In the spring of 2012, Mark Butler, then Georgia labor commissioner, cut off access to unemployment benefits for contracted school workers in the state, the majority of whom were Black women. These jobs—cafeteria workers, bus drivers, school support staff, and even some charter schoolteachers—had once been considered good jobs. In fact, it was public-sector jobs like these that created pathways out of poverty for many Black families over the last century. But by 2012 after years of intentional fissuring, these same jobs had been contracted out to companies like Sodexho and Aramark, limiting the state’s responsibility for these workers and introducing a level of flexibility that helped a set of corporations but ultimately devastated workers. Butler’s action sent thousands of school workers, again primarily Black women, into crisis.
Unemployment insurance was designed specifically to limit the hardship created when someone lost their job through no fault of their own. This is the law and the accepted norm, even in the United States where the social welfare system is relatively weak. Certainly, workers in the construction trades who are known to be out of work intermittently given the nature of the work would (and have) justifiably raised hell if unemployment benefits were taken away from them. And the state most likely would have listened to this predominantly white male workforce. But the school workers of Atlanta were mostly Black, and they were women. They were easier to exploit.
School workers enlisted the support of Atlanta Jobs With Justice and others to reverse Butler’s decision. They established a community-based hub for organizing, the Justice for School Workers Committee, that functioned across several existing unions, included nonunion workers, and positioned workers to counter future attacks while setting an agenda to redefine the value and standards of school worker jobs in Atlanta and surrounding counties. They fought a battle with the Georgia Department of Labor and the Georgia General Assembly to prevent the cuts from being permanent and to restore the benefits. Instead of developing a short-term campaign that focused on the need for unemployment benefits as services, the coalition took a very different worker-centered approach—framing the loss of unemployment benefits as stolen wages.
By framing the issue not simply as an attack on the social safety net but also as an issue of wages and income, the community-based coalition was able to win $8 million in previously denied unemployment benefits paid directly back to the workers. Some of these workers were able to go on to win collectively bargained agreements the traditional way with the companies they worked for. Others are still organizing, trying to identify opportunities to collectively confront the powers that be in Georgia’s public- and private-education sector.1
What Is Community-Driven Bargaining?
Workers are whole people whose daily interactions and struggles with the economy go far beyond the workplace. Therefore, while a union contract at work is an important step toward economic democracy, working people must also be able to collectively negotiate economic relationships far beyond their worksites, in all aspects of their lives. This is what community-driven bargaining is all about.
Through community-driven bargaining, working people organized around a specific economic relationship are at the table with decision-makers and are driving the process as a “bargaining unit.” In previously discussed models of expanded forms of bargaining, community interests may be represented at the table but they are not driving what is ultimately a process between a union of employees and an employer. In community-driven bargaining strategies, organizations representing tenants, community and neighborhood residents, debt holders, and consumers sit across from landlords and building owners, government agencies, developers, and others. The result is still a legally enforceable agreement.
Here are some of the kinds of economic relationships that community-driven bargaining is designed to address.
Renters versus corporate landlords. Ever heard of a rent strike? Large property owners count on rents, tax subsidies, and in some instances a more speculative property value to borrow against to increase their profit margins. To get their attention, working people may collectively withhold rent payments or prevent subsidies so that properties are not profitable unless the owners agree to come to the table with tenants. This approach may require massive numbers of individuals to take shared action, but in other cases it may be effective when just a few strategically positioned tenants (such as high-priced business rentals) band together to withhold payments.
While the first image that comes to the minds of many people when they think of a landlord is a local on-site supervisor, a large number of rental properties are owned by Wall Street corporations led by executives who have never stepped foot in the buildings they control. Their number one motivation is making money, with little concern for the communities that live in their properties.
Consider Sam Zell, the head of companies that own over 150,000 rental properties, including apartments, manufactured homes, and RV parks. In 2019, Zell was ranked number 119 on the Forbes 400 list of the world’s wealthiest people, with an estimated $5.5 billion in personal wealth. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, one of his companies, Equity Group Investments (then reported as Equity Residential), announced a temporary freeze on evictions, but it simultaneously increased rents.2 Even when confronted with the knowledge that many tenants had been laid off and would not be able to pay, representatives of many corporate landlords like Zell still refused to forgive rent payments altogether. Instead, industry groups including the National Apartments Association called on Congress to use the tax dollars of many of those same tenants to pay landlords for the rents they were losing.3 And they were successful. After a series of congressional stimulus packages, corporate landlords joined the elite group of executives who profited off the COVID-19 pandemic.
Consider the private equity company Cerberus Capital, which in addition to owning several grocery store chains and health facilities also owns FirstKey Homes, which boasts over twenty thousand properties in the United States. For the owners of Cerberus, the pandemic was more of a blessing than a curse. One report explained, “Steve Feinberg, the billionaire co-founder and CEO of private equity giant Cerberus Capital, has seen his wealth increase $276 million since March 18, from $1.5 billion to $1.776 billion. Cerberus owns a number of companies with frontline essential workers, including Albertsons Companies—a grocery store chain—and Steward Health Care.”4
Exploitation like this makes the rent strike a necessary part of a community’s toolkit. But rent strikes have their risks. Like striking workers, rent strikers may fear reprisals such as increasing rents and eviction. Some cities have passed theoretical rights for tenants, including rent stabilization, building codes, housing codes, and the right for tenants to withhold rent if an apartment or building needs repairs. But as with non-union worksites, these rights have often been difficult to enforce without organization. In fact, the knowledge of such provisions is held more by lawyers and government officials than by tenants who are likely to be low-income, have limited English proficiency, work multiple jobs, juggle childcare, and do not have the time or financial resources to take on building owners and their attorneys.
