Is Bargaining for the Common Good relevant to private sector unions?

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?

This is part 2 of a three-way debate on these questions between Organizing Work publisher Marianne Garneau, labor organizer and journalist Chris Brooks, and veteran union negotiator Joe Burns, author of the forthcoming Class Struggle Unionism. Read part 1 here.

Joe Burns: I think a big question is, how does it apply to the private sector? At the end of the day, private sector unionism and strikes are about economically impacting the employer and applying the idea of “Bargaining for the Common Good” to the private sector will only result in mushy, confused thinking. Public opinion matters, but only secondarily. It can help to prevent or limit state repression, but at the end of the day, I don’t think public opinion is ever going to be decisive in any particular private sector dispute. So people who are peddling this as a framework for private sector unions are leading them down the wrong path. 

What is needed now more than ever is a renewed militancy among workers and those of us on the Left understand that this militancy is not going to develop from much of the already existing union officialdom. So is Bargaining for the Common Good more likely to build class struggle unions or be used to further dampen workplace struggles? Is it organizing at the workplace or having labor leaders participate in coalitions separate and apart from the rank-and-file? 

Marianne Garneau: Joe, I’d like to hear you say more about why you think BCG is likely to dampen workplace struggles. I feel like you’re still pulling punches about social movement unionism, and I want to hear you explain why this is the liberal wing of the labor movement that has been responsible for its decline, especially since I know this is in your forthcoming book. For that matter, I would like to hear a clearer definition (by contrast) of class-struggle unionism.

And I ask that as someone who is sympathetic — I think there is a difference between workers or unions pitching in to successfully fight landlords over rent and evictions, and unions putting causes on a banner that they do little to nothing about. This was Martin Glaberman’s complaint about Walter Reuther: “[he] was the social unionist par excellence. He always had a plan. He always got involved in social issues outside of narrow union concerns. But it was all rhetoric. He could not deliver.” 

Joe Burns: I see Bargaining for the Common Good as a rebranding of social unionism and other strategies which have been peddled by left-liberal theorists for the last thirty years. While we need a broad-based labor movement, that alone is not going to revive labor. This perspective, which I call labor liberalism, constantly tries to move labor away from sharp class-on-class struggle and the workplace, and shift the focus towards the political arena and the left edge of Democratic Party policy-making.  

In my forthcoming book, Class Struggle Unionism, I look at the historical framework of the left of labor. What you find is a form of unionism which explicitly confronts capital, which is rooted in workplace struggles, believes workers should lead their own battles, fights racism and sexism, and fights for broad class demands. Frankly, when I look at the teachers’ struggles I see a lot more of this framework than simply Bargaining for the Common Good.  

Chris Brooks: I agree that our power is derived from our ability to shut down production, but I think there are plenty of examples of how private sector unions have turned their individual workplace struggles into broader referendums on corporate greed. For example, the recent hotel workers strike, which was framed around the message that “One Job Should Be Enough.” Or the 1997 Teamster strike that was framed around “Part-time America Won’t Work.” Not only does this provide workers with moral and political support, and potentially impact their employer’s brand and sales, but I think it helps to clarify how employers and workers have distinct and adversarial interests: the boss wants to make more money by forcing us to accept less. The United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), a class struggle union if there ever was one, even adopted CTU’s Bargaining for the Common Good framework during their strike against employer imposed two-tier wages at a GE-owned locomotive manufacturing plant last year. They picketed with signs saying “On Strike for the Jobs Our Communities Deserve,” highlighting the damage that reduced wages would do to the local economy. It’s clear that what got GE back to the table was the strike, but I think weaving the community into the strike and the struggle against GE was smart. It pushes back against the rightwing talking point that unions are special interest groups and instead exposes how employer decisions harm the entire working class. 

More importantly, I think that community support often plays a pivotal role in supporting militancy.

Joe, you mentioned limiting state repression, which is incredibly important in my opinion. The Flint sit-down strike was a defining moment in American history, striking autoworkers literally gave birth to the industrial union movement in this country. And the Flint sit-down would never have been successful, and the CIO would have possibly never gotten off the ground, had Frank Murphy not been the governor of Michigan and sent in the National Guard, not to crush the strike on behalf of the company, but to keep the local police and the company’s hired thugs from brutalizing the strikers. Eric Loomis argues very persuasively in his book A History of America in Ten Strikes that workers have to neutralize the government when engaging in pitched class struggle with employers. If they don’t, history shows they will get brutally crushed. 

