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Unions Forge Partnerships With Communities for the Common Good

Unions are fighting for quality of life, not just contracts.

Arizona teachers march through downtown Phoenix on their way to the State Capitol as part of a rally for the #REDforED movement on April 26, 2018, in Phoenix, Arizona.

Before teachers in Mercer County, West Virginia, went on strike in late February, they had to ensure that the students who depend on schools for free or reduced-cost meals would not go hungry. “We had to make sure that the kids would be fed,” Nicole McCormick, incoming president of the Mercer County Education Association, told Truthout. “So, we reached out to churches and service organizations and asked, ‘If we do this, will you provide a meal?’”

Laying the groundwork, McCormick explains, took months, and included speaking not just to potential food providers, but also to parents as they dropped off their sons and daughters each morning. The union’s goal was to make sure that parents and guardians understood why their children’s teachers were walking out and knew where they could go for food if they needed it. The Mercer County Education Association also engaged in ongoing discussions with both teachers and other state employees, all of whom were facing large increases in their health insurance premiums.

“The situation was something of a perfect storm,” McCormick adds. Annual pay increases had not kept up with inflation and insurance costs, copays and deductibles had ballooned. “We’d reached the point where everyone said, ‘enough.’” Teachers were ready, she says, to reclaim the ground they’d lost and turn the tide in a more worker-friendly direction. Furthermore, the teachers felt that it was time to meet with parents and community residents to ask how public schools could better serve West Virginia’s children.

This strategy — inviting everyone, whether a union member, community resident, activist, religious leader, parent, school child or elder — to strategize, prioritize, set an agenda and support one another’s efforts is now known as “bargaining for the common good.”

In the case of teachers’ unions, and the spate of recent strikes taking place around the country, teachers have not only recognized that they should be paid more but have also zeroed in on what students need to flourish—a focus that has included alleviating hunger, poverty, racism, sexism, discrimination against LGBTQ and disabled students, gun violence and excessive policing, and punitive school discipline.

West Virginia’s teachers know that winning social equity—and reducing the penury of their students—will take years of dogged work. Nonetheless, by holding out for nearly two weeks, and standing firm until the governor agreed to a 5 percent wage hike for every state employee before agreeing to return to the classroom, they showed what can happen when the community and its unions work in tandem. In addition to the salary increase—which will take effect in July—a Task Force made up of union leaders and legislators is studying how to make health insurance more affordable.

Not surprisingly, the West Virginia strike—like similar teacher strikes in Arizona, Colorado and Oklahoma—has inspired a groundswell of union activism. “Common good bargaining is exciting because it allows unions to bargain for the world they want to see,” says Marilyn Sneiderman, director of the Center for Innovation in Worker Organization at Rutgers University. “There is a real thirst on the part of union leaders and members to join together with activists to build better communities and a better world.”

Common Good Bargaining Is Nothing New

Social justice unionism is not a new idea, but it’s significant that unions have recently started “going on the offense in a time of cutbacks and anti-union attacks,” Sneiderman says. And although it takes time to build trust between unions and community groups, she notes that if the labor movement wants to grow, members will need to make these connections. “Union members go to doctors and hospitals, rent or own homes, buy food, and live in communities plagued by tensions with police and gun violence,” she told Truthout. “Engaging with these issues helps us engage for the common good and create what we want to see in the world.”

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) provide a pertinent example. CTU is a member of the Grassroots Education Movement, which supports a community school model of public education. The idea, says Jennifer Johnson, CTU’s Education Issues Manager, is that teachers, school staff, students and parents are experts who should be trusted as decision makers when it comes to educational policy.

“Our work at CTU … emphasizes that the only way for a union to be successful is to operate like a three-legged stool,” Johnson explains. “The first leg focuses on bread-and-butter union issues, things like salary and benefits for workers. The second leg is about creating the best conditions for teaching and learning … the third leg is about fighting for racial and social justice.”

Keeping simultaneous tabs on these three “legs” is, of course, a challenge, but the CTU plans to put theory into practice beginning in September 2018 when a one-year pilot program, funded by Chicago Public Schools, will retool 20 existing schools—elementary through high school level, all of them in high-poverty neighborhoods—with governance shared between school personnel, parents, students and community leaders. The schools will have wrap-around services: on-site health centers, counseling and after-school programming. “We want a model where it is normal for a high school and an elementary school that feed into one another to communicate,” Johnson says. “Our community partners are involved in the Poor People’s Campaign and numerous restorative justice efforts; we will bring these campaigns into the school to teach our students to be engaged as leaders.” The CTU further intends to involve these partners in upcoming contract campaign efforts before its current contract expires in the summer of 2019.

Community Partnership Victory in Minnesota

Members of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers know how much can be won by partnering with others. “A few years back we noticed that many school nursing offices were operating like Urgent Care Centers,” Mary Cathryn Ricker, executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers and an active member of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, told Truthout.