To address this, many residents have joined together to assert their rights as renters, offering members a range of supports. The Crown Heights Tenant Union (CHTU), consisting of tenants residing in a number of buildings in Brooklyn, New York, joined together to negotiate with the corporate landlords that would allow them to more easily exercise their housing rights and have a process to raise and address grievances.5 They have formed locals similar to unions, in this case organized by building complex. And to get corporate landlords to negotiate, they are prepared to withhold their participation in the economic relationship through a rent strike.
Deloris Wright, a CHTU member, talks about why the organization has been important for her:
With the Tenants Union we have been able to negotiate with landlords and building owners. We form committees of people to join our neighbors in housing court when they are summoned so they don’t have to navigate the system by themselves. Some of them have lived in their apartments for over forty years, and that is often who landlords are trying to remove.6
The ultimate goal of the tenants’ union organizers is not only to sign collective bargaining agreements but also to use such agreements in the fight against neighborhood gentrification, displacement and other attacks on affordable housing. The CHTU is seeking to get building owners to agree that in the case where they offer buyouts to renters to get them to leave their apartments and then increase the rent, the buyout must be worth at least five years’ rent for the tenant’s apartment after renovation at the current market rate.7
This model is alive in other cities, including Boston, where City Life/Vida Urbana, a Boston-area housing organization, says that its goal for renters is to “build strong tenants associations that work together to bargain collectively with corporate landlords and to demand policy change.”8 The Autonomous Tenants Union of Chicago says on social media that it provides members with a “collective bargaining strategy, which include but are not limited to, collective delivery of demand letter, call-in campaigns, caravans, collective protests, and/or collective demonstrations.”9 There is also at least one statewide tenants union in Washington State that not only has won benefits directly from landlords but also has won a number of legislative victories in Seattle, including a just cause ordinance requiring landlords to demonstrate justification before terminating a lease and a right for tenants to organize without fear of retaliation or eviction by the landlord.10 (Unions fight for similar provisions in the employment relationship, pushing employers to provide just cause when attempting to terminate an employee.) While the Seattle victory was not a product of collective bargaining, it does highlight the similarities between tenant organizing and workplace organizing and their shared impact on the whole lives of working people.11
Debtors versus big banks. Another group with enormous power to impact the lives of working women and men are the stakeholders of finance capital—the banks, hedge funds, mortgage holders, and creditors that hold our debt. While the system of finance capital is complicated and dynamic, there are still economic relationships to organize and negotiate over. There are many movements demanding that the government tax Wall Street or break up the banks—and these are great fights! But we could also take a bargaining approach, withholding participation in the economic relationship with a bank until a power-sharing agreement is reached.
For example, taxpayers could insist that government refuse to give aid to a bank—say, through a bailout—until the taxpayers themselves are given the ability to elect representatives to sit on the corporate board. Or perhaps a group of homeowners who carry mortgages with a particular bank could collectively renegotiate the loans or interest rates based on changing housing values caused by Wall Street. This is what it might look like to bargain with the ultimate profiteer of our collective debts outside of an employment relationship.
Strategies like these are now being explored by homeowners seeking to negotiate with the banks or hedge funds holding their mortgages and who manipulate the value of their houses. Student debtors have also joined together in various ways to seek to negotiate with the financial institutions holding their loans, including projects like the Debt-Free Future Campaign, the Debt-Free Collective and, borrowing from the labor movement’s most potent powers, Strike Debt. Debtors in general are seeking to come out of isolation and band together to understand and attack the structures that put them in such a precarious situation.12 None of the strategies prescribed here are easy, but they are necessary to ensure debtors are able to equally negotiate standards and practices in finance capital.
Consumers versus corporations. Historically, consumer activists have understood that collective action is a necessary element of democratic politics and a way to combat powerful economic entities. Groups like the National Consumers League provide government, businesses, and other organizations with the consumer’s perspective on concerns including child labor, privacy, food safety, and medication information. We can thank consumer activists from years ago for the labels on food packaging that we take for granted today. They understood the importance of knowing what ingredients were being used in food to ensure healthy products and to hold corporations accountable to a set of standards in food quality. There are countless other examples of consumer actions that have benefited working people in a myriad ways.13
Throughout US history, activists have also sought to employ consumer power to address a wide variety of causes, from the abolition of slavery to unfair labor practices and civil rights. In recent history, improvements in working conditions at some apparel and footwear factories overseas occurred in response to a highly vocal antisweatshop movement that leveraged institutional consumer power. Pressure from groups leveraging the consumer power of the global north, like the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), Global Labor Justice (GLJ), the National Labor Committee in the United States, and the Clean Clothes Campaign in Europe led some factories that make goods for industry giants like Nike and Gap, Inc., to crack down on child labor, the use of dangerous chemicals, and the practice of requiring employees to work eighty-hour weeks in their suppliers throughout the global south.
But how do consumers withhold their participation in the economic relationship? Well-organized boycotts allow consumers to disrupt the economic drivers of their corporate targets to get them to the table. To be effective, a large percentage of consumers must come together to no longer purchase a product/service, including large-scale bulk consumers like hospitals, grocery stores, and other businesses. One of the most successful boycotts in US history was the Delano grape strike and boycott in the 1960s, which resulted in a significant victory for the United Farm Workers, including the signing of the union’s first contract with the growers. Of course, this is not a perfect example because it landed an agreement with workers, not consumers.
The legendary 1955 boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus system by Black riders demanding racial integration is perhaps a sharper example since it won changes specific to the demands of riders. Unions of transit riders around the country continue this tradition today, often working in solidarity with unions of transit workers to prevent the all-too-common tactics that divide workers and riders by pitting demands for fair wages against resistance to fare increases.