I’ve noted in my analysis of failed UAW campaigns to organize auto plants in the South that union workers aren’t just going up against brutally hostile employers, but the state government and a united and well-organized business community. In the lead-up to the union vote last year at Volkswagen in Tennessee, the state’s governor delivered a surprise anti-union captive audience meeting in the plant to the employees and threatened to kill subsidies tied to the plant’s expansion if the workers voted in a union. The UAW did absolutely nothing to organize the public against Volkswagen and the rightwing politicians who were explicitly threatening the jobs of their own constituents — a public that had already forked out over eight hundred million dollars in subsidies to Volkswagen. 

For workers to successfully organize a union, win a first contract, fight off concessions, or win big and bold demands, they have to have an inside-outside strategy: they have to be well organized on the job and using their leverage at the point of production and they have to organize the public and community to support them and provide a bulwark to try and keep the company from going nuclear. I talked with Gene Bruskin, the campaign director for the largest successful private union election in decades and the largest victory in UFCW history at Smithfield Foods slaughterhouse in North Carolina, about this at great length. As Bruskin explains, the only way workers were able to keep Smithfield from once again hiring private guards to literally beat workers trying to cast a vote for the union during a Labor Board election, which they had previously done, was by waging a public campaign against the company that tied the company’s brand to these actions, exposing how Smithfield Food’s products were “packaged with abuse.” The workers and their community allies organized to pressure Oprah not to feature Smithfield Foods on her holiday show and workers and their allies leafletted everywhere the product was sold and marketed while at the same time they also organized walkouts and held large, rowdy union meetings in the company cafeteria during their lunch breaks. 

The point is, workers are going up against the most powerful adversary the world has ever seen: corporate power. To win, we have to go into each fight willing to throw everything we have at them. Nothing is off the table. Community involvement is absolutely no substitute for worker militancy and a strong shop-floor strategy. But community involvement is also not incidental. It’s necessary to win. I don’t see the Bargaining for the Common Good framework as antithetical to class struggle. It seems like a useful tool for helping more unions engage in it. And I think that includes the private sector.

Joe Burns: Maybe I was around for too many of the open ended strikes of the 1980s and 1990s but I think we need a deeper discussion among militants in the labor movement about what is necessary to truly win strikes. We are at six percent of the private sector labor force.  Successful union activity of using solidarity to the shutting down of entire industries has been outlawed.  

I hate to burst your bubble, but there is zero chance that advancing broad bargaining demands will lead to a marked change in the situation in the private sector. It doesn’t address the key questions limiting union power in these areas. For the private sector the discussion is how do we violate injunctions, how on earth would we get union leaders who are corrupt, lazy or afraid to fight, and what kind of movement would it really take to have generalized strikes across industries.  

You will notice that none of this is included within the Bargaining for the Common Good framework. There is this idea that there is this easy fix–if we just adopt broad bargaining demands that is the key. In fact, the sad part is this is really nothing new but a rebranding of social unionism which in one form or another has dominated progressive labor thought for the last thirty years. To revive the labor movement we are going to need a new framework for union militants, one which is probably going to be a lot more threatening to the labor establishment.  

I know you follow the auto strikes closely. Would you say this was the key to winning the strike? Now of course, they should have done a broader message but of all the fucked up things, this was the key? I don’t buy it. Wasn’t a bigger problem the rot of corruption within the UAW and the fact the leadership probably wasn’t trying to even win the strike but just get a contract? And even if they did want to win, how would they address permanent replacement or plant relocations.   

Finally I have a problem with you implying that if we don’t adopt this Bargaining for the Common Good framework that we are for a narrow labor movement. Socialists in the labor movement have been fighting for a class based movement long before this framework and probably long after it is gone.  

Chris Brooks: Bargaining for the Common Good is certainly no panacea. I think you are right that there is nothing inherently threatening about it to sell-out labor leaders who can easily coopt the framework–and likely will. And you are also right that so much of the union movement of the past few decades has been focused on everyone and anyone but their own members, who represent an enormous amount of potential power that remains untapped at best or intentionally squashed at worst. 

