How Can Teachers Unions Survive in the Era of Trump and DeVos? Try Bargaining for the Common Good


Even as the labor movement faces an existential threat in the Trump era, a growing number of unions are uniting with community organizations to challenge economic and racial injustice and demand corporate accountability. The alliances, which have taken root in Chicago, St. Paul and Los Angeles among other cities, show what unions are capable of—and why the right wing is so intent on weakening them.

When a jury acquitted the Minneapolis police officer who killed Philando Castile, teacher April LaCombe was attending a training of union activists in Saint Paul, spending three days discussing how unions can respond to systemic racism and other destructive social forces. When the verdict came, LaCombe, a dual-language educator in Portland, OR, and union organizers from around the country, opted to suspend their training and headed for the state capitol to join demonstrators; Castile had been a Teamster and school employee. The protests were intense and emotional, recalls LaCombe, and put into perspective the work that she and others are doing to make their unions forces for social change. “Ultimately we are working to create not just the schools and classrooms our children deserve,” says LaCombe, “but the society they deserve.”

The movement for which LaCombe considers herself a forceful advocate is called Bargaining for the Common Good. The concept is a relatively straightforward one: unions push forward demands and a vision that can potentially lift whole communities up by forming real partnerships with community organizations, faith groups and parents.

“Unions are reaching out to the community to develop deeper, more transformative relationships and partnerships—partnerships with greater equality in the relationship,” says Amy Schur, campaign director for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment or ACCE, a grassroots "people's movement" working to effect community change. 

Working together, unions and community groups even come up with joint demands that go way beyond the traditional scope of collective bargaining, demands like fair interest rates on bond repayments, just wages, job opportunities, school improvements and tax revenue accountability. The focus on financial demands isn’t a coincidence. Bargaining for the Common Good reflects a growing awareness that powerful financial interests now command an outsized influence over cities and their communities. But if the new strategies depart from traditional collective bargaining in important ways, they also draw potential strength the power of unions. The coalitions have the threat of collective action, even civil disobedience, to back up their demands.  

Main street vs Wall Street

Many American cities pay millions to Wall Street each year. A 2012 alliance between the Chicago Teachers Union, labor unions, and parent and community groups unearthed that bad interest rate deals on bond repayments cost the Chicago Public Schools $100 million, draining essential funds that might have improved school facilities, allowed for smaller class sizes, and increased support staff. Another alliance, a coalition of municipal workers and community groups known as Fix L.A, exposed in 2014 that Los Angeles pays $300 million dollars in interest fees alone, annually.

As Joseph McCartin, director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University, explains, alliances like Fix L.A aim to  “bring to the bargaining table, in one way or another, the financial entities that have power since our economies have become so financialized.”

What’s the connection between Wall Street and what happens in the classroom? Teachers in St. Paul, Minnesota, which has been a home base for Bargaining for the Common Good campaigns since the 2008 financial crisis, reported a dramatic uptick in homeless students, the result of aggressive foreclosure activity by too-big-to-fail banks including Wells Fargo, J.P. Morgan Chase and Bank of America. Students were missing school, often for long stretches, which meant they were also missing out on formative relationships with teachers and peers. 

The Saint Paul Federation of Teachers joined forces with Minnesotans for a Fair Economy, a network of unions, community and faith groups in Minneapolis intent on corporate accountability. The SPFT has since made challenging economic injustice in the Twin Cities a key part of its focus, including writing a resolution to “Take on Wall Street,”  adopted by the American Federation of Teachers last spring, that neatly connects reckless financial practices to disruption in the lives of students.

Keeping education public

In the Trump/DeVos era, unions may have no choice but to use bargaining as a way to stave off the onslaught of privatization and profit-mongering in education. Bargaining for the Common Good increasingly means fighting to keep education public. Nick Faber, President of SPFT says that if unions don’t figure out how to use their contracts and their public leverage more creatively, they’re sunk—and public education will be too. “Those who have means will benefit from a choice type system, and we will lose public education.”

In places where charter schools are expanding rapidly, community organizations are teaming up with unions to demand public oversight, and to warn about the consequences of privatization and unregulated school choice. ACCE, the California social and economic justice organization, got its start taking on big banks after the financial crisis. Now it’s increasingly focused on defending public education, says Amy Schur. “Putting our children's future and their education into the hands of private companies could have disastrous consequences. And it can be very hard to address them—charter boards are not accountable to voters, taxpayers, and parents in the same way,” says Schur.

In Los Angeles, a recent Bargaining for the Common Good campaign began with parents, teachers and community members working together to identify the biggest needs, problems and challenges that impact students, both in and out of school. The group also looked at the biggest needs in the community, says Schur, including immigrant rights, an affordable housing crisis and the school to prison pipeline. Also on the list: school funding. California is 46th out of 50 in per pupil funding in the U.S., even though the state has one of the largest economies in the world and more billionaires in residence than any other state—and yet, Schur remarks, many of its public schools are starved of counselors, accessible libraries, reasonable class sizes, and consistent attention to school safety.

The effort to build new alliances between unions and community groups in Los Angeles come at a time when the future of public schools in the city hangs in the balance. During the recent Los Angeles Board of Education race, charter school advocates claimed the majority of seats, establishing the first ever pro-charter majority on the board.

Bargaining for the future

Alliances between unions and community groups that demand corporate accountability, protect public education and reckon with economic and racial injustice are essential in an era of dark money. These partnerships have the potential to tilt the playing field back towards working people, which is one reason why the the right eagerly anticipates the Supreme Court’s ruling on Janus vs. AFSCME Council 31. As the Kalmanovitz Institute’s Joseph McCartin notes, the growth of union/community partnerships coincides with renewed efforts to weaken unions by groups hostile to labor. 

The latest case, originally brought by billionaire Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, is being described as the beginning of the end for public sector unions. The Court deadlocked on a previous case, 4-4, in March of 2016, but with Justice Gorsuch now on the bench, a ruling against the unions is all but guaranteed.

Back in Minnesota, the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers has been holding regular trainings for teachers from across the country, helping them rethink the role of unions and collective bargaining. In a post-Janus era, unions will have to transform the way they operate if they are survive; innovative alliances between unions and the community will be more critical than ever. Contract negotiations in cities large and small offer one way to reclaim and fight for key community principles, including public education as a core element of a democratic system.

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