However, unless operating within an extremely tight product market (such as the Montgomery bus system), consumer boycotts can be incredibly difficult to pull off. And even when successful, boycotts rarely end up in collective bargaining. But they could. Why shouldn’t consumers participate in negotiations with a company alongside workers and other stakeholders? Imagine transit riders negotiating directly alongside transit workers with similar proposals around wages and fares. Imagine Amazon Prime members negotiating with the company alongside warehouse, tech, and delivery workers around the company’s behavior in their county or state. Imagine what possibilities would open up if consumers began more aggressively negotiating enforceable agreements with corporations.
Do Not Settle for Improved Policies—Help to Govern
Many community organizations and advocacy groups focus almost exclusively on electing people who share their values, passing legislation, and to some degree using the courts and various lobbying practices to enforce those new policies. This is important work. But it uses only a portion of our movement’s power. Why take the rest of that power off the table?
Community-driven bargaining uses the economic relationships of any constituency to exert leverage on the corporate executives who are the direct cause of their grievances. At its best such bargaining can enable working people to play a permanent, direct role in governing the institutions that impact them rather than merely winning occasional concessions or policy improvements.
One model of community-driven bargaining centers on the creation and administration of a trust board that governs a public fund advancing community interests. In this model, representatives from the community, a particular workforce, the government, and the private sector elect representatives to sit on the board. The approach derives from the Community Change Housing Trust Funds, which involves housing advocates and low-income residents in decisions about affordable housing. These funds aggregate streams of public and private revenue for affordable housing, which a board oversees, negotiating over the funds. A board holds regular meetings, often open to the public. Through their representatives on the board, community members thus have decision-making power in determining fund spending.14
The bad business fee, a policy approach conceptualized by Jobs With Justice, National People’s Action (now People’s Action), and SEIU, attempted to consolidate the voices of impacted workers and community members in ongoing negotiations over their economic sustainability.15
The bad business fee targets large high-profit, low-wage employers based on the gap between their current wage levels and what worker and industry standards determine to be sustainable. Based on the cost to taxpayers and the community of public assistance programs, created by the need to essentially subsidize the wages and benefits that are not being provided by these companies, workers set a fee that low-wage employers would then pay. This could also be generated by closing corporate tax subsidies to reextract wealth from the top profiteers of an area, but the latter would not necessarily lead to an enforceable agreement. From the money generated from a fee, a fund would be created specifically for the purposes of supporting the outlined needs of those working for low-wage employers. Unlike revenue from the sister strategy of levying a tax on Wall Street and large corporations, funds from a bad business fee are not allocated to a state’s general budget but rather to a dedicated funding stream for the sole purpose of offsetting the local costs that poverty wages exact on workers and society.
Maybe most important, a democratically elected committee or council of workers—including those who would benefit from the fee as well as those who might implement programs that would be funded by it—is created to oversee the fee. Ideally, this group is democratically elected by workers in related industries, is accountable to them, and has full decision-making authority—although even the establishment of an advisory committee can increase workers’ voice in setting better standards in chronically low-wage sectors. In an ideal scenario this approach would expand workers’ ability to negotiate with employers over their workplace conditions and benefits.
In 2015, Jobs With Justice joined a local coalition of care workers in Connecticut along with childcare and senior-care consumers, including SEIU and Connecticut Citizen Action, to establish the Connecticut Campaign for Worthy Wages. The campaign aimed to encourage policymakers to consider a “McWalmart Fee” that would have redirected the hefty price tag of public-care services to large low-wage corporations that operate in the area. They defined this as companies who employed more than five hundred people in the state of Connecticut, and the fee was calculated for every work hour that anyone was paid less than $15. Many of Connecticut’s largest low-wage employers mirror the national list, with Walmart and McDonald’s right at the top. But other less famous companies would have also been impacted, including Stop and Shop and Cigna.16
It was estimated at the time that low-wage work was costing Connecticut approximately $486 million in public-assistance-related expenses a year. Connecticut care workers had actively fought to fund state programs like Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and improve overall standards.17 But with no consistent revenue stream, they were vulnerable to the state budget’s ebbs and flows, often in competition with other important communities over pennies in the budget process. In 2015 alone, Connecticut governor Dan Malloy implemented midyear budget cuts in childcare, education, and health care, impacting workers from the care sector and many others.
The McWalmart Fee aimed to fix this, generating revenue for the senior-care and childcare services needed by many McDonald’s, Walmart, and other low-wage workers. While the Connecticut fee did not pass, it represented a game-changing fight that exposed the true benefactors of austerity.
Note that a company that wants to avoid paying a bad business fees can do so simply by working with their own employees to improve wages and standards. In fact, one Connecticut-based company demonstrated some leadership by doing just this. The insurance giant Aetna, based in Hartford, announced that it would raise its own starting wage to $16 an hour.18 Aetna also announced that it would reduce out-of-pocket health-care expenses for its lowest-paid employees. The presence of a bad business fee could encourage more companies to make similar choices.
Workers organized at their worksites are not the only ones who have attempted such an approach. In 2016, community leaders who were a part of the Illinois and Indiana Regional Organizing Network (IIRON) in Cook County, Illinois, crafted the Responsible Business Act, which would have allowed a fund similar to what would have been created by Connecticut’s legislation to be spread out over several programs to support housing assistance, unreimbursed health-care costs, and even grants to nonprofits providing direct support to workers in low-wage sectors, such as heating and nutrition assistance. Under this model, people in low-wage jobs would be organized as members of a local community group, and in the process would be given both a powerful voice over how fees would be allocated as well as some resources to better monitor the program which, in itself, builds organization. Despite popular support, they too lost. Legislators prioritized proposals to increase the minimum wage instead, which was still helpful to many area workers.
