Historically, public-sector unions have focused their attention almost entirely on negotiating for higher wages and better benefits. These days, though, many are showing up at the bargaining table to fight not just for themselves but also for the people they serve -- like students, foster children and taxpayers.

“Unions in past decades were largely in the habit of servicing their members,” says Dan McGrath, executive director of TakeAction Minnesota, a progressive advocacy group. “Now they’re asking themselves to be at the edge of social change.”  

Many cite the 2012 strike by the Chicago Teachers Union as a seminal moment in what's called bargaining for the common good. That’s when the union began to use its power to push progress beyond pay and benefits. By 2015, the union’s new contract included several requirements to help students, such as access to medical or mental health services and the expansion of after-school programs.

The trend is growing at a time when unions are shrinking. Between 2000 and 2016, public-sector union membership dropped about 8 percent, to 34.4 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That decline is expected to worsen, especially if the U.S. Supreme Court rules this year that unions can’t force workers who are represented by them to pay dues. 

Some see bargaining for the common good as an incentive for conscientious employees to be members and pay dues. 

Barry Bluestone, an expert in labor unions and co-author of the book Negotiating the Future, says unions “are seen as quite selfish, and they have lost the backing of the people. Bargaining for the common good is a way for the unions to protect themselves from a decline in their membership.” 

Since 2012, other school systems, like St. Paul and Seattle, have followed Chicago’s lead.

“It was the teachers who first grabbed onto the idea of bargaining for the common good,” says Joseph A. McCartin, executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. “And when it was demonstrated as helpful, it spread out through the public sector.”   

In Oakland, Calif., for instance, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) launched a successful fight in 2012 to cut down on predatory banking practices that run the risk of costing cities -- and ultimately taxpayers -- lots of money.  

In Massachusetts, another local SEIU chapter was a major force behind changes to the child protection system after a 5 year old -- whose family was under state supervision -- was killed at home. The case wasn’t solved, but the story “was in the papers every day as the lead story,” says Peter MacKinnon, president of the SEIU Local 509.

According to MacKinnon, bringing a child under the auspices of child protection can at times do more harm than good. At the same time, large caseloads can make it difficult for workers to pay sufficient attention to children in need of the most monitoring. The state has since changed its intake process to make sure only the appropriate group of children enters the system. Now, there’s a rigorous screening process after it’s reported that a child may be in need of help -- but before he or she is brought into the system. 

Of course, the child protection workers themselves also benefit from these changes because they result in fewer caseloads. 

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