This article is the third installment in our series co-produced by Bargaining for the Common Good and NPQ, titled Building a Movement for the Common Good. In this series, we learn how and why Bargaining for the Common Good (BCG) is the right strategy for our times of social crisis, featuring extreme wealth inequality and declining democracy as well as a renewed attention to labor organizing and mass uprisings for racial justice. The authors reflect on how the BCG strategy revives unions, builds new forms of collective power, and advances a multiracial movement championing racial, gender, climate, and economic justice that can take on 21st century capitalism.
In May 2014, Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor & the Working Poor (KI) held a conference to strategize about new ways to bring together workers and their communities. That convening, called Bargaining for the Common Good, drew together 150 union representative and community activists from seven states. Some attendees already had experience with common good campaigns linking community concerns to union contract fights—representatives from Chicago, St. Paul, and LA were there—while others wanted to launch common good efforts. While the event received support from the nation’s four largest public sector unions—the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the National Education Association (NEA), and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Workers (AFSCME)—local activists took the initiative in organizing the gathering, and they benefited from the resulting network building.
The KI, which is neither a union nor a community organization but rather an independent university-based labor center, hosted the event, helping to establish from the outset that the emerging network would not be controlled or dominated by any single union or community organization. Rather, Bargaining for the Common Good (BCG) would flourish as an action network whose vision was shared by the organizations that came together within its framework.
BCG’s innovative character stems from the creative way in which it brings unions and community organizations together in campaigns to resist deepening inequality, persistent structural racism, and increasingly concentrated anti-democratic economic power. Equally important to BCG’s innovation is the framework’s method of network building among a wide variety of organizations and institutions. Through BCG, participants sidestep the stumbling blocks that often obstruct cooperation among unions, worker centers, and community organizations, avoiding the pitfalls that in the past have led these groups into destructive conflict with each other and produced distracting splits and inter-union/community rivalries over turf or funding. Its structure offers participants a way to build the new within the shell of the old.
How It Works: From Idea to Institution
A glance at how BCG evolved helps illustrate its new and potentially transformative structure. The BCG network emerged from a series of local experiments by public sector unions and their allies in the wake of the Great Recession. The unions and community networks that pioneered the network—including the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), the Grassroots Collaborative, CTUL, SEIU Local 26, the St. Paul Federation of Educators (SPFE), ISAIAH Minnesota, and the municipal unions and community organizations of Los Angeles that came together in the Fix LA campaign— realized that they could build more power for their constituents and members by deepening their alignments with each other. They learned on the local level that developing a joint action plan around a common analysis of power could help unions break out of the confining box that collective bargaining had become, allowing unions and community allies to collectively remake collective bargaining in order to meet the challenges of 21st century capitalism both in and beyond the workplace.
During BCG’s coalescence, KI provided infrastructural support for the nascent network, maintaining its mailing list, launching its website, and organizing its first follow-up meetings. KI was soon joined by two other anchor institutions that came into being following the network’s founding meeting: the Action Center on Race and the Economy (ACRE) and the Center for Innovation in Worker Organization (CIWO), based at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations. Collaboration between these three organizations, which together have functioned as the hub of BCG’s growing network, mirrored and deepened the collaboration that BCG had begun to build among unions and community partners, for each of these three conveners brought unique assets and characteristics to the task of network building.
KI was founded in 2009. Three characteristics combine to make it unusual among the nation’s university-based labor centers. First, because it is based in Washington, DC, KI was able to develop close relationships with national unions, union federations, and leaders from its inception. Rooted in the nation’s oldest Catholic university, one with a record of promoting interreligious work and applying Catholic social teachings on workers’ rights to its own labor relations, KI has also established itself as an effective facilitator of collaboration between labor and faith groups, leading to close ties with the now-defunct Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) and its recent role as incubator of IWJ’s successor, the Interreligious Network for Worker Solidarity. Finally, labor historians play a distinct role in KI’s leadership, furnishing its researchers with a broad view of labor history and making KI a repository for the institutional memory of previous transitional moments in the history of US workers’ struggles.
CIWO was launched in July 2014, shortly after BCG’s founding meeting. It is based at one of the nation’s preeminent labor relations schools and draws upon the scholarship and educational experience of an exceptionally deep faculty of labor scholars and educators. The center has been led from its inception by Marilyn Sneiderman, a veteran of four decades of labor organizing and a strategist who John Sweeney tapped in the 1990s to lead a forerunner to BCG, the AFL-CIO’s Union Cities strategy, which also promoted community-labor collaborations throughout the country. CIWO has been well suited to promote BCG in higher education as Rutgers University is an outstanding public university with a tradition of vibrant faculty and staff unionism.
Bringing together key leaders from unions and economic justice organizations, CIWO focuses on building organizational capacity and innovative strategies to shift power towards greater economic, racial, and gender justice. Through intentional leadership development of primarily women of color and other marginalized folks, CIWO invests in building a generation of movement leaders ready to transform our workplaces and communities. The center also focuses on supporting BCG and the development of healthy and sustainable progressive organizations, which are critical to BCG and movement success. CIWO and KI house WILL (Women Innovating Labor Leadership) Empower, a program that creates a crucial space for women labor leaders at all levels of the movement to come together for skills, mentorship, and strategizing. WILL Empower intentionally recruits BCG leaders to this program, creating a hub for dynamic women to cultivate the relationships and innovative strategies that feed BCG campaigns across the country.