Caring Across Generations—a national campaign launched by Jobs With Justice and the National Domestic Workers Alliance—employed this strategy in the home health-care sector. In 2016, Caring Across Generations partnered with the Maine People’s Alliance to seek passage of a universal home care ballot measure to establish universal access to home care supports and services for more than ten thousand seniors and Mainers with disabilities. Their proposal would have created a dedicated funding stream, likely through a tax on income from wealthy individuals that was not subject to Medicare and Social Security taxes. Instead of directing existing government agencies to oversee enrollment targets, set standards that employers of care workers must meet, and otherwise oversee implementation, the campaign would have given the decision-making power to a new governing board comprised of stakeholders elected by workers, employers, and the government. Unfortunately, the political Right understood this was a direct threat to their power and used misleading tactics to confuse voters about the costs this would inflict on them via taxes. The measure did not pass.
However, the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) did not let this setback stop them from trying similar approaches elsewhere. They crafted a domestic workers bill of rights that essentially legislates the standards domestic workers would like to see in their worksites, which are people’s individual homes. Like the nineteenth-century washerwomen of Atlanta, these workers have gone to governments in states like New York, Illinois, and California to lay out the ground rules that should govern the industry.
Building on a 2018 victory in Seattle, in which they established the Seattle Domestic Worker Standards Board, domestic workers are now pursuing federal legislation that will include the standards won in states and cities and the creation of a standards board. According to the City of Seattle, “The Domestic Workers Standards Board provides a place for domestic workers, employers, private households, worker organizations, and the public to consider and suggest ways to improve the working conditions of domestic workers. The Board makes these suggestions to the Office of Labor Standards, Mayor, and City Council. Examples may include new laws or programs, and changes to the City’s outreach and enforcement efforts.”19 The proposed standards board could provide a new framework for collective bargaining and demonstrate a path for workers to build and exercise power in a fragmented industry, a game-changer for domestic workers and workers with similar challenges in other sectors.
When they are able to negotiate together with one employer, or some combination of employers, groups like NDWA will likely insist on the same standards. Such was the case in the 2021 agreement the NDWA signed with Handy, an app-based company for domestic cleaners that—perhaps accidentally—amalgamated previously isolated domestic workers into a common platform. “After two years of negotiation, advocates for domestic workers won an agreement that includes $15-an-hour minimum pay, paid time off—paid for by the company (20 days per year for those who work 40 hours a week)—occupational accident insurance, and a formal process to address workplace concerns, with anti-retaliation protections. But most importantly, these conditions are legally enforceable through a private agreement—worker advocates literally wrote protections into a private contract with input directly from domestic workers, something they could not count on politicians to do.”20
In each of the approaches noted, the campaigns positioned working people in direct, decision-making position to hold their employers and other economic actors accountable. If successful, strategies like this would yield on-going authority, beyond a one-time agreement, including the potential to attach enforceable provisions to the funding in the future, such as a minimum wage rate for state-funded care providers. And in the spirit of expanding democracy and shared governance, such boards often institutionalize the practice of opening their proceedings for public input, creating additional opportunities for organizing more people into democratic processes.
Imagine how this approach might be expanded to other forms of community engagement—for example, with local school systems, immigration authorities, and others.
Profile of a Modern Worker: Deloris Wright: “Tell Dem Slavery Done”
Deloris Wright has helped to provide a voice and a measure of power to some of the most unheard, individuals in US society—domestic workers. Through her organizing work, she is making life better not just for herself, her family, and her colleagues but also for people throughout society who need a place to stand from which they too can assert their right to be heard.
Life in Jamaica was very different than it is here, in some good ways and some not so good. As a child I watched my great-aunt fix porridge and breadfruit for passers-by on our street in Jamaica and felt good about sharing with people who had less. That’s what you did. I joined my grandmother in the coffee plantation fields of Jamaica, reading letters to the farmworkers who did not know how to read. They got letters from their wives and their kids and other relatives who were living abroad or in other parts of the country. I would read them, and they would tell me what to write back.
But the economy in Jamaica wasn’t always good. And my little girl was smart. The teachers said she had so much potential. Even though I was working full time as a store clerk, I found myself worried about how I would pay for her schooling if she passed the common entrance exams. If she was going to have a fair chance at getting a good education and be able to provide for herself in the future, we had to leave. And so I came to this country to help her, sending money back—school fees, books, clothes—and preparing the way for her to join me, which she did when she was grown. Here she graduated from college, and she lives in Washington, DC, where she makes her own life.
When I first got to New York in 1987, a friend of mine was returning to Jamaica and asked me to take over her job as a live-in caregiver for a family. I stayed for two years. I was glad to have work, but I was also deeply homesick. It was hard being a live-in domestic worker. I missed my family. I couldn’t get the food I was used to. When I think about my life and my daughter’s life now, it was worth the sacrifices I made in the beginning. Still, it was hard.
I got used to it after that first job, and I started doing live-out work. While I was able to get a position as a domestic worker with employers who treated me with respect, I saw many others who weren’t as blessed as I was. I would meet up with other nannies out in the park, talking about what they were going through. One woman was making less than minimum wage. Some couldn’t afford to buy lunch. And yet their employers wouldn’t let them take so much as a slice of bread from their homes. They could prepare food, but they couldn’t eat it. Some families would throw food away before they let their nanny eat it. One day, I remember three of us sharing one lunch—literally getting three plates and splitting up the food so we could all eat. I could afford lunch, but I didn’t feel right seeing others like me go hungry.
I realized I had to do something. My great-aunt was a domestic back in Jamaica. I remember her washing and ironing the clothes of white people. I thought things were different now. For me to leave that and then see the same thing here in the United States, I knew I could not stay quiet. I heard another nanny say that there was this woman—Ai-jen—walking around the neighborhood with flyers, and I went looking for her. It took a while for me to build up the courage to go to my first Domestic Workers United (DWU) meeting, but once I did I never stopped. I started handing out flyers to the nannies I knew.
