For decades, teacher unions have been the victim of a cruel trap set by critics. When teachers tried to bargain about larger policy issues aimed at improving schools for children, management told teachers that “policy” decisions were the sole prerogative of school leaders, and could not be the subject of collective bargaining. So teachers stuck mostly to fighting for better wages and benefits, and were in turn unfairly accused of only caring about themselves.

This year, however, in Chicago, teachers have sought to extricate themselves from this catch-22 by asserting the right to bargain for the “common good,” a stance which recognizes that if kids are to succeed, they need adequate housing, school counselors, psychologists, and nurses. And it’s a stance they’re holding firm—with one of the biggest strikes in recent memory.

Today marks the eighth day of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU)’s strike. That exceeds the duration of their six-day strike in 2012, which had been the first Chicago school strike in twenty-five years. Now, negotiations continue, as CTU presses for more funding to reduce class sizes. The strike has engaged 1 percent of the city’s workforce, and is mostly comprised of CTU—also known as American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 1—and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73. These two unions are striking together for the first time, and in the nation’s third-largest school district. As AFT president Randi Weingarten said in an impassioned speech on Monday, October 14, the demands the unions are making are “elementary,” but “it is only through a union movement together with community that we can get justice.”

What Does It Mean to Bargain for the Common Good?

What makes the Chicago strike particularly significant is its insistence on practicing bargaining for the common good, and thereby entering the concept into the public lexicon. “Bargaining for the common good” refers to unions using their negotiating power to win public improvements beyond those pertaining to the wages, benefits, and job security of their members. Unions have long led and built coalitions with community organizations and played a critical role in social movements; what’s new about the bargaining for the common good model is that it wields the union movement’s most powerful tool—collective bargaining—toward the broader social and economic campaigns that labor had previously pursued through adjacent efforts like Jobs with Justice and Union Cities.

Moreover, as explained by Rutgers University’s Marilyn Schneiderman (a leader in promoting such strategies), bargaining for the common good refers to creating “lasting alignments between unions and community groups, not merely temporary alliances of convenience.” Recent examples include the Fix LA campaign, wherein unions and community groups exposed how exorbitant Wall Street fees were draining city coffers. The coalition’s initiative pushed the city to agree to a new revenue commission and open up 5,000 city positions to disadvantaged communities.

A History of Bargaining for the Common Good in Schools

If we look back, we’ll find that this broad-reaching and principled practice was part and parcel of the education labor movement’s very origins. When teacher unionism first gained national prominence in the early 1960s in New York City, union leaders like Albert Shanker tried to bargain for the common good. They argued that teachers, who work directly with students, have key insights into the challenges children face—such as inadequate nutrition and housing, racial and economic segregation, and the stresses of poverty—and should be able to bargain in favor of policies that will holistically support students’ well-being. In doing so, they recognized that in order to advance the ability of teachers to educate children and assist them in reaching their full potential, their students and their families need safety, security, nourishment, and support off-campus as well as on it.

To address problems of housing and school segregation, for example, Shanker, then-president of the United Federation of Teachers, a New York City public education union, tried to include in their New York City collective bargaining agreement a provision to create the nation’s first nonselective “magnet schools.” These schools would attract middle-class students to high-poverty schools in order to create a healthy socioeconomic mix of students, which landmark research at the time found would benefit all students.

New York City school leaders rejected the union’s proposals, however, saying that “education policy” was beyond the allowable scope of bargaining. In a pattern repeated in school district after school district, unions were restricted to bargaining over narrower, more traditional issues, such as wages and benefits. Although teachers didn’t want to narrow the scope of bargaining in this way, they were forced to by recalcitrant school leaders. Ironically, critics, including those same school leaders, then turned around and accused teachers of being selfish and caring only about their own pocketbooks, not the interests of children.

