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Teachers are striking for more than just pay raises

What Oakland’s teachers union reveals about labor strikes in 2023.

A dark-haired woman wearing sunglasses and a red Chicago Teachers Union shirt holds a sign that reads “Honk for teachers.”
Striking Chicago public school teachers picket outside of George Westinghouse College Preparatory High School on September 17, 2012, in Chicago, Illinois.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The school year ended in dramatic fashion in Oakland, California.

Teachers went on strike on May 4, 2023, just three weeks before the last day of the academic calendar. The strike lasted seven school days. In negotiations, teachers not only fought for higher salaries and a better schedule, but for a set of what they called “common good” demands — like ensuring that all unhoused families in the district are expedited for Section 8 housing vouchers and implementing a task force on reparations. The strike had what appeared to be fairly widespread support based on turnout at school sites, though many caregivers and community members expressed confusion about the broader demands on climate and housing. Wasn’t this a salary renegotiation? Why were the teachers talking about transportation?

These demands are part of a broader movement among unions to bargain for the common good by including provisions in teachers’ contract demands that don’t just affect them directly, but also the quality of life for their students and the city. The movement for “common good bargaining” in the educational context — other industries are increasingly making common good demands too — was born during the Chicago teacher strike of 2012 and has been gaining steam ever since. In a country where increased privatization is too often the response to its most pressing problems, common good bargaining is a provocative counterforce. It’s a promising strategy for birthing new coalitions within communities that — in the best-case scenario — might get people talking about more than just third rail topics like charters, enrollment policy, and the “reading wars.”

But, like all organizing strategies, it also risks becoming little more than a label. And it may generate backlash from the parents, like those in Oakland, who didn’t understand why those issues were on the table in the first place.

As an Oakland Unified School District parent and a journalist who writes about education, I wanted to better understand the growing movement of common good demands. Here’s what I learned.

Common good bargaining is a national phenomenon

Increasingly over the past decade, teachers unions are introducing what they call “common good demands” alongside salary and benefit requests during bargaining. These demands can include defunding campus police, offering more eco-friendly and free transportation options, shielding students from evictions, and more.

In 2012, more than 25,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) included common good demands when they walked picket lines in front of 580 schools during a strike that lasted seven days; it was the first school strike the city had seen in a quarter-century. The teachers won salary increases and more job security — typical bargaining fare — but they also got more collective wins, like pushing back against the testing obsession of the education reform movement and fighting for more support staff, such as counselors and nurses, to serve their most marginalized students.

Proponents say that common good bargaining is a wise strategy because it ensures legally enforceable gains. In theory, if districts agree to common good demands during the bargaining process, they can be sued if they don’t follow through. Many well-intentioned resolutions either die before they ever get voted on by school boards or they get approved and then end up being discussed to death in committees. Too often, little action is actually taken. When leadership shifts — at the school board or superintendent level — these resolutions are often lost in the mix. And we’ve all seen how dramatic and dysfunctional school board meetings can be because of increased political polarization. A binding contract requires a board to follow through.

Teachers involved in this more expansive type of bargaining also argue that including common good demands is reflective of the reality of a teacher’s workday. If a portable classroom without air conditioning is too hot for kids to focus or an unhoused kid is constantly absent, it makes sense to address these issues during teacher bargaining. In this way, “working conditions” for teachers organically overlap with the most pressing problems of our time — particularly climate change and racial and economic inequality.

“Our students have needs, and if those needs aren’t being met, that’s impinging on our ability to do our job,” said Kasondra Walsh, a kindergarten teacher in an Oakland school serving low-income students. Walsh was on the bargaining team during her union’s recent renegotiation. “So often these things are outside of the control of a classroom teacher. So when the board fails to take action, our next option is to try to get something embedded into our contract.”

Sarah Wheeler, an educational psychologist and public school parent in Oakland, said, “Imagine the daily experience of a teacher. You’re underpaid, under-resourced, under-supported, and contending with all of these huge societal forces every day in your classroom. I can imagine that demanding real action on some of these larger common good issues could give you a sense of agency. It might even help you have the stamina to stay in the job.”

This isn’t an insignificant point when one considers that teacher turnover is at an all-time high in many states. Even if some of the common good demands are challenging to win or ultimately difficult to implement in cash-strapped districts, the act of advocating for them may feel like a restorative practice for some teachers.

Common good bargaining is not a new phenomenon

This expansion of bargaining terms is building steam in part because of a national group called the Bargaining for the Common Good Network, which first met a couple of years after that catalytic moment in Chicago. Hallmarks of a successful common good bargaining effort, according to the network’s materials, include: getting grassroots community groups to collaborate and inform which demands end up on the bargaining table, centering racial justice, and keeping the campaign going with community allies long after the union settles its contract.

Joseph A. McCartin, a labor historian and the executive director of Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, where the network is housed, is quick to point out that common good bargaining isn’t new. Rather, he says, its resurgence is “a rediscovery of an old labor tradition. In the early 20th century, when teachers unions first formed, the teachers’ first priority was trying to reform the tax system because the schools were so underfunded. Teachers have always had an interest in fixing a school system that’s broke on purpose.”

