Credit: Andrew Reed / EdSource
Oakland Unified teachers picket outside West Oakland Middle School on May 4, 2023.

Teachers unions in school districts across the country are demanding improved salaries, benefits and class sizes when it’s time to renew their contracts. They are also leveraging negotiations to benefit school employees, students and their families.

This process, known as bargaining in the common good, has been used to gain agreements on a host of items, such as housing assistance for low-income students, updating antiquated school facilities and increasing the number of psychologists, social workers and nurses on campuses.

“They are seeing the bargaining table as more than just about pay and benefits, but what is needed to make education work for students and meet the broader needs of parents and the community,” said Ken Jacobs, chair of the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education.

There have been more negotiations over common good measures over the last decade, particularly in education, Jacobs said, adding that there also have been more high-profile teacher strikes.

The nation’s TK-12 schools, colleges and universities have had 149 strikes since the beginning of 2021 – 32 in California, according to Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. About half of the California strikes ended with agreements over common good items, according to the Cornell-ILR Labor Action Tracker.

“When you look at teachers’ willingness to strike and hold out for these broader issues, it reflects on how important these broader issues are to helping them to carry out their jobs,” Jacobs said. “Being homeless hinders a student’s ability to learn. Pay and benefits are important, but there is a big underlying push here by teachers to try and improve schools and the quality of education.”

Common good negotiating is relatively new

The idea of negotiating for the common good grew out of a 2014 meeting of 140 labor organizers and researchers at Georgetown University to discuss a bargaining strategy that would unite public service workers and the communities they serve.

Since that time, the bargaining method has been used by public service labor unions across the country, including teachers unions in California, Massachusetts, Illinois and Washington, according to the website for the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University.

In 2019, the concept of bargaining for the common good gained momentum as the Red for Ed movement increased teacher activism. The Red for Ed movement originated to advance teacher’s demands in states with Republican legislatures. It gained momentum as teachers, wearing red t-shirts, held protests and rallies across the country, calling for higher pay, lower class sizes and additional support for themselves and their students.

That year, during contract negotiations, Los Angeles Unified teachers asked the district to expand green space on school campuses, limit random searches of students and support immigrant students and their families, according to the UCLA Labor Center. The teachers union went on strike for six days and also won lower class sizes, more nurses and a 6% retroactive pay raise.

Members of the Oakland Unified teachers’ union went on strike for a week in 2019 before winning pay raises, reduced class sizes, more support staff for students and a five-month moratorium on school closures.

“We started really understanding the impact of poverty and social issues that occur in our community … that those things impact outcomes for students, and we want to try to figure out how we can help, instead of saying those are things out of our control,” said Kampala Taiz-Rancifer, vice president of the union and an elementary school teacher in Oakland Unified.

Chicago’s teachers picked up the gauntlet in October 2019, striking for 11 days for common good measures such as a full-time nurse and social worker at each school every day; full-time liaisons to help homeless students; protections for immigrant teachers, students and their families; more staff to aid bilingual students and students with disabilities; and more librarians, restorative justice coordinators and support staff at high-needs schools, according to a U.S. News story.

The Covid-19 pandemic made support and resources for students more important than ever, Taiz-Rancifer said.

“Covid pulled back the curtain and let everyone see what is going on in schools, and these things have been exacerbated by Covid,” she said. “Teachers have been waiting to address these issues. I think it is a lot more clear to districts now and harder to deny.”

Fighting poverty, helps student outcomes

This year, the Oakland Education Association negotiated a more ambitious set of common good proposals that included investing in historically Black community schools, providing student transportation and using district property to house homeless students and their families. Members of the union, including teachers, nurses, counselors and psychologists, walked picket lines for seven days before coming to a tentative agreement with the school district.

“That is an example of what collective bargaining can do to impact living conditions, and really our working conditions,” said Taiz-Rancifer. “It isn’t only improving outcomes for students, but improving our working conditions and making it less challenging to ensure all of our students are successful.”

Kimi Kean, a former Oakland Unified principal and chief executive officer of Families in Action for Quality Education, an Oakland nonprofit organization, calls negotiating common good items an overreach by unions.

“My personal opinion is we have to focus on the core mission of education, which is educating our students,” she said.

Kean said she is concerned that Oakland Unified students will be hurt academically by losing seven days of school and that its teachers cannot afford to lose seven days of pay.

“It’s a noble cause, but it isn’t the district’s purview alone,” Kean said. “There is good intention and good sentiment there, but at the end of the day when we end up striking over things like that, it is the teachers and most vulnerable students that end up suffering.”

