Skip to content

Labor Bargaining and the “Common Good”


Diana Reddy (@dianareddy) is a Doctoral Fellow at the Law, Economics, and Politics Center at UC Berkeley Law, and a PhD candidate in UCB's Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program.

In recent years, a growing coalition of labor unions, community groups, and scholars has called for a shift in the ethos of collective bargaining, towards what is increasingly dubbed “bargaining for the common good” (BFCG). According to the BFCG paradigm, unions should use their power at the bargaining table to negotiate more than better working conditions for workers; they should negotiate to “benefit the community as a whole.” Bargaining in this vein, unions have advanced and won contract terms that take on climate change, address housing inequalities, and increase public investment in marginalized communities. Yet, as recent debates about in-person instruction in public schools have illustrated, unresolved tensions underlie this clever turn of phrase. The relationship between labor unions and hegemonic conceptions of “the common good” remains hotly contested.

In the post, I briefly situate bargaining for the common good within labor unions’ ongoing struggle for legitimacy and power post-neoliberalism. And while I suggest there are reasons to be wary about a “collective action frame” that makes amorphous claims of public or consumer benefit the lynchpin of union legitimacy, there are reasons to be hopeful about an on-the-ground strategy that builds broader solidarities to increase countervailing power

A Critical Moment in the Contest of Ideas

One of the less-explored consequences of the neoliberal turn for organized labor has been its discursive impact on labor union legitimacy. As I argue in my working paper, The Twenty-First Century Legitimacy of Labor Unions, neoliberalism upended the Keynesianism logic that helped justify the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Under the demand-side Keynesian view, higher wages for workers grew the economy for all.  Keynesianism “granted universalistic status to the interests of workers.” It treated bargaining as the common good. In contrast, the supply-side neoliberal view posits that unregulated capital best serves the general interest, via innovation, wealth maximization, and “job creation.” Under neoliberal logic, when unions advance their members’ economic interests through “rent-seeking,” they harm corporate bottom lines and public solvency: bargaining as antithetical to the common good.

Against this backdrop, I conceptualize the past ten years as a critical period in what historian Nelson Lichtenstein calls the “contest of ideas,” the ongoing battle between capital and labor to shape popular economic consciousness. In 2009, as conservatives weaponized Great Recession-era despair and fear into anger against public sector unions — that last bastion of union density in the United States — just 48% of the American public said they approved of labor unions, their lowest approval rate in history.

But today, after a decade of social movement agitation, kicked off by Occupy Wall Street’s re-centering of economic inequality in public discourse and elongated by the power and moral suasion of the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, things look different.  Today, 65% of Americans say they approve of labor unions, one of their highest approval rates in the past fifty years. Labor’s supporters have heralded this change in public support as a new politics, a rebuke to the neoliberal ethos of decades prior. Yet, the speed of the change also highlights its volatility, and arguably its conditionality. As law professor Benjamin Levin recently wrote: “Worker power is often referred to romantically or idealistically as an unqualified good, but when worker power has been wielded, it hasn’t necessarily been met with resounding support, particularly from liberals or progressives.”  

Within this contested space, my research focuses on the multiple ways in which labor unions have sought to reclaim legitimacy as an agent of a broader social good, while continuing to motivate workers to put in the effort and take the risks of unionizing under current law. One of those ways is bargaining for the common good. What began as a largely rhetorical move, e.g. “Teacher Working Conditions Are Student Learning Conditions,” has gradually turned into something more, a new (or renewed) philosophy of unionism. Its core claim is that through partnering with community groups, unions can bargain for “the common good.”

BFCG is a broad tent, and has many permutations, based on the multiple ways that workers connect to their communities. It can mean recognizing that workers are community members with a range of needs beyond those of the presumed white, male, citizen “worker” — needs for child-care, or for immigration reform. It can mean building upon the shared material interests between workers and the people they serve — interests in smaller class sizes, or increased funding for services. It can also mean an explicitly political unionism, in which workers bargain to effectuate their normative commitments, in addition to their material interests.

Uniting these diverse threads is the belief that in a fissured economy with low union density and weak labor laws, existing bargaining frameworks are insufficient. In order to build power and effectuate change, workers must craft broader demands in partnership with their communities. Doing so, BFCG proponents recognize, requires “transcending the bargaining frameworks written in law.” The NLRA and its counterparts focus on terms and conditions of employment in a specific workplace. The common good requires more.

Framing Unions: Resonance or Irradicalism

Within contemporary labor politics, BFCG can be seen as having two faces – rhetorically, it faces outward to increase union legitimacy; strategically, it faces inward to increase union power.

The first face of BFCG is what academics call a “collective action frame.” For social movement scholars, the term framing is used to describe how movements situate their claims within the logic of existing belief systems in order to build popular support. In so doing, they seek “resonance.” And yet, because resonance often builds upon dominant ideologies, resonance can sometimes mean irradicalism. It can cede too much.

 As a frame, “bargaining for the common good” resonates in part because it emphasizes the benefits of unionism for groups other than workers. It emphasizes benefits to the “community,” the locus of social movement activism during decades of union decline. And it often equates that amorphous community with service recipients. It thereby foregrounds the twenty-first century consumer as the bearer of the common good. 

Consumer identity has long had primacy in American political economy, given the neoclassical emphasis on exchange over production.  In the industrial-based economy of mid-century, unions claimed that “union-made” meant quality workmanship. Today, in a service-based economy with union density greatest in the public sector, unions claim that they benefit the consumer-qua-service-recipient: the student, the patient. This frame has proven particularly resonant in feminized industries in which selflessness is seen as a job requirement – teaching, first and foremost. Here, it aligns with the neoliberal reformulation of the student as the holder of investment value, with increased human capital as the singular “common good” furthered by education.