Alex Han, the executive director of the progressive magazine In These Times, and Emma Tai, the executive director of United Working Families, writing last year in Nonprofit Quarterly, also trace the way that broader bargaining is a modernization of an old approach, not an innovation. “Beyond equity issues,” they wrote, “the CTF” — the all-female predecessor to the Chicago Teachers Union — “took on fights that could be seen now as ‘bargaining for the common good’— against a University of Chicago-led and business-backed ‘factorization’ of Chicago’s public schools, and in favor of fair funding.”

Today, Chicago stands out as a case study of what happens when teachers get real political power in a city. Last month, Brandon Johnson, a teachers union organizer, was sworn in as Chicago’s 57th mayor after an extremely tight race. Johnson started as a middle school teacher, leaving the classroom a decade ago in order to get involved in common good organizing. Under the mentorship of the late Karen Lewis, then Chicago Teachers Union president, Johnson was part of school closure protests in 2013 and an effort to elect the first teacher to the City Council in 2015. All the while, Johnson mentored other cities’ teachers unions on rabble-rousing for more than just higher pay, but also broader support for public school families.

Mayor Johnson wasted no time establishing his credentials. Some of his first executive orders were directed at getting money into programs for youth, and his first speech as mayor largely focused on his vision for a more collaborative and equitable public school system for all of Chicago’s kids.

Common good bargaining requires long-term organizing and awareness efforts

Johnson’s mayoral run didn’t come out of nowhere; it began when he quit teaching in 2012 to start knocking on doors. Likewise, successful common good bargaining campaigns need long runways, or else their demands can seem unintuitive at a tense moment in bargaining. According to Han and Tai, teachers unions must invest in “deep partnership” with community allies in the lead-up to the bargaining moment. They should also build relationships for the moments that require more civic stamina and engage in broader consciousness-raising efforts — door-knocking, listening tours, informational workshops, and any and all gatherings that make community members feel heard. Where that doesn’t happen, experience suggests, backlash is possible.

In a city like Oakland, for example, which has experienced three teacher strikes in the last five years, there is strike fatigue among some parents and educational advocates. After all, additional demands, especially those that require coordination across so many institutions, slow down negotiations, which means more days that kids are out of school during strikes (on the tail end of a deeply disruptive pandemic). As Jesse Antin, a public school parent, wrote in the Mercury News in response to the third strike, “The union is holding our kids hostage over common-good principles that we all agree on, but which have no place in a labor contract. Most of us are liberal people who choose to live in a liberal city, but activism has a time and place and this isn’t it.”

Many labor experts argue that too-narrow bargaining demands lost teachers unions much of their popular support. What became known as the Red for Ed movement — a wave of teacher strikes starting in West Virginia in 2018 that swept across states, including notoriously conservative ones — therefore felt like a profound departure. The resurgence of teachers unions, and community support for them, has coincided with a sense that educators are the canaries in the coal mine of democracy, demanding that our public institutions serve everybody better. Chris Jackson, a special education teacher who led the common good bargaining committee in Oakland last month, said, “Now we’re actually bargaining for the community. It’s not just about us; it’s about the students that we serve.”

Jackson said that the Oakland Education Association curated the common good demands from a mix of district data, information gathered from door-knocking, and their long-term organizational allies like the Black Organizing Project and Bay Area PLAN.

The strike in Oakland came to an end in mid-May with a tentative agreement that promised all union members a 10 percent raise, retroactive to November 1, 2022, and a 15.5 percent pay raise for most. It also promised all full-time union members an additional one-time payment of $5,000. (This was not significantly different from what the district offered before the strike started.) The union also won four common good demands, not technically in the contract language but as included memorandums of understanding.

Lakisha Young, the founder and CEO of Oakland REACH, says she is intrigued by a common good strategy in theory, but not to the point of prolonging a teacher strike. According to Young, common good bargaining should never be a justification for keeping kids out of school in a district where absenteeism is already such a problem. “The district isn’t the villain,” Young said. “The villain is the collective behavior of adults. When adults get distracted from reading and math, that’s the issue.”

For other organizers, though, common good bargaining can be part of a long-term strategy for labor. Stephen Lerner, a veteran organizer who got his start five decades ago in the farmworkers movement, is one such activist. “The way I’d look at it is, the labor movement needs to be more utopian,” Lerner said. “We need to have a bigger vision of what we want. Why do we exist if we are just taking the status quo?”

After experiencing last month’s strike in Oakland, public school parent Rebekah Otto told me, “My new question is: What else needs to change to make the common goods a reality? We need a district and union that have a good relationship, we need a city council more invested in pushing for change, we need new ideas about county and state advocacy.”

Garrett Bucks, founder of community organizing group The Barnraisers Project, argues that teachers unions, using tools like common good bargaining, have the potential to be the catalysts for radical collectivity in America’s cities, but too often default to smaller questions around power and status.

“Is the question here about the transformation of a city or is it a question of turf?” Bucks said. “In the last 15 years, there are a larger number of big-city teachers unions who are asking turf-based questions in more inspiring ways, and I like that, but it also bums me out. We don’t need adults on every side of education debates jockeying for power. We need organizing that is accompanied with soul searching about our relationship to our kids.”

Courtney E. Martin is the author of Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America from My Daughter’s School and a public school parent in Oakland, California.

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