Bargaining for the Common Good in Chicago

More than fifty years later, Shanker’s national union, the American Federation of Teachers, is leading the way toward reviving bargaining for the common good, under the leadership of Weingarten and Chicago Teachers Union president Jesse Sharkey. Main points of contention have not been pay; rather, teachers have pushed for smaller class sizes and increased funding and commitment to students’ holistic support. In Chicago, for example, teachers want a nurse in every school. Across the country, only 39 percent of schools employ full-time school nurses, and one in four schools don’t employ a nurse at all.

But that’s only the beginning: the teachers’ demands are as holistic as their goals for their students. For example, more than 16,000 students in the city are homeless or in temporary living situations, such as bouncing between friends and family—circumstances that are detrimental to kids’ development and to their educational outcomes. Plus, more than half of custodians and support staff in the Chicago public school system earn poverty wages. So Chicago teachers are demanding housing assistance for new teachers, staff hired specifically to help students and families in danger of losing housing, and other steps to advance affordable housing in the city.

The strike is thus not just about schools, but rather about the stark inequality in one of the nation’s wealthiest cities. At its best, public education can be a critical tool for economic mobility, but not when the economic and social odds are stacked against teachers and families.

CTU’s housing-related demands illustrate how the union is extending support to parallel movements across the city. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, in a proposal released over the summer, excluded funding to alleviate homelessness from a plan to raise taxes on property sales in the city, effectively abandoning a campaign promise. By putting their weight behind the efforts to boost affordable housing, reduce homelessness and housing insecurity, and hold Lightfoot accountable to her campaign promises, CTU has made itself into a natural ally of all community members that care about or are affected by these issues (including the more than 86,000 area residents that lack housing). The strike is thus not just about schools, but rather about the stark inequality in one of the nation’s wealthiest cities. At its best, public education can be a critical tool for economic mobility, but not when the economic and social odds are stacked against teachers and families.

This is also a natural multi-racial and multi-class alliance between working-class teachers and low-income Chicago communities. The schools most suffering, and most in need of caps on class sizes and boosted investment in schools, are those in low-income, often minority communities. When in 2013, Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed fifty schools, most of them in majority-black neighborhoods, nearby schools saw an influx of students and rising class sizes. Going against the grain of policy aimed at closing so-called failing schools, CTU gained increasing support from a public who saw these school closings as an attack on their neighborhoods.

The Latest Chapter in a Wave of Teacher Strikes

The Chicago Teachers Union has a history of setting a national tone for unions. The CTU strikes in 2012 and 2016 are seen as the beginning of what is being called the largest education strike wave in the history of the United States. This view points out that CTU’s strikes may have paved the way for subsequent strikes in West Virginia, Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, and more. Strikers and their union backers have asserted themselves as defenders of public education, and education writ large, in America. While the war for equitable access to high-quality education in America will be a long, multi-generational, and multi-geographic one, these smaller battles have been quite successful. West Virginia teachers ensured that tax dollars would go to public schools, where budgets had been slashed, and not to private and charter schools. Los Angeles teachers secured commitments to reduce class sizes, increase pay, and launch dozens of new community schools.

The unfair narrative that teachers unions only care about their members is being dispelled in the recent wave of strikes. Awareness has heightened about how neglected schools have been, and about the impact of underfunding not only on teachers, but on their students and their communities. It has been a stark lesson. Between 2008 and 2016, per-student funding for public schools declined in twenty-four states. Teachers’ salaries have decreased over this time when adjusted for inflation. It’s no wonder that historic teachers strikes occurred in the same states that have seen the biggest education budget and teacher salary cuts.

Teachers have always wanted to bargain for the common good, despite being told they couldn’t. In Chicago and elsewhere, teachers are asserting themselves anew, arguing, as Weingarten put it, that “educators want what students need.”

Cover Photo: Thousands of demonstrators take to the streets, stopping traffic and circling City Hall in a show support for the ongoing teachers strike in Chicago, Illinois. Source: Scott Heins/Getty Images