ACRE grew out of the ReFund America Project (RAP), also founded in July 2014. Saqib Bhatti, a former senior researcher at SEIU, helped plan the initial BCG gathering while serving as a Nathan Cummings Foundation fellow. He established RAP to do research and craft strategy for campaigns that pushed back against post-Great Recession austerity, gathering a staff of researchers and campaigners with broad experience. In March 2017, Bhatti joined with community organizer Maurice BP-Weeks to co-found a larger organization, ACRE, of which RAP became one project. ACRE quickly distinguished itself as the nation’s foremost center for action-oriented research and analysis, supporting campaigns and developing campaign strategies with groups targeting racial capitalism across the country.
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Between 2014 and 2018, KI, CIWO, and ACRE combined forces to staff and resource BCG, each organization leveraging its unique assets to support the emerging network. KI produced reports on BCG breakthroughs, such as the Fix LA campaign, hosted DC-based seminars and meetings with union leaders and allies, and provided an institutional home to Stephen Lerner, the network’s chief strategist. CIWO conducted BCG trainings with union locals, worker centers, and community organizations and hosted major convenings, including several on BCG in higher education. The center also worked to expand the capacity of organizational leaders and staff, with a specific focus on race and gender. ACRE led the strategic analysis of BCG campaigns, ensuring that the campaigns addressed the intersection of economic and racial justice at every stage and brought in core community partners, deepening BCG’s commitment to racial justice. The ACRE team played the lead role in planning BCG’s first national convening on centering racial justice in BCG campaigns across the country.
Leaning on ACRE, CIWO, and the KI for staff and infrastructural support relieved BCG network participants of the need to fundraise to create and staff a new organization. Collaboration between these distinctive organizations ensured that as it grew, BCG would bridge the often siloed communities of labor, community, academia, and racial justice activism. While the three hub organizations raised money independently to fund their work, the first large grant to support the hiring of dedicated BCG staff came in early 2018, when the Catholic Campaign for Human Development funded KI’s hiring of BCG organizers and researchers. By that point, the network had matured, and participating leaders of local unions and community organizations had begun to shape the network’s direction and decision making on how to invest money and other resources.
Scaling Up: Building a Nationwide Network
In 2018, BCG established a national advisory committee, which has grown to include 19 movement leaders, the majority of whom are women and people of color. A diverse group, the committee includes leaders of local and national unions, faith groups, and community organizing and advocacy networks. It also includes representatives of public and private sector unions, unions within and outside the AFL-CIO, worker centers, and community organizations, and advocates of racial justice and immigrant rights. Members include Stacy Davis Gates of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), Christina Livingston of the Association of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), Amisha Patel of Chicago’s Grassroots Collaborative, Liz Perlman of AFSCME Local 3299, Cindy Estrada of the United Auto Workers (UAW), Lauren Jacobs of PowerSwitch Action, Veronica Mendez Moore of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL), and Erica Smiley of Jobs with Justice.
When the Ford Foundation granted $4 million to BCG in 2020 to invest in building the network, an executive committee comprising two union representatives, two community representatives, and one representative each from KI, CIWO, and ACRE began convening to evaluate proposals from the field and decide on where to invest in the development of new BCG campaigns. The committee focused on how to best support community organizations and lay the groundwork for turning BCG into a standalone nonprofit organization.
This deepening organizational coordination coincided with two other important steps in BCG’s evolution. First, in recent meetings advisory committee representatives have begun to consider whether each participating union or community organization could contribute a share of its revenue to a joint pool administered by the committee. The pool would lay the foundation for an unprecedented self-funded community-labor federation that grows within while transcending the limits of existing federations. At the same time, BCG, which began as a project driven by public sector unions, had begun to attract the interest of private sector unions and allied community organizations. In June 2022, the network held its first convening focused solely on how to use BCG principles to contest workers’ declining negotiating power in the private sector. The network is currently expanding its work in the private sector and the South by, among other actions, partnering with the UAW and a range of environmental groups in an Organizing for the Common Good effort in the automobile and electric vehicle industry.
The structural evolution of BCG since its inception is one of this remarkable network’s most promising features. Efforts to revive and transform the labor movement in recent decades have tended to presuppose the necessity of either passing union-friendly national labor law reform, such as the currently bottled-up Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, transforming the AFL-CIO’s structure to make it more organizing-driven, or leaving that structure behind to create an alternative federation, as happened with the schism that created (the now nearly defunct) Change to Win in 2005. BCG avoids such dead ends by basing its strategy on the belief that labor law reform or a structural transformation of the nation’s labor federation(s) will be the fruits of transformative change, not its prerequisites. Such wins cannot be separated from community victories that go well beyond the worksite and bargaining table. BCG builds transformation from the ground up wherever unions and community allies are willing to come together to pursue the common good.
By taking this approach, BCG sidesteps the pitfalls and transcends the assumptions that have hobbled recent efforts to rebuild the labor movement, divided unions from each other, and isolated them from their natural allies in the community. It offers a vision of a revived and expanded form of collective bargaining that can give workers and community members a voice in the broad array of issues that challenge them in and beyond the workplace in the 21st century, including the lack of affordable housing, crushing student debt, low wage work, oppressive structural racism, and the need for a just transition to environmental justice and sustainability. It promotes a deeper solidarity at the personal and institutional levels through innovative, networked collaboration.
This potentially transformative approach could not have been the product of any single individual, organization, institution, ideological orientation, or political analysis. It has grown organically from the collaborative experimentation of a growing community of innovative organizers, local and national union leaders, community activists and their networks, racial justice organizers, academics, and other allies. Most importantly, the whole that BCG’s participants have been building is greater than the sum of its parts: that vision points the way toward the kind of institutions we need to create in order to meet the challenges of this decade, when the future of workers’ organizational power and democracy itself hang in the balance.