Labor Unions and Bargaining for the Common Good

bargaining for the common good

You will increasingly hear a term in the coming months and years as labor unions strive to end the decline of union membership and become more relevant in a changing work environment and complex society. The term is “bargaining for the common good.” There is an organization called Bargaining for the Common Good Network (BCG). This organizing model is like an opportunity that has been waiting in the wings for a while in anticipation of the right set of conditions to emerge.

As labor unions re-evaluate their fundamental roles, they are increasingly focusing on embracing the needs of the larger community and workers. What does “bargaining for the common good” mean, and what can employers learn from this model to stay union-free?

Beyond One Union-One Employer Bargaining 

The BCG Network is not a labor union. It is a network of unions, community groups, student organizations, and racial justice organizations to take bargaining beyond the one union-one employer setup. Its advisory committee and conveners include people from a wide variety of organizations:

  • Community Voices Heard – member-led, multi-racial organization for women of color and low-income families
  • Public Accountability Initiative – nonprofit watchdog research organization focused on corporate power 
  • Vanderbilt Divinity School’s Wendland-Cook Program in Religion and Justice – research on developing theologies and church models, rooted in organizing, the social movement, and liberative faith tradition
  • Partnership for Working Families – a national network of regional advocacy organizations supporting solutions to environmental and economic problems
  • Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment – grassroots, member-led, statewide community organization working for policies and programs to improve communities
  • Grassroots Collaborative – 11 membership-based organization working to build working family power through strategic community-labor organizing, grassroots leadership development, civic engagement, and training
  • Catholic Labor Network – an association of Catholic union activists collaborating with labor organizations to advance worker justice
  • Jobs with Justice – nonprofit focused on workers’ rights and developing an economy that benefits everyone
  • Multiple labor unions – AFSCME 3299 (University of California), Rutgers AAUP-AFT, Massachusetts Teachers Association, UTLA (United Teachers Los Angeles), CWA (Communications Workers of America), Greater Boston Labor Council (chartered by the National AFL/CIO), NYC’s District Council 37), UAW (United Auto Workers), CTU (Chicago Teachers Union), District 1199 NE/SEIU (New England branch) 

There are three points to note. One is that there is a large and growing set of organizations with a specific focus on pressuring economic sectors and whole industries to bring change. The second point is that labor unions are heavily involved in many organizations and are moving towards organizing for the common good. The third point is that many of the socially-focused organizations and the labor unions are coalescing into a stronger united front.

Organizing by Any Other Name

Bargaining for the Common Good is a labor organizing model, plain and simple. The BCG and other groups adopting the Common good model are looking at organizing through a different lens than the standard labor union. The members of the movement don’t believe unions should negotiate with a single employer to achieve the greatest results. They do believe labor unions should fight to bring social, racial, economic, and environmental change to whole industries or whole segments of the economy. To do so requires engaging communities. 

An article in Dissent Magazine names three principles characterizing the Bargaining for the Common Good approach.

  1. Participants are consciously working to transcend the traditional labor union bargaining frameworks supported by law. They want to force the largest and most powerful financial entities dominating local economies to the bargaining table in some manner by highlighting how they control community resources.
  2. Community and union allies are developing bargaining demands together and think of individual labor union campaigns (one union-one employer) as steps in a larger long-term strategy of bringing workers and community members together to gain a louder voice and achieve change. They are building long-lasting alignments that accumulate power through common campaign victories and a common vision and narrative instead of short-lived alignments that end when a traditional union campaign is finished.
  3. There is an assumption that collective and sometimes even civil disobedience (think protests and strikes) will be necessary.

What is driving this movement and collaborations? There is a growing opinion among those who want to stop the decline of union membership that it can only happen if labor unions modernize. 

Traditional Collective Bargaining

The thinking goes like this: The traditional form of collective bargaining – union vs. single employer – is unable to meet worker needs because conditions have changed so much since the 1970s. These changes include:

  • Financialization in which powerful financial markets gained control of the economy (creating power at the top)
  • Loss of corporate management control to financial markets
  • Growth of monopolistic companies like Amazon exerting undue influence over the economy
  • Growth in the use of subcontractors and temporary workers
  • Globalization of supply chains that created distance between workers and those who could improve their conditions
  • Enhanced awareness of racial and gender inequalities
  • Economic inequities among communities
  • The realization that even when workers unionized, they have limited ability to bring change to their workplaces because of strict labor laws and corporate power
  • Employer initiated changes like moving employees out of defined pension plans to 401K plans
  • Offshored work
  • Limited wage increases and corporate threats of downsizing

It is a whole set of events that have led to unions losing membership.

