When Community and Labor Join Forces


Parent, Student and Teacher Partnerships that Yield Systemic Change

Written by Sean Thomas-Breitfeld

On March 31st, I sat down for a fast-paced webinar with two veteran organizers, and I knew our conversation couldn’t come at a more crucial time. With labor regulations under attack at the national level and community groups increasingly under-resourced, people’s movements face new challenges to building power and winning.

With these challenges in mind, I was eager to moderate a recent webinar as part of the Schott Foundation’s 25th Anniversary Webinar Series featuring Karen Lewis, President of the Chicago Teachers Union and Katelyn Johnson, Executive Director of Action Now, as well as Dr. John H. Jackson, President of the Schott Foundation for Public Education. The series features critical conversation about grassroots efforts for public education and the advocacy necessary to create healthy living and learning communities for every child.

The webinar focused on the work in Chicago that led up to the 2012 Chicago teacher’s strike. One of the many insightful picket signs from that action read, “Together We Bargain: Divided We Beg.” The slogan captured a new spirit of community and labor partnerships that mobilize collective community bargaining for local change, beyond teacher salary and school day hours. The success of the Chicago strike inspired organized labor across the country to forge new alliances and build community power.

One of the key lessons that emerged during the webinar was the need to grow relationships and trust between labor and community groups, long before any successful action. As Karen Lewis put it, “2012 started in 2008.” Since then, parents, students and educators are discovering the power they have when they build a common vision and work together to make it a reality. It begins by listening to each other and learning about what each group wants for their schools and communities. According to Katelyn Johnson, “Organizing and building relationships start with just having a conversation. That’s how you build trust.”

We also discussed how the collective bargaining process can be used to highlight and advance community concerns beyond the typical wage and working condition negotiations. According to Katelyn Johnson, “More unions are beginning to see that bargaining for the common good is something that is going to lift all boats.” Faced with the harmful growth of free-market “fixes,” parents and teachers have an opportunity to join together and change the narrative about public schools, organizing to create opportunities for all students to learn and grow.

Early education funding, community schools, changing zero tolerance policies, and even banking foreclosure reform are among the issues community and labor groups are uniting around and scoring big wins. The Building Movement Project is working with the Schott Foundation to document effective collaborations and strategies used by teachers unions and education justice groups led by parents, students and community members to achieve substantive outcomes for students and communities. We will be releasing case studies and tools in the coming months that will highlight the opportunities that exist when labor and community join together to fight for the education that all our children deserve.

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