Teachers haven’t always had to strike to win agreements on common good measures. In April, Los Angeles Unified teachers negotiated more green space on campuses, support for immigrant students and their families, the installation of solar panels on district buildings and the formation of a taskforce to investigate building affordable housing for low-income students and their families on unused district land.

“We bargained all of that,” said Arlene Inouye, United Teachers Los Angeles secretary and bargaining co-chair. “At first they said it was outside the scope of bargaining, and, it’s amazing, we have so many demands in the contract that reflect our community’s needs.”

Interest in common good negotiations on the rise

While there has been increased interest in common good proposals as a part of contract negotiations, especially in large urban school districts, Troy Flint, chief information officer for the California School Boards Association, said that negotiating in the common good is still not the norm in most California school districts.

Union representatives expect common good measures will be included in more negotiations in the future, however. Negotiating the measures was a topic of discussion among attendees at the CTA’s State Council meeting May 18-21 in Los Angeles, according to Taiz-Rancifer.

“We are seizing this moment to really break down the wall, while there is momentum,” lnouye said. “It is kind of a shame that we have to resort to striking or having collective actions across the nation to get some pretty basic needs yet.”

Increased pay is still the single most common reason teachers go on strike, and most teachers unions that are negotiating common good items also requested salary bumps or increased benefits, according to the Labor Action Tracker. Earlier this month Oakland Unified teachers received about a 15.5% pay increase, while Los Angeles Unified teachers won a 21% increase.

Tackling societal issues during negotiations is complicated

Union proposals that school districts take responsibility, financially and otherwise, for societal issues often make negotiations longer and more complicated.

“I would say that most of the issues raised in common good proposals are worthy of consideration and should be addressed in some fashion,” Flint said. “The question is whether the school district is the proper entity and whether the negotiations are the proper forum for these issues to be addressed.”

The items addressed in common good negotiations are larger society problems that are beyond the capacity of school districts to tackle in a meaningful way, he said.

“If schools are going to be both a repository and agent for addressing all of society’s problems, then that needs to be reflected in the level of priority they are given and the amount of investment we see on the federal, state and local level,” Flint said.

Districts may be even more reluctant to negotiate for things like housing, transportation for students and green-energy improvements on campuses if state funding declines. A multi-year budget outlook released Tuesday by the Legislative Analyst’s Office says California is unlikely to be able to afford the spending levels outlined in the revised May budget.

“I would say it’s a precarious time for schools, because we are probably at the end  of a long period of rising revenues,” Flint said.

Unions want shared governance of community schools

Union members are interested in negotiating shared governance of community schools as part of common good agreements during collective bargaining. They want to ensure that thousands of new community schools being rolled out in California over the next eight years are governed by school staff, students, parents and community members, as well as school administrators.

The schools, part of the California Community Schools Partnership Program, are meant to provide health and social services to families, as well as an education to students. The $4.1 billion state program calls for students, families, staff, school administrators and community members to share decision making and leadership on all aspects of school governance and operations. But some teachers unions want district officials to put it in writing.

West Contra Costa Unified teachers’ union joins Oakland Unified and Los Angeles Unified teachers in successfully negotiating the governance of community schools. San Diego Unified and Sacramento Unified teachers unions are among those currently negotiating similar agreements.

“We want to hold them accountable to hearing the voices of students, parents and educators,” Taiz-Rancifer said. “They may have one vision for it, but families and students may have a different idea of what they need to be successful.”

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  1. Jason T 1 week ago1 week ago

    Perhaps teachers in Oakland should focus on teaching kids well before they get into housing. Do what you’re hired to do first before expanding into so-called community issues.

  2. Robin 1 week ago1 week ago

    Common good issues are not what the education system needs to be focused on. Teacher’s can’t afford to live near the district they work in and classified staff can’t afford benefits for themselves and their families yet the Union wants to take dwindling funds to cover non education issues. While I do see the connection between poverty, education and the pipeline to prison voters and school leaders still have to follow the money. As birth … Read More

    Common good issues are not what the education system needs to be focused on. Teacher’s can’t afford to live near the district they work in and classified staff can’t afford benefits for themselves and their families yet the Union wants to take dwindling funds to cover non education issues. While I do see the connection between poverty, education and the pipeline to prison voters and school leaders still have to follow the money. As birth rates decline, families leave the state and parents abandon public education funding will continue to decrease. What then?

  3. Randall Freeman 1 week ago1 week ago

    As usual, it comes down to two factors, money and power. The unions continue to profess the idea of money as the silver bullet. They will use anything to increase Union power. The result is a Randi Weingarten dictating to the federal government.

  4. Jim 1 week ago1 week ago

    In California, at least, there seems to be a strong correlation between the union’s interest in “common good” and poor educational outcomes. It seems to be a distraction campaign to obscure their lack of success in teaching.