New Demands at the Negotiating Table

As unions struggle to find a way to modernize their approach to organizing, they are looking beyond workplace issues and considering broader issues of employees in their work and personal lives. The Common Good approach engages community members and workers as “whole people.” Labor unions are forming coalitions with community organizations to make demands that benefit communities of people rather than a group of employees at a place of business.

Unions that have the right to collective bargaining use the contract negotiations as an opportunity to organize with community partners around a set of demands that benefit the wider community as well as the bargaining unit. This has the potential to seriously change the contract negotiation process. The union won’t be focused only on increasing wages in your workplace or adjusting work schedules, or establishing seniority rights. They will include a myriad of demands.

Rutgers University posted a document listing real-world examples of bargaining efforts using the principles of the common good. Here are a few by category to give you an idea of the different types of topics labor unions are addressing with employers. They are demands made directly to the employer during contract negotiations or are demands made on organizations that use certain businesses, like banks or companies in a supply chain. 

Examples of Bargaining “For The Common Good”

  • Racial justice: Minnesota Property Services Union, SEIU Local 26 demanded a company remove questions on employment applications concerning a potential employee’s criminal record.
  • Climate Justice: SEIU Local 26 demanded a company provided a healthy and safe workplace for employees and utilize materials that contribute to environmental sustainability.
  • Education: Saint Paul Federation of Teachers, AFT Local 28/NEA demanded the school district divest from banks that foreclose during the school year on families with students. Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, AFT Local 59/EdMN/NEA demanded the district stop purchasing products made by companies owned by Koch Industries.
  • Finance: The Committee for Better Banks, CWA Union is organizing bank workers to demand fairer sales goals and end predatory practices. The Minnesota Property Services Union, SEIU Local 26, is demanding US Bank restart remittances to Somalia, allowing its Somalian immigrant workers to send money to their families.
  • Immigration: Las Vegas Culinary Employees, UNITE HERE Local 226, demanded a hotel allow DACA and TPS employees to keep their jobs and seniority if they return within five years after being forced to leave their job.
  • Private Sector: Hertz Employees Union, Teamsters Local 117 demanded an employer allow Muslim employees the right to attend daily prayers during breaks without clocking out and reinstate workers fired for this reason.
  • Privatization: San Diego County Employees, SEIU Local 221, Invest in San Diego Families demanded the county ensure all contracted employees are paid a livable wage with access to essential benefits.
  • COVID-19: Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, AFT Local 3; Baltimore Teachers Union demanded Comcast make the Internet Essentials program for families available until 60 days after students can return to school, increase upload and download speeds so families can learn and work from home at the same time, and open residential hotspots to the public. 

These are just some of the categories where negotiating frameworks based on the Bargaining for the Common Good are focused. The list of categories is expected to grow, and efforts will get more sophisticated as time goes by.

Union Militancy and Strikes?

The BCG describes elements of this new bargaining model. Following are some that all employers should be aware of because they are likely to impact how you deal with unions, whether or not they are Common Good organizations or NLRA defined labor unions. They will also impact your efforts to maintain positive employee relations over the long-term.

  • Unions and community organizations have a shared vision
  • Initiate campaigns that don’t end once the union settles its contract
  • Expand the scope of bargaining beyond wages and benefits and identify issues that impact communities, and address structural issues and not just symptoms of problems
  • Go on the offense in the campaign by identifying, exposing, and challenging the real villains (the corporate and financial actors who profit from and drive policies and action)
  • Engage community allies as partners in issue development and the bargaining campaign
  • Center racial justice in campaign demands by addressing the role of employers in creating and exacerbating structural racism in communities

Debates About the Value of the “Common Good” Model

There is an interesting three-way debate on Organizing Work about the value of the Common Good model. The debaters are Organizing Work publisher Marianne Garneau, labor organizer, and journalist Chris Brooks, and veteran union negotiator and author Joe Burns. 