I realized that many of the skills I had in Jamaica were also needed here in my new home. I was always good at helping others interpret the world so they could make decisions about what they wanted to do. In addition to reading letters in the coffee fields, I remember as a child helping one of our neighbors who was partially blind. I would make it easier for him to get around on his own. In Brooklyn I saw that most of the flyers were in English, and some of the domestic workers I knew mostly spoke Spanish. So, I arranged to have bilingual signs made up, English on one side and Spanish on the other, which I would show to the Spanish speakers and ask the ones who spoke some English to translate for the others.
We all began to come together more to talk about how we wanted to be treated. We did not want to be invisible anymore, and we wanted the dignity that other people got from their employment. Farmworkers and domestic workers had been excluded from previous labor laws passed during the Jim Crow era in the United States, and we were ready to crack that ceiling. Together we started to assemble the first Domestic Workers Bill of Rights—a package of laws allowing domestic workers a fair wage and access to overtime pay, time off, and the protection of other labor laws.21
Many of us would wrap up work with our employers and then go to the DWU office. And we started to organize trips to Albany, New York, to negotiate with state lawmakers around the bill. We refused to be hidden. We wanted to be recognized as people who did work, and to be treated like everyone else. We are the ones who do what makes all other work possible.
Some legislators were so tired of us showing up. But we did it anyway, to “tell dem slavery done.” That was our slogan. We are humans, and we are tired of some of our employers treating their dogs better than us.
It took us six-and-a-half years, multiple trips to Albany, hounding legislators, and a long hard fight, but we persisted and finally won! Not everything we asked for ended up in the final law, but we won so much. And it really hit me the day we went to see the governor sign the bill. I looked up, and I saw the name on the building was “The Dwyer Cultural Center.” Dwyer was my grandmother’s last name. And when I saw that, I knew she must be proud of me.
After that, some employers began calling us at DWU to ask for guidance. We were telling them how to be compliant with the law, and basically how to treat us like employees for the first time. Sometimes it wasn’t their fault—they just didn’t know. But now the law could spell it out. This was a big improvement, especially for the women who were always scared to negotiate with their employers over their rights and conditions. This changed everything!
By this time I had moved into an apartment in Crown Heights where I still live today. But the neighborhood has been changing. Rent costs were through the roof. One man at my church said his tenant paid six months’ rent at a time, and here many of my neighbors struggled to even get one month’s rent together. It was more crowded, and more white people were moving in. I didn’t mind that at first, but then I realized that some of my neighbors were being manipulated into moving out so that landlords could increase the rent. Landlords would give them cash to leave. Many of these people were seniors, and you’re asking them to just up and move to East New York? The new people didn’t have to move to East New York, so why did we have to leave? Naturally, I couldn’t sit by and watch. I knew what could happen if we joined together and asserted our dignity together. I’d already done it before. I knew what was possible.
Yet again, it was a flyer that led me in the right direction. I ran into someone named Joel who was passing out flyers at the Utica subway stop. It was for the first congress of the new Crown Heights Tenant Union. I called three of my neighbors to go with me, and we joined right away. We were organized into locals, and our local included our three buildings. I learned that things were worse than I had imagined. Some people didn’t even know who their landlord was. They would pay rent to an LLC or some other vague company name. With the Tenants Union, we have been able to negotiate with landlords and building owners. We form committees of people to join our neighbors in housing court when they are summoned so they don’t have to navigate the system by themselves. Some of them have lived in their apartments for over forty years, and that is often who landlords are trying to remove. I was a part of a group that helped one of our neighbors understand and respond to a letter they received that threatened eviction. It was just like I used to do in the coffee fields of Jamaica. I know it will take us a while to challenge some of the larger building owners, but it feels good to win these small victories, to be there for each other.
I’ve now been in my apartment for over thirty years. And I’ve been working for the same family for over twenty-one years. I’ve watched both children grow and am now caring for their grandfather. I love being a caretaker. And I can hold my head up high knowing that the people I work for and the people I rent from respect me. This is what democracy is supposed to be. It means that we can all speak and be heard, that there is transparency and a right/wrong way of doing things. Even when I am scared, I do it anyway because we have to keep “telling dem slavery done.”
The Other CBA—Community Benefits Agreements
Community benefits agreements (CBAs) are a family of approaches that came into play within the last twenty years and soon became a key tool in the arsenal of working people, led in large part by the Partnerships for Working Families network (now PowerSwitch Action). CBAs are agreements between a developer or other company, a coalition of community partners, and most often a government agency to address the needs of those living in an area that has experienced or could soon experience new large-scale development of nearby land and facilities. Developing any property requires licenses, investments, and other permissions, and working people can leverage this process to ensure that the project does not harm their economic well-being.
The original impetus for these agreements was the gentrification and corresponding displacement of low-income residents that surfaced when cities that had been losing population and wealth for decades began to revitalize their image in the 1990s, often with the help of large-scale public investments in development projects.22 The problem was that when private companies invested in urban areas, particularly poor areas and areas with significant populations of Black and Brown families, the costs of rent and housing increased. Rather than benefiting the existing population, who were often displaced instead, this kind of urban development benefited large property owners who often did not live in the community, real estate speculators, and later people with higher incomes who moved into the new housing. Thus, it was necessary for neighborhood organizations and worker advocates to convince elected leaders that simply supporting private urban development alone was not enough to help their communities.
The community-defined benefits covered in a CBA can be as broad or as narrow as the negotiators are able to agree on. From the perspective of the people who are or would be working in and around the development project, agreements might include a promise to hire some percentage of local residents, payment of prevailing and living wages, local sourcing for products and supplies, employer neutrality regarding union organizing drives, and targeted hiring to ensure that jobs go to the underemployed communities that need them.
