As we wrestle with the struggles our teachers and students are facing, we have begun to recognize that the life conditions of our children have a significant impact on how they act within a classroom. Teachers are more cognizant of that, but still find it difficult to teach students who are experiencing trauma or adversity in their lives. Issues like homelessness, food deprivation, lack of sleep, violence, abuse, parental neglect, poor transportation, and other life deficits have made education difficult and challenging to manage in our classrooms.
It’s common that union contracts for teachers include salary increases, benefits improvements, and specific job benefits. However, in the past decade there is a trend for teachers to include other components to their union contracts that would enhance the living conditions of their students to reduce the conflict and stress within the classroom. This is called common good bargaining.
Such was the example in Oakland, California. Teachers went on strike on May 4, 2023, just three weeks before the last day of the academic calendar. The strike lasted seven school days. In negotiations, teachers not only fought for higher salaries and a better schedule, but for a set of what they called “common good” demands — like ensuring that all unhoused families in the district are expedited for Section 8 housing vouchers and implementing a task force on reparations. The strike had what appeared to be fairly widespread support based on turnout at school sites, though many caregivers and community members expressed confusion about the broader demands on climate and housing.
These demands are part of a broader movement among unions to bargain for the common good by including provisions in teachers’ contract demands that don’t just affect them directly, but also the quality of life for their students and the city. The movement for “common good bargaining” in the educational context was born during the Chicago teacher strike of 2012 and has been gaining steam ever since. Other industries are increasingly making common good demands too.
Schools now have become a hub for dealing with the social needs of students. With the current state of so many students dealing with mental health and related concerns, teachers are confronted each day with the consequences of these issues. It may feel like teachers are out of their lane in making such demands, but the reality is that we have significant problems in schools that will not be overcome unless we help change the life conditions of our children.
It may not be fair for teachers to go on strike for students who are not struggling but this is a way to draw attention to some of our social problems that are permeating our communities. School board members, city councils, community leaders and others must consider how we will be dealing with these difficult issues if we are going to improve education, mental health care and community conditions within our society. It is for the common good that we need to address these issues. I know many of our teachers want to see the needs of their students met so they can focus on teaching students who have the capacity to learn.