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How We Move Forward Together: Bargaining for the Common Good

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Front of a march, with people holding a long banner waist-high. It reads "Housing is a Human Right/ La Vivienda es un Derecho Humano."

“Building political power involves building democratic fights and victories beyond the ballot box. We need agency and participation in transformative community changes that people are directly involved in winning if we truly want to build lasting political power.”

For the US Left, much of 2023 was marked by big shifts and big gatherings, taking stock and plotting paths. Convergence first conceived of this series before Hamas attacked Israel and Israel invaded Gaza, shattering lives and upending politics. But as the shadows of war and fascism deepen, so does our need for alignment, even as it becomes more difficult to build.

To help envision how we move forward, we invited groups across the Left to contribute to this series in the spirit of building understanding across our movement ecosystems. Much of the work to block the MAGA Right over the next year will necessarily happen in electoral campaigns, but moving towards true multiracial democracy will take long-term work on many levels, from neighborhood to national, from community- and institution-building to winning races and ballot measures, as we contest for governing power.

We asked respondents to write about ways their strategy contributes to blocking MAGA in 2024, and how their short- and long-term plans inform each other; how their strategy contributes to building leaders, members, power and capacity; and how they fit into the movement ecosystem, and coordinate and collaborate with others in their niche. The order in which contributions appear reflects different organizations’ rhythms of work, rather than a political assessment by Convergence. Our first installment comes from Bargaining for the Common Good.

When Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) members went on strike in 2012 alongside parents, students and community members to win “the schools Chicago students deserve,” they sparked a movement and redefined how labor and community confront consolidated power. CTU and their partners used bargaining as an opportunity to take on corporate politicians and the war they waged against public education to starve, privatize and close schools across the city–particularly in Black and Brown neighborhoods. Their fight for broad demands showed us what is possible when we connect our fights to take on the corporations, the wealthy and their political allies who not only starve public education, but all aspects of our lives as workers and as community members. The Chicago fight for “great public schools for all” catalyzed movement leaders across the country to come together and ask: What would happen if we took this approach in more unions, geographies and sectors? Since then, Bargaining for the Common Good (BCG) fights have exploded across the country.

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Bargaining for the Common Good is a national network of union and community organizations,  united on a strategy that empowers local organizations to break out of their movement silos and take an intersectional organizing approach. This strategy centers racial justice both in the demands we fight for, and how we create them. The folks most impacted by racial and economic violence are the best equipped to identify the issues and solutions they face. It is no coincidence that women of color are leading the BCG fights we see in healthcare, education, and housing across the country. BCG tables in California, Chicago, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Tennessee have continued to grow and strengthen as we forge into more cities and states.

Too often labor-community partnerships manifest as transactional relationships or fodder for public messaging that vanishes once the contract gets settled or the electoral or legislative  battle is over.  Bargaining for the Common Good plays a crucial role in focusing movement work on a broader vision with long-term goals. Rather than ending these partnerships after the contract is settled or the policy is won, BCG tables come together to build a vision for what we want, identify a common analysis of who has power, and create a plan to fight and WIN.

Building our own bold and ambitious vision for our communities with concrete victories along the way is all the more pressing as we face the rise of an emboldened MAGA Right that aims to draw people in with reactionary populism. As BCG leaders Stephen Lerner, Lauren Jacobs, and Joe McCartin have laid out for us, building political power involves building democratic fights and victories beyond the ballot box. We need agency and participation in transformative community changes that people are directly involved in winning if we truly want to build lasting political power.

Both Minnesota and Chicago have built tangible, progressive legislative and electoral victories, including electing Chicago mayor Brandon Johnson, after years of building labor-community partnerships and common good organizing. As Jacobs, Lerner, and McCartin share, neither movement began with the goal of electing progressive Democrats, but instead invested in a long-term strategy and  visionary shared narrative around racial justice and working class power.

Unions and community fight for affordable housing

The California Common Good table’s fight for housing exemplifies this approach at its best.

California’s housing crisis feels too big for any one group to tackle alone–nor should they. The CA Common Good campaign for housing was launched by Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), and AFSCME 3299. As an effective and growing base-building organization, ACCE has a strong track record of organizing tenants and housing advocates to win concrete demands across California, including rent control ordinances, settlements for Black and brown homeowners who were defrauded, and rent strikes to win affordable housing and resist evictions. UTLA, the powerhouse union representing 35,000 educators, centered housing demands in the landmark strikes they held in 2019 and 2023, winning housing support for students and their families. AFSCME 3299, representing 30,000 service and patient care workers across the University of California system, built their BCG muscle working with students and communities to bargain over racial justice and community demands. 

The CA Common Good table came together to win access to quality, affordable housing for everyone in California –housing that would cost less than 30% of household income. To this end, the table leads a key piece of the housing movement by going after the major drivers of the housing crisis. They build strategy and solidarity across unions and community organizations, breaking out of movement silos. This allows for coordination among multiple fronts, including contract campaigns, legislation governing public workers’ pensions, and direct action. They engage and work with existing unions fighting for broad housing solutions, including teachers and educators in Oakland and hotel and hospitality workers in Los Angeles. It is from this sort of deep alignment that campaigns like the fight for affordable housing at the state’s largest public university emerged.