I think the 48,000-strong autoworker strike at GM in 2019 is an interesting example of what might have been. The 45-day strike did not end in defeat, but it wasn’t a victory either. The union’s incompetent and corrupt leadership went into bargaining with no contract campaign and no strike plan. GM had a huge surplus of autos because the union didn’t even try to get members to turn down the scads of overtime the company had them working to pump up their inventory. Once out, they made no attempt to target dealerships which were flush with product. Not wanting to raise expectations, the UAW leadership made only vague bargaining demands. 

Many auto dissidents have said that the strike was called to roll the steam out of the membership, which was boiling with rage after suffering for years with plant closures and deep cuts to their pay and conditions while the Big Three continued to make record profits and a raft of top UAW leaders who had gone to jail for taking employer bribes in exchange for concessions. Bargaining for the Common Good obviously will not and cannot fix the problems that autoworkers are facing. Only a powerful, grassroots rank-and-file led reform movement in the UAW can do that.

But the 45-day strike did demonstrate just how deep a spirit of solidarity still exists among a fractured and tiered workforce and just how ready tens-of-thousands of union members were to fight hard against the boss. Imagine if that spirit and anger were channeled into not just an actual plan to win a stronger contract, but a bold vision for the entire auto industry and the country’s manufacturing base. Under different circumstances, a revitalized UAW could be turning every plant closure into a referendum on corporate greed and how our government continues to lavish corporations and shareholders with bailouts and subsidies while leaving workers high and dry.

Now get really imaginative and picture a revitalized UAW at the forefront of the fight for a Green New Deal. Imagine if the UAW demanded that we nationalize the abandoned auto plants in places like Lordstown as a step towards overhauling our country’s manufacturing capacity to produce the kinds of green jobs we need if we ever hope to transform our transportation and logistics infrastructure in ways that dramatically curtail carbon emissions while also strengthening and supporting working class communities. 

Transforming our economy to meet the challenge of climate change will literally be the fight of our lives. It will require militant collective action: plant occupations and blockades, targeting chokepoints in the supply chain, defying injunctions to apply the pressure necessary to make the climate crisis an immediate economic and political crisis for the powers-that-be.  

Ultimately, what you and I are exploring here together is the avenues that currently exist for working class people to build meaningful power and we both agree that the best vehicle for building that power is a revitalized, vibrant, democratic, militant labor movement. The issues facing auto workers can’t be solved if the UAW remains corrupt and top-down or if it continues to act as an unimaginative, narrow, advocacy-based organization. The UAW, like all unions, has to become a militant, fighting union that advances a profoundly different social vision for working people. I think the Bargaining for the Common Good framework, limited as it is, can be a helpful step in that direction. 

Marianne Garneau: But Chris, this is where I have to disagree with you about the significance of Bargaining for the Common Good. For as eye-opening and invaluable as your reporting has been about the corruption at UAW, I don’t think we can describe the decline of the labor movement more broadly in terms of leadership corruption or fecklessness, and I don’t think the “solution” is to simply find the right people with the right inspiration. In fact, I fear, with Joe, that the BCG approach easily invites a situation where virtually any labor official can help themselves to right and honorable slogans in order to shore up their credibility, without actually having to stake that on delivering gains to the membership, let alone the “public” as a whole. Going back to your examples, I don’t think there was ever a time that teachers didn’t fight over classroom size. The AFSCME 3299 wins you mentioned bear directly on the workers in that unit. So the successes of BCG aren’t that unorthodox as bargaining demands. And on the other hand, I don’t think any really workplace-independent “public good” demands have been won by the BCG approach — what is being celebrated is the fact that they are being put forward at all.

Joe Burns: Chris, I agree with what you say about the UAW in general and know you follow the situation closely. I guess the issue for me is: what is the framework that those of us who want to see a militant labor movement? Now some folks are peddling that the new framework be Bargaining for the Common Good. And they apparently have foundation and union money behind the initiative.    

But is that really the best perspective to rally behind? Most of what you just mentioned about the UAW situation (and indeed the teacher strikes) is not captured by the Bargaining for the Common Good perspective. Shouldn’t a framework peddled as the next big idea address corruption, union democracy, militancy, a repressive labor system, and shop floor struggle? And if it doesn’t, shouldn’t we be asking why not?