Bargaining for the common good accordingly does precisely what many commentators argued must be done to win back public support for unions, in the wake of conservative attacks following the Great Recession. Anti-union forces were adept during that time at constructing a dichotomy “in which victimized children [were] pitted against greedy teachers.” Scholars called for “child-first rhetoric” in teacher union advocacy. And child-first advocacy is natural for many teachers. They are concerned about their students.

The limitation of this strategy, though, is that by accepting the connotations of these categories as a given, it arguably cedes too much. It cedes a vision of workers and working conditions as themselves a common good. As organizer Marianne Garneau has argued: “Anti-worker propaganda from both liberals and conservatives has succeeded in framing every union fight as chauvinistic, narrow self-interest….[Unions’] response to that cannot just be to implicitly concede the point and reach out to ‘the public’ to tack on issues of interest to them. Instead, we have to reclaim the working class’s interest as the general interest.”

When talking about bargaining for the common good, there is a tendency to proclaim that unions are no longer just bargaining for the “narrow” issues of wages and benefits. But rejecting neoliberalism requires rejecting the idea that there is anything “narrow” about wages, benefits, a voice on the job, or distributional justice. More importantly, rejecting neoliberalism requires rejecting the dogma that greater equity at the point of production comes at the expense of greater equity in the “community,” when we increasingly know the reverse is true. Strong unions have always driven up wages and reduced socio-economic inequality in the community. Relative to managerial autocracy, standard union contract provisions already reduce gender and racial inequalities in the workplace (albeit insufficiently). And contrary to the right-wing narrative that teachers’ unions protect bad teachers who deprive children of educational opportunity, research shows that high rates of unionism in an area are associated with greater socio-economic mobility among the next generation. The reality is that investment in workers already inures to the community, because the community is largely made up of people who work for a living.

None of this is to say that labor unions are perfect institutions. They are not. And like many contemporary institutions, they need institutional re-design to better effectuate their public purposes. But it is to say that if we fail to advance a claim that worker power itself is a common good, then labor has already lost the contest of ideas.

Teachers, Students, and the Common Good

The tensions inherent in tying union legitimacy to the concept of bargaining for the common good were put in stark relief during pandemic disagreements about in-person instruction in public schools. In Summer 2020, when then-President Trump insisted that schools must rapidly re-open for in-person instruction, supporters of bargaining for the common good celebrated the role of teachers’ unions in preventing a rash re-opening. In the face of “tremendous pressure from government and business to open schools,” they claimed, “[t]he impetus to close, which is clearly the only safe option, has come almost entirely from unions.”  Another article suggested that teachers’ advocacy for school closings during the pandemic should be seen as “the essence of bargaining for the common good.”

But by early 2021, with a new administration in charge, a vaccine roll-out underway, and increasing recognition of the socio-emotional consequences of online education for children and their families, the “public” began to demand in-person education. And when union support for in-person education seemed to lag behind that of the public, teachers’ unions were suddenly thrust into another legitimacy crisis. In a country where most essential workers had no choice but to risk their lives for the sake of their livelihoods, how could teachers’ unions insist that their members should have a choice? How could teachers’ unions oppose the common good?

A virus which differentially impacts school-aged children and an aging teacher population reveals that the material interests of workers and those they serve are not always identical. But it also highlights how manipulable a concept like the “common good” can be, and how difficult it is to center workers within it. This is why Christopher Tomlins has argued that legitimacy is an unwinnable battle for labor unions. Worker self-organization through unions is necessary, he has argued, precisely to free workers from the constraints of a so-called “public interest” in which working people too often have little say. When the legitimacy of labor unions is made dependent on something as subjective as the “common good,” workers often lose.

Constructing a Common Good

And yet, for those most committed to it, bargaining for the common good has never been just a legitimizing frame. BFCG’s other face is inward. It is an on-the-ground strategy for building power, through challenging labor’s own conception of the common good  As I recently wrote, labor’s weakness has long been the lack of a normative vision “sufficiently capacious to build the power necessary for the task at hand.” BFCG expands that vision to include groups and causes long constructed to be outside labor’s purview.

From the right and the left, both neoliberal economics and a stubborn variant of Marxism, have long suggested that “interests” are found objects in the world, to be realized or not. By choosing to co-construct interests with community groups, common-good unionism does not rely on a presumed convergence of interests; it builds it. And it does so, in part, by recognizing that through broader solidarities, workers and community groups can facilitate structural change that redistributes wealth and power more widely than traditional unionism.

This is a risky move. To encourage workers to use their bargaining power to facilitate structural change towards a broader “common good” is a more political unionism. It risks the legal repercussions that follow from “transcending” legal frameworks. It risks workers enacting an unpreferred politics; ironically, demands for teachers’ unions to eschew the wages and benefit-centric framework of labor law overlap in time and space with demands that police unions be prohibited from bargaining over anything but wages and benefits. It also risks a failure to find common ground. There is a reason that unionism took the form it did in the United States.  Even among workers, ideas about the “common good” have always varied greatly.

The reality is that workers are not always inherently aligned, materially or politically, and neither are their communities. As a frame, bargaining for the common good tends to elide this complexity, as it seeks union legitimacy by proxy. As a praxis, however, bargaining for the common good works towards that alignment, recognizing that it is important, even when it is difficult. 

Ayn Rand once referred to “the tribal notion of the common good” as the justification for “all tyrannies in history.” Perhaps the most radical part of BFCG, then, is its optimism. After decades of anti-politics, BFCG insists that constructing a widely shared vision of the common good, one which prioritizes workers and their broader communities, remains possible.