Chris Brooks makes the point that unions adopting the Common Good framework have used their leverage in the workplace to fight for Common Good demands. He writes, “It seems to me that they [unions] 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.”

The debate continued to specifically address the private sector. Joe Burns calls for “renewed militancy among workers” and goes on to say the militancy is not going to develop from the existing union framework. Chris Brooks agrees that union power is derived from the ability to shut down production but also points out that there are many examples of private-sector unions turning individual workplace struggles into broader messages about corporate greed. 

He gives the example of the hotel workers’ strike message “One Job Should Be Enough.” The United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE) CTU’s used a Bargaining for the Common Good framework during their strike against an employer that imposed two-tier wages at a GE-owned locomotive manufacturing plant. Their picket signs read “On Strike for the Jobs Our Communities Deserve.” Using this theme was intended to point out that lower wages hurt the local community. GE returned to the negotiating table. 

Climate change is another looming issue that will impact employers and communities. What is the role of unions? Chris Brooks presents an alarming picture. “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. “

Clearly, Bargaining for the Common Good is a complex issue. Whether or not this framework will become a driving force for changing the current labor union approach remains to be seen. However, there are many indications already that unions and employees are adopting some of the principles – issues-based organizing campaigns reaching employees across the industry, geography, or economic sector; clubhouse app giving invite-only people from around the world access to topic-specific discussions; employee protests over systemic racism that impacts employees and communities; alternative labor groups like Worker Centers; and recently the formation of the Alphabet Workers Union, to name a few. 

Employers Embrace Common Good 

By now, you are probably thinking that staying union-free is going to an extremely difficult goal to meet with employees organizing in so many different ways. However, you can get in front of the waves of changes by rigorously adhering to a strategy for maintaining positive employee relations and adopting some of the same principles as the Common Good framework but applying them differently.

First, employers must consider the employee as a “whole person” and not just a worker. What this means is considering your employee’s work and personal lives. Issues like systemic racism, bringing the authentic self to work, accommodating the needs of groups of employees based on factors like family requirements (i.e., caregiving time, flexibles, etc.) or religion (i.e., prayer time, religious holidays, etc.); and integrating corporate social and environmental responsibility and employee work goals. Addressing these kinds of areas or interests is for employees as well as the common community good. 

Other ways employers can address the Common Good include many of the approaches Projections, Inc. regularly discusses as strategies to stay union-free through effective leadership.

Stay Union-Free With Effective Leadership

  • Identify critical issues for employees with well-honed leadership listening skills 
  • Partner with community organizations to improve worker and community member lives
  • Address issues beyond wages and benefits 
  • Make social (racial, gender, etc.) justice a principle of operation
  • Address difficult decisions concerning employees with transparency and honesty
  • Engage employees by using the many tools and resources available today, from pulse surveys to cultural events to communication systems that include social media, webinars, emails, videos, etc.
  • Train managers and supervisors to give and receive feedback 
  • Maintain a positive company culture based on good values that employees embrace 

ERGs can play an important role in identifying the “big picture” of employee lives in the larger community and world, i.e., cultural competency and social responsibility. Liz Valadez, Global Community Liaison for Latinx and Senior Program Manager, Strategic Initiatives at Workday, states succinctly, “ERGs play two significant roles: They’re the voice of the organization to its members, and they’re also the voice of their members to the organizations.” 

Workday’s Jillian Ogawa believes ERGs can become strategic partners in advancing corporate social responsibility and deepening cultural competency by enabling employees to become thought partners. This role is especially important to millennials who want to work for organizations that offer them opportunities to improve communities, address social and environmental challenges and participate in open discussions. 

Be Proactive to Stay Union-Free

The times certainly are changing. Whether or not labor unions move more towards the Bargaining for the Common Good framework, the proverbial handwriting is on the wall. It’s undeniable that labor unions and other forms of unionizing are gaining momentum again. Projections, Inc. stands ready to help employers thrive as union-free companies in the face of a complex, dynamic, and transforming business environment. 

About the author

Jennifer Orechwa

In over 25 years of helping companies connect with their employees, Jennifer has gained a unique perspective on what it takes to build a UnionProof culture. By blending a deep understanding of labor and employee relations with powerful digital marketing knowledge, Jennifer has helped thousands of companies achieve behavioral change at a cultural level.

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