At the University of California, the CA Common Good table is connecting the unaffordable housing crisis that union members, students, and communities face with the corporate actors responsible for extracting wealth from the state’s largest public university. With 10 campuses and five medical centers across California, the University of California is the largest landlord in the state. In fact, given that  the cost of living near UC campuses is higher than the state average, AFSCME found that 70% of their members could not afford to live in a one-bedroom rental close to work. Students also increasingly struggled to afford housing and in 2021, 5% of University students experienced homelessness. But while the University of California fails to provide affordable housing for their own employees and students, they are investing billions in real estate assets, including Blackstone.

As the largest private equity firm and commercial real estate company in the world and the largest landlord in the U.S., Blackstone manages more than 300,000 rental units. In 2022 they acquired American Campus Communities, making them the largest owner of student housing. Blackstone has a track record of buying residential properties, converting them into rental properties and raising rents while frequently displacing or evicting residents to meet their bottom line. Their very business model relies on housing shortages and endlessly rising rents. And they make sure to protect that profit – Blackstone and their executives spent $5.6 million to defeat a California ballot rent control initiative that would have served as a welcome life raft to renters in the state.

In the fall of 2022, Blackstone needed capital to reassure investors after they limited redemptions on their $69 billion BREIT real estate fund. They turned to the University of California Regents to bail them out. Rather than investing in affordable housing for their students and employees, the UC’s Chief Investment Officer took $4.5 billion of UC’s pension and endowment funds and invested it in what would essentially become housing insecurity. Rather than waging separate fights around the same target, the CA Common Good table is creating shared demands to wield the most power. Together they are organizing for the University of California to divest from Blackstone, invest in affordable housing, commit to responsible landlord standards, and provide housing assistance funds.

Deepening alignments, crossing red-state lines

This year has shown us that workers in nearly every industry are willing to take risks, giving us the biggest labor surge in decades with strikes across multiple sectors covering hundreds of thousands of workers. In 2024, BCG will play a crucial role sustaining and expanding these fights.

In Minnesota, workers and community members have been building for decades towards a shared narrative of fully funded education, immigrant rights, housing, and making the wealthy pay their fair share. This includes building a statewide network of union and community groups through efforts like  Minnesotans For a Fair Economy, SEIU Local 26 janitors who worked with climate justice groups and waged the first union climate strike in the country, contract fights driven by educators in St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Tending the Soil alignment of labor and community groups organizing low-and no-income Black, Indigenous and people of color on the frontlines of injustice.

This year, dozens of groups formed the alignment “What Can We Win Together” to bring  together union workers, nonunion workers, renters and community groups to fight for demands that have been years in the making. In October, these groups unified their demands for dignified work, good schools, stable housing, and a liveable planet. As their multiple fights ramp up over the next five months with tens of thousands of union members’ contracts expiring, new organizing drives, and critical policy fights, their alignment will deepen through next year and beyond.

In 2024, BCG is also challenging the notion that we can only build deep alignments and victories in major blue cities. This will require crossing red-state lines and organizing with key sectors like manufacturing and auto workers.  For example, Tennessee for All has organized a broad coalition of diverse rural and urban working-class communities to fight for public education, expanded union rights, and making sure corporations and the wealthy are paying their fair share of taxes back into local communities. The statewide table has expanded this year as a growing number of labor, worker and economic justice, community and faith organizations have come together to reimagine the economic and political system in Tennessee. As Ford has broken ground on its Blue Oval electric vehicle plant outside of Memphis,  it is promising to bring more jobs and wealth into the state. BCG is playing a crucial role in bringing together surrounding communities to ask what the plant actually means for their lives and families. They are harnessing their power to fight for their own solutions including a community benefits agreement that will protect union jobs, defend the rights of Black and Brown rural populations, and invest in the economic growth of communities they have been part of for generations.

As many progressive unions and community organizations shift their focus to the Presidential race looming, BCG will carve out spaces where those groups can work in lockstep with each other around a shared vision leading up to and beyond key elections.

In Tennessee, the TN For All coalition is taking a comprehensive approach to changing the political economy under a Republican trifecta by organizing around key issues in urban, rural, and suburban communities. In a state where 91 out of 95 counties are rural or suburban, the rural vote is crucial to electoral and legislative victories. To this end, TN For All is engaging communities and leaders on the ground in key issues like defeating vouchers and privatization while fighting for more education funding and union rights.

Ultimately, BCG is a strategy for unions and community organizations who recognize that the biggest risk we can take is to not take any risks at all. BCG emerged as a way to not only expand the scope of bargaining, but more importantly, to expand what social justice movement organizations are capable of in the 21st century. As a growing number of union and community organizations are taking risks, we see what is possible: deeper alliances, taking on powerful, entrenched corporate enemies, and winning more for all of us.

Featured image: Hundreds of renters rally in Sacramento, California on April 24, 2023 for SB 555 and stronger tenant protections. Photo courtesy of ACCE.


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