6 Creative Ways Workers Are Taking Back Power
Fast Company|Summer 2021
When workers align with local constituents to fight for shared goals, it strengthens their campaign.
By Yasmin Gagne, Pavithra Mohan, Lara Sorokanich, Kristin Toussaint, and Talib Visram

1 BARGAINING FOR THE COMMON GOOD

WHEN WORKERS ALIGN WITH LOCAL CONSTITUENTS TO FIGHT FOR SHARED GOALS, IT STRENGTHENS THEIR CAMPAIGN.

What if unions could help not only their members but also the broader communities where they work? That’s the concept of Bargaining for the Common Good (BCG), a practice in which unions team up with local community groups, racial justice organizations, students, and other stakeholders to establish shared goals and launch targeted action campaigns to see that they are met. When employees aren’t well paid or suffer from poor working conditions, the impact is “not just on workers but on the people that workers serve,” says Stephen Lerner, a senior fellow at the Bargaining for the Common Good Network, an organization born from the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. Here are three cases of BCG in action.

RECLAIM OUR SCHOOLS L.A.

Teachers’ unions are a natural fit for BCG: In 2014, United Teachers of Los Angeles created Reclaim Our Schools L.A., a coalition of teachers, students, and parents that spent more than a year researching and developing a campaign called “A Vision to Support Every Student.” When teachers went on strike in January 2019, parents and students joined in protests, and the six-day action won the districts more school nurses, counselors, and librarians; smaller classes; reductions in standardized testing; and other changes far beyond teacher pay (which also increased 6%).

CHICAGO TEACHERS’ STRIKE

In October 2019, the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike, seeking smaller class sizes and more counselors and staff; it also called on the city to commit to building more affordable housing in response to the district’s 17,000 unhoused students. “The mayor said that the union was being utopian,” Lerner says. “And the union said, ‘We are being utopian. We need transformational change.’” The union targeted local billionaires and developers, arguing that tax cuts they received could have been used to fund schools and social programs. While the union’s affordable housing demands were not met, it did receive better resources for unhoused students.

CONNECTICUT COMMON GOOD CAMPAIGN

SEIU 1199—a union of essential healthcare, clerical, and maintenance workers in nursing homes and healthcare facilities—has joined with Connecticut community colleges, social workers, and retired people to call for higher tax rates for Connecticut’s resident millionaires and billionaires, to fund social programs such as expanded mental health services and reentry assistance for formerly incarcerated individuals.

2 SHAREHOLDER ACTIVISM

INVESTORS CAN BRING STAKEHOLDER CAPITALISM TO LIFE.

As investors apply more scrutiny to companies’ environmental, social, and governance (ESG) policies, shareholder activism can be “another tool to get a seat around the table,” says Alice Martin, who advises shareholders on labor rights issues at PIRC, Europe’s largest corporate governance advisory firm. “There are no quick wins,” she warns. Interest in ESG has been focused on climate and board issues, though COVID- 19 brought social factors such as working conditions to light. “This is about chipping away at corporate practices in a way that, hopefully, eventually, you’ll see huge changes.” Data about ESG investing shows the promise and the long-term challenges.

3 TAKING ON TECH WORLD

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