Additionally, specific benefits are often defined in direct relationship to the neighborhoods surrounding the project. In Milwaukee, for example, community leaders sought requirements for developers to provide affordable housing to ensure that existing residents did not become priced out of their neighborhood by the development.23 The Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition worked with others in New York to negotiate an agreement with the developers of the Kingsbridge Armory to guarantee funding for community organizations who would essentially monitor the long-term effect of the development on the neighborhood and campaign for improvements and adjustments as needed.24 Other groups have included in their CBAs environmental justice initiatives, requirements that developers build recreational facilities such as parks and playgrounds that benefit the community, and funding for job-training programs for local residents.25
Unions also engage in negotiations over community benefits in various ways. First, unions are often part of the coalition negotiating a community benefits agreement. Unions played a key role in guaranteeing one of the original agreements that was negotiated with the developer of the Staples Center project in Los Angeles, winning provisions that, in addition to community goals, made it easier for workers to form unions.26 Unions often add more power to enforce the agreements along with community partners, having the institutional capacity to monitor a CBAs implementation.27 Unions have also included negotiations for CBAs as part of their collective bargaining agreements with employers alongside traditional collective bargaining agreements.
For instance, the California High-Speed Rail Authority signed a CBA that required 30 percent of the work on the project be performed by people from economically depressed areas along with a requirement that 10 percent of the work be performed by someone who is disadvantaged because he or she is a veteran, is homeless, is a custodial single parent, has a criminal record, or meets other criteria. The contract provides that although the project will normally hire workers through union hiring halls, if the union is unable to produce workers meeting the disadvantaged worker hiring standards, the contractors can hire such workers from any source.28 Such agreements may also incentivize less-diverse unions to ensure their memberships are inclusive of Black and Brown communities.
The Workers Defense Project (WDP) in Austin, Texas, supports individuals across several sectors in organizing for better wages, standards, and conditions using a community-led bargaining approach. WDP successfully got the city to establish economic development incentives based on worker safety and health—a critical concern of the many immigrant workers in the construction industry.
In 2012, Austin withheld permits for several large building projects until companies signed Better Builders agreements developed by community leaders at WDP.29 These agreements specified terms and conditions for each worksite and empowered WDP monitors to enforce the agreements via safety walk-throughs. For example, Apple and WDP negotiated an agreement covering Apple’s $300 million building project in North Austin. The agreement required a minimum wage of $12 an hour and specified that all workers on site must be certified with basic OSHA-10 safety training, provided with all necessary personal protective equipment free of charge, and covered by workers’ compensation.
Trammel Crow Green Water Master Developer, LLC, also signed a Better Builder agreement, pledging to comply with prevailing wage and OSHA requirements and all applicable state and federal laws relating to construction and to work with the WDP on enforcement of these standards.
The City of Austin’s use of its zoning power and development incentives in support of WDP’s Better Builders Program is what made the Apple and Trammel Crow agreements feasible. The requirement that developers hire third-party monitors creates an opportunity for WDP to build organization from its enforcement work.30
While community benefits agreements have traditionally been negotiated with developers or companies that are moving into an area, there is no reason they need to be so limited. CBAs could be negotiated with any entity that affects the community, such as existing retailers, banks, any other type of company, or the government. Since these entities rely on the community for some portion of their power and wealth, the community could act on that economic relationship to bring them to the bargaining table. Again, imagine Amazon Prime members in a particular community attempting to win a CBA with Amazon to provide free same-day delivery in their neighborhood that has been denied this service to date, all without negatively impacting Amazon workers.
Additionally, these agreements could be made even more effective if combined with some form of long-term oversight led by community leaders. It is not enough for the initial agreement to be legally enforceable. It must also provide the community bargaining unit with ongoing governing capabilities and the opportunity to renegotiate and adjust based on changing conditions.
As with all strategies, working people should be wary of the ways in which companies will try to use these frameworks to limit the participation of impacted communities. Partnership for Working Families has identified problematic or even sham community benefits agreements. In one example, developers hand-picked the community organizations with which they negotiated the agreement rather than letting people who were actually impacted choose their own representatives. In another, the developers only signed a sort of gentleman’s agreement that did not include enforceable commitments.31 Such problematic agreements were then used as public relations devices to convince elected officials, the media, the community in which the development was sited, and the general public that the developer had community support and was a responsible business. The point is that the negotiations must include authentic stakeholders from both sides in order to effectively expand economic democracy for working people in their role as community members.
Community Pathways to Workplace Bargaining
The following examples are not necessarily acts of expanded bargaining in their own right but rather important potential on-ramps in that direction.
Coenforcement. As we know, laws—while theoretically enforceable—are often easily overturned, repealed, watered down, or blatantly ignored. And while labor and employment laws on the books may technically grant working people more protection, those who have a union worksite are in the best position to maintain standards. Therefore, organization is key to enforcement, to holding employers and other economic stakeholders accountable, and to keeping working people’s concerns and voices heard long after the political climate shifts.
In a union worksite, this problem is solved through a grievance process. Worker leaders collaborate with union representatives to file complaints directly with their employer. But when a union is not present, as in most worksites, a different infrastructure must be in place as a bare minimum enforcement mechanism for the standards imposed by a new law. One such structure is coenforcement.
Coenforcement is an approach in which worker organizations broaden the scope of bargaining by negotiating with government or private actors to play a formal role in enforcing labor and employment laws. Through coenforcement, working people have a forum for building collective power via community-based organizations. The model arose because companies can engage in massive violations of the laws protecting working people and get away with it because government officials at the federal, state, and local levels do not have the resources to force compliance.32 And the courts are often inaccessible to working people, who may not have the money or the time to get caught up in a legal process.33 Worse, many modern workers are tricked into signing nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) when they first get a job, making it illegal for them to take legal action if something goes wrong.34 This crisis is even worse for people of color, women, gender non-conforming workers, young people, and immigrants, who may be less likely to come forward for a variety of reasons, including justified concerns about their safety.35
Government officials have always informally relied on individual workers to flag problematic employers by filing complaints against them, a daunting task. In response to widespread corporate lawlessness and as a method of building collective power, worker organizations have sought a greater role in the enforcement of workplace standards—or to create them where sufficient statutory standards do not exist. In using this strategy, they can target the worst actors and not simply depend on disparate complaints to come in.