As part of a community-labor coalition, the union actively supported legislation that expanded state Medicaid coverage; its passage reduced the number of uninsured kids in the state by half. They have since begun working with community groups throughout Minnesota on immigration reform, restoring voting rights to the formerly incarcerated, creating more affordable housing and providing better training for teachers who need support because they are switching subject areas or grade level.

“As a union, we have to use our power to create better conditions for others in the community,” Ricker says. “People now look to the union to support them in their organizing. When we stand with others—people like cleaning crews, who tend to feel invisible—it helps them know that they’re valued and seen. It builds stronger bonds between community members.”

Coral Itzcalli, a spokeswoman for the Service Employees International Union, Local 721, in Los Angeles, agrees that these partnerships can bear long-lasting fruit. About five years ago, a coalition of approximately 20 community organizations, unions and clergy people came together and formed the Fix LA Coalition.

“Back in 2007, more than 5,000 city jobs were cut due to budget problems,” Itzcalli says. “By 2013-2014 the city was recuperating financially. Still, the jobs were not restored and residents were upset about the loss of services. We were told that there was no money but we investigated and learned that $300 million had been moved to Wall Street or given to real estate developers. Our campaign, Our Streets, Not Wall Street, stood up to Wall Street’s power and greed.” In 2014, when the union went to the bargaining table, its organizers brought clergy and Fix LA members to negotiate with them. “There were youth of color and a mom with a stroller,” Itzcalli recalls. “At first, the city refused to sit down with us, saying that they would not bargain with people who did not work for them. Our people held their ground and said that since the contract impacted them, they were not going to leave.”

The fight continued for months, but the city eventually caved, allowing community residents and activists to participate in the process. Unfortunately, Itzcalli reports, while the mayor agreed to replace the 5,000 laid-off workers, to date only 1,000 new people have been added. “The city has decreased the number of 911 operators by 23 percent,” Itzcalli says. “When you call 911 you don’t want to hear, ‘please hold.’” A 2012 study by the Los Angeles Times bears this out, revealing that processing time for emergencies increased significantly after the layoffs. Likewise, Itzcalli notes that cuts to other essential services—from tree trimmers to wastewater catch basin cleaners—have left large deficits in city maintenance. “This is why the Fix LA Coalition is still pressing city officials to do the right thing,” she says.

Nonetheless, Itzcalli concedes that it’s been difficult to keep the coalition together and get the rank-and-file to understand the imperative of broadening their demands to include community health and safety. “Our members had to be educated to understand that bargaining could not just be about wages and benefits because there are bigger issues at play,” she said. This task was made somewhat easier, however, by the fact that most union members are LA residents who have experienced firsthand the lack of services and inadequate access to a program they need.

Likewise, Arizona teachers’ unions have begun collaborating with others—notably the Teamsters, UNITE HERE and community groups like the Arizona Educators United—to oppose school vouchers and ongoing public school privatization efforts. They are currently collecting signatures to get the Invest in Education Act on the November ballot. If passed, the measure will charge more from the wealthiest taxpayers, levying a 3.46 percent surcharge on single people making more than $250,000 and married couples making more than $500,000, and a 4.46 percent surcharge on single people making more than $500,000 and married couples earning $1 million or more annually. The additional revenue will be used to fund public education.

Common Good Bargaining Can Go Beyond City Services

Although most common good bargaining has addressed K-12 public education and municipal services, it has also served to protect beloved community institutions. For one, when the City College of San Francisco was at risk of losing its accreditation in 2013, unions, alongside students, alumni and community residents formed the Save City College of San Francisco Coalition, seeing the college as essential to community well-being.

Joe Berry, a retired labor studies and history professor, reports that City College of San Francisco is … “the site of the longest student strike in US history—four-and-a-half months in 1968-69—a strike that led to the creation of the ethnic studies department. That heritage of resistance still exists.”

During the accreditation crisis, the college had support from some of the biggest unions in San Francisco, including the Hotel and Restaurant Workers, many of whose members had been trained at City College of San Francisco. “We did a lot of outreach to diverse community activists and groups, which was relatively easy because it is widely believed that CCSF has touched the lives of one of every two San Francisco residents,” Berry says. “The public pressure worked. By 2017 we were reaccredited and went tuition-free.”

Other coalitions across the country are bringing together union and community activists to organize for an end to predatory lending by banks and financial entities; oppose austerity measures demanded by lenders; create safer workplaces for women, LGBTQ folks and trans people; restore environmental sanity; open up immigration; and fix decrepit bridges, tunnels and roadways, among other concerns.

“Common good bargaining gives us the opportunity to raise issues and win on all kinds of things that we used to think of as separate,” Stephen Lerner, a fellow at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor and one of the creators of Justice for Janitors, concludes. “It can turn bargaining into something that people can aspire to. It’s giving folks a way to go for what they want, not just settling on negotiating about a narrow set of demands that do nothing to improve their communities.”