, and I think it’s a problem because mounting demands you know you can’t win eventually erodes the confidence of the membership. There is a massive gulf between the CTU’s demand for however many new units of affordable housing to be built, and the face-saving concession that a few housing-related social workers would be hired by the school system. Joe, I’d like to hear your perspective on that, as someone who sits at the table.

Likewise I think it’s a fine thing for health care unions to support Medicare for All or for unions to support policy objectives like defunding the police but if they’re not willing to strike over it then these are more like slogans than demands, and BCG seems to specifically muddy the difference between the two.

In fact I suspect that the BCG approach has a lot to do with generally advancing a policy platform that community groups and, importantly, electoral candidates can mobilize behind. That, too, seems to be the broader horizon of the CTU fight since 2012, spinning off the United Working Families party, etc. In that case, I am inclined to agree with you, Joe, that this is taking us farther from fights in the workplace, although I know both of you are more interested in electoral politics than I am.

Chris Brooks: I don’t see CTU’s approach as a cynical and weak quid pro quo with other progressive organizations, where the union raises empty demands and the community groups turnout their members to the union’s events. Instead, CTU is pursuing a multifaceted strategy that uses tactics — like contract campaigns and strikes and independent labor candidates in city elections — to expose and attack policies, like Tax Incremental Financing, that the rich are using to divert funding away from public education, affordable housing and other essential services to pad the pockets of private developers and real estate investors. What I see is a holistic approach by a union that is using every chance it gets to build working class power and advance the struggle to transform society. Your criticism comes across a bit like knocking CTU for having the gall to raise expectations and then not winning full socialism in one strike or one election cycle.

Read part 2 here.