Janice Fine, one of the leading experts on coenforcement, documented how the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) was able to negotiate an enforceable set of standards for tomato farmworkers even though these workers are excluded from the protections of both the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act.36 CIW publicized the fact that growers who sold their tomatoes to top restaurant chains such as Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and Burger King were abusing their farmworkers with brutal hours, extremely low pay, and even slave labor. Through a corporate campaign and consumer boycott of Taco Bell and related restaurants owned by Yum Foods, CIW was able to win an agreement creating the very type of enforceable standards that did not exist in federal law, such as wage and hour protections.37 The agreement also gave CIW the power to investigate growers, and those found to be out of compliance could no longer sell to Yum Foods.
CIW faced a backlash from Burger King and from the tomato-growing industry, which threatened to fine growers who cooperated with CIW.38 But the collective power CIW built was strong enough that it eventually forced Burger King to enter into the agreement as well, taking away the leverage the tomato-grower group had to threaten fines.39 Today, CIW continues to enforce the agreement as well as work to expand justice for farmworkers with campaigns involving Publix Super Markets, Wendy’s, and other large produce buyers.
Another example of coenforcement involves more formal cooperation between government regulators and worker advocates. In both San Francisco and Seattle, municipal agencies that enforce labor standards have allocated resources to worker organizations to help them enforce labor laws. San Francisco was the first to launch an Office of Labor Standards and Enforcement; Seattle then followed suit. After advocacy by worker organizations, the Seattle Office of Labor Standards awarded more than $3 million in grants to worker, community, and civil rights organizations and partnerships to help enforce the statutes for which the agency is responsible, including Seattle’s minimum wage law, paid sick leave, scheduling ordinances, and other laws. The organizations focused their advocacy on communities that are unlikely to complain to government officials, including people of color, immigrants, and returning citizens. The organizations agreed to do door-to-door outreach, host trainings for working people and other organizations, collect complaints, participate in complaint resolution, and make referrals in cases of unresolvable alleged labor-law violations.40
In 2014, Jobs With Justice San Francisco led a successful campaign to have the city enact one of the first set of laws in the nation ensuring more predictable and fair workplace schedules for nearly forty thousand people who work in formula retail and restaurants in the city. The campaign ignited several similar municipal and state efforts, including the recent fair workweek win in Oregon.41
Those who have a union worksite are in the best position to maintain standards won by the San Francisco legislation. For instance, the victory helped employees at Macy’s get back to the table with the company to renegotiate a better contract given the new leverage gained from the policy. But beyond these individuals, the coalition had to navigate how to maximize the policy’s implementation to create new channels for organizing.
Luckily, the Office of Labor Standards and Enforcement, the San Francisco agency charged with enforcing the scheduling statutes, values coenforcement practices. This agency granted $250,000 to local worker-led organizations to organize the people affected by the San Francisco ordinance so to increase compliance with the law and make sure that workers’ rights are respected. Doing so allows retail workers who pushed for the law to now monitor implementation store-by-store, legitimized by the local government, setting them up to organize and talk to others in those same stores—ultimately outlining shared interests and goals among not just those working at large formula retailers but also those employed by all retail workers in the city (around 100,000) that could lead to a more collective engagement of the retail industry in San Francisco.42
Ultimately, coenforcement allows community-based organizations to directly organize working people through outreach and education grants, allowing them to understand the problems that working people face. This allows workers themselves to have a better understanding of issues in need of reform and the best allocation of government enforcement resources. And in some instances, the outreach can improve the landscape for more formal organization building.
Procurement strategies. When state, local, and federal governments ask the private sector to bid on projects, they have the right to require contractors to meet a set of socially responsible goals in addition to providing the service or constructing the project requested. Procurement-based strategies center on the premise that it is a fundamental requirement of democratic governance that communities, workers’ rights groups, and unions—rather than the richest corporations—should be the ones in control of how government spends the money entrusted to it.
There is a long history of using government procurement to lift economic standards, beginning with prevailing wage laws that were passed in several states in the nineteenth century and culminating on the federal level with worker advocates pushing Congress to enact the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931, which required contractors and subcontractors on public works projects that received federal funds to pay the people who worked on the project the local prevailing wage. One purpose of these laws was to ensure that government funds were not given to companies whose business models relied on undercutting competitors by paying low wages to their workers or otherwise skirting the law.
Government procurement later moved beyond ensuring economic justice and into the realm of social justice when labor and civil rights leaders, such as Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters’ founder A. Philip Randolph, pushed President Franklin Roosevelt to ban companies that discriminated based on race from receiving defense contracts. Randolph threatened a march on Washington to pressure the government at a time when the United States was increasingly under pressure in World War II, calling off the march only when Roosevelt signed an agreement to ban discrimination by defense contractors.43
Today, procurement-based campaigning is a keystone approach whenever public assistance—whether in the form of direct payment, tax abatements, zoning variances, or other assistance—is used on a corporate project. These strategies are employed when significant public resources are used to fund major building projects like stadiums, highways, expanded transit systems, and large corporate headquarters.
The procurement process often provides the leverage needed to make many of the other bargaining strategies described in this book work.
Jobs to Move America (JMA) is an organization that has sharpened procurement strategies within transit manufacturing. Cities spend more than $5 billion a year on buses and train cars. Much of this money currently either goes to overseas manufacturers or to manufacturers that create temporary jobs for specific projects. The JMA model of “inclusive public procurement” calls on local and state governments to leverage their transit procurement money to help communities that are underserved by public transit by building clean, nonpolluting, and efficient public transportation options while at the same time creating good permanent jobs for these same communities. The model calls on procurement agencies to require bidders on transit projects to include the US Employment Plan (USEP) as a mandatory part of their bids.44 In accepting the USEP, the bidders agree to project the number of local jobs they will create as a result of being awarded the contract, the projected salaries of those jobs, and the outreach they will do to ensure that disadvantaged groups obtain a percentage of the jobs. The request for proposals in such a case will explicitly say that the procurement agency is less interested in the lowest bid than in evaluating the entire project, with special emphasis on the USEP submitted by bidders. The request for proposals also specifies that the winning bidder will be subject to oversight to enforce the promises made in the USEP.
The JMA theory is that winning bidders will do more than simply fill out forms predicting employment; they will act by working with unions, seeking out community leaders and organizations to recruit disadvantaged workers, negotiating a community benefits agreement, and allowing related workers and community organizations to audit them to ensure compliance with the USEP the bidder submitted.
JMA does not suggest that procurement agencies directly include these additional issues in its request for proposals. That is because federal law—which applies to almost all public transportation projects because such projects invariably receive federal funding via the US Department of Transportation—requires state and local agencies not to add restrictions that limit competition between bidders.45 Therefore, state and local government cannot add requirements such as local hiring or creation of a certain number of local jobs or negotiation of a community benefits agreement as a prerequisite to bidding on a contract. Nonetheless, proposals that include such provisions can be deemed more attractive.
The Department of Transportation under President Obama interpreted the open-competition requirement to allow state and local procurement authorities to require that bidders submit a USEP, since that requirement itself does not shut out any bidders. However, the Department of Transportation did not reaffirm this position under Donald Trump.
The JMA strategy was successfully used in both Chicago and Los Angeles, leading to the creation of family-supporting jobs in transit manufacturing for those communities. At a time when other government funding may be shrinking, both parties have infrastructure spending programs, so it is possible that additional transit funding will come from the federal government, giving additional options to put the JMA strategy into effect.
However, even when generously interpreted, federal regulations do not allow state and local procurement authorities to disqualify bids from bad employers solely based on a contractor’s USEP submission. Therefore, even if a low-road employer were to submit a USEP that clearly notes how the contractor is not emphasizing fair wages, local hiring, or any of the other worker and community benefits they are required to speak to in their bids, the state and local procurement authorities would not be able to deny them the contract based on this alone. If more emphasis is given to the cheapest bidder, for example, then a bad employer could still be awarded a contract.
Similar limitations persist outside of transit manufacturing. One of the more notorious cases of a government contractor acting badly and still winning federal contracts is Avondale Shipyards in New Orleans in the early 1990s. Avondale both received federal contracts and billed taxpayers to fund its antiunion campaign when workers sought to form a union, committing hundreds of unfair labor practices in the process. So, while the NLRB was prosecuting the company, Avondale was still billing the government for its own legal services to support its battle against the workers.46 Some of that changed under the Obama administration, as laws previously proposed under the Clinton administration but stymied under the Bush administration were finally put into place.
Some efforts to reform federal acquisitions regulation have attempted to change low-bid contracting both before and after contractors get beyond the initial litmus test of being “responsible.” These include awarding points to contractors who model other behaviors deemed positive for taxpayers, such as giving credit for having good employment practices across its existing workforce.47 But these rules remain vulnerable to the seesaw of politics—enforceable and even erasable based on who is in federal office.
In summary, procurement strategies enable working people, through their unions or community-based organizations, to have a seat at the table with both government and government contractors. The contract between the government and the contractor is enforceable by the government, though it is not enforceable by anyone else unless stipulated. Thus, a successful procurement-based strategy that seeks to include working people in a position to enforce the agreements they win would have to include writing in worker-led enforcement mechanisms and oversight into the procurement contract. Such an approach could create conditions through which workers can build collective power, provide a pathway to organization and collective bargaining, and ensure long-term benefits to others in the community through such programs as providing incentives for local hiring.48
Applying Collective Bargaining Outside of an Economic Relationship
Collective bargaining can be applied to many different contexts outside the economy. In 2017, Rhode Island Jobs With Justice successfully passed a Community Safety Act modeled after similar legislation passed in New York four years before, aiming to end policing practices that discriminated against Black and Brown youth.
Inspired by the victory, Central Indiana Jobs With Justice began to experiment with the idea of a community safety agreement, an enforceable agreement negotiated directly between a specific community of young people, their tax-paying parents, and the local police. A joint board would have then allowed all parties to enforce the agreement together. Police are often opposed to this kind of coenforcement for a variety of reasons, not the least of which includes their own systemic bias against communities of color. While the effort to create such a community safety agreement has yet to succeed, the idea illustrates how applying a bargaining framework can be a powerful tool in a community relationship not directly based in economic interests. Current debates about reforming the police while shifting funding from violent law enforcement capacities to human needs such as health care, education, and mental health treatment offer a powerful opportunity to apply the collective bargaining model to community issues.
Like the strategies noted in other chapters, these community-driven bargaining efforts model how working people are coming together to govern themselves in all aspects of their economic lives. Whether or not they are protected by twentieth-century laws, they are defining their own bargaining units from the perspective of what they seek to govern over. They are clear about the need to collectively negotiate in their worksites—including those sites that are less formal, such as those of domestic workers—as well as in collaboration with others who share an economic identity with them beyond work. And in so doing, they are fighting to expand systems of economic democracy—maximizing the decision-making power of the majority in all arenas.