Rolling out socialist rank and file work: a case study from NYC-DSA

NYC-DSA Labor Branch
10 min readJul 31, 2019
Photo by Katie Sharing

This report was written by Tyler Curtis, Zyad Hammad and Marsha Niemeijer of the NYC-DSA Labor Branch; Niemeijer also serves as an elected member of the Democratic Socialist Labor Commission.

It was approved unanimously by the branch’s organizing committee.

This document tracks the NYC-DSA Labor Branch’s roll-out of our local Rank & File Resolution (Resolution 33) from June 2018 to June 2019. We hope it will serve as an example for other chapters that want to take on a socialist strategy in the labor movement.

We chose our priorities in the New York context; naturally, other chapters will determine their own strategic industries depending on their local political and labor landscapes. Our model is still new, but we hope this guide can give you a solid foundation for getting started. If you have any questions, feel free to email the NYC-DSA Labor Branch, and we’re happy to chat over the phone or Skype about getting the rank-and-file strategy off the ground in your chapter:

Resolution 33 specifically proposed the tactic of taking rank and file jobs. The NYC-DSA Labor Branch has done a number of other tasks we see as critical to building a militant rank and file lead labor movement including, organizing strike support, building a movement around the right of public sector workers to strike, helping workers organize new bargaining units, supporting Labor For Bernie, etc. This report however focuses on our work specifically around Resolution 33.


I — Developing Priorities/Target Industries
-The Criteria
-The Process
-NYC’s Strategic Industries

II — Outreach, Recruitment, Trainings & Education
-Public Events
-Presenting at Geographical Branches and WG meetings
-Media: Newsletters, Democratic Left, Maria’s email blast

III — Developing Job Applicants
-One-on-one Follow-ups
-House Meetings
-Job Applications

IV — Support for the Ongoing Work
V — Regular Assessment

NOTE: This project is by its nature a multi-year project. In this first year our major focus was on laying the groundwork for the longer plan. In the long run, section IV, Support for the Ongoing Work, is the most critical section of the Rank-and-File Strategy, and in future years the bulk of our work will be there. In this first year, of our target industries only teachers had a critical mass to really begin their strategic organizing. While that section is brief in this report, we believe that by year 2 or 3 the bulk of this report would be on section IV.

I — Developing Priorities/Target Industries

The Criteria
Take the time for members to deliberate and develop a set of criteria to use when picking a relatively short list of targeted industries. Target industries are important as we recruit DSA members to take jobs in these sectors. This does not imply that workers in these sectors deserve a union or justice in the workplace any more or less than any other workers.

Rather it is a way to focus our efforts on places where we can most effectively fight on behalf of the whole working class. By limiting target industries to just a few, we can help ensure that DSA members will have other DSA members with them as support, and we will be able to develop a critical mass of activists in each target industry.

Criteria establish a framework with which your chapter can critically assess the local labor landscape and allow you to choose your industries with intention. The criteria the NYC-DSA chapter adopted at its 2019 Convention are:

Economic leverage — The capacity for organized workers to shut down the industry and the size of the impact a shutdown of this industry would have on other industries.
Socio-political leverage — The extent to which the public supports the workers in this industry and sees their struggle as connected to larger political issues. The extent to which social reproduction depends on the work of the industry.
Union internal/external political status — The degree to which DSA members will be able to have an impact on the union. The union’s ability and willingness to engage in external political battles.
Demographics — The racial, gender, and socioeconomic composition of workers in the industry that may not be duly represented in DSA’s current membership, and which may present an opportunity for the empowerment of marginalized groups in the workforce.
Barriers to entry — The effort required to gain employment in an industry, and the availability of jobs.
DSA member density — The quantity of DSA members already employed in the industry, and how active such members are in organizing within their industry.
Working conditions — The ability for DSA members to work and organize within the industry over an extended period of time, or to be inspired to learn a new, compelling craft.

It should be stressed that just because your chapter determines strategic criteria and focus industries, it does not mean that other labor struggles happening in your town, city, or region are to be ignored. Pursuing a focused strategy among several key sectors does not in any way preclude your local from supporting comrades organizing new shops, providing strike solidarity, or supporting comrades engaged in rank-and-file struggles in shops outside of your target industries. Developing your program around several key industries does, however, allow for maximum power-building for your chapter.

The Process
First, determine your criteria, as per the section above. Then choose how many industries your chapter can realistically prioritize, and don’t be over-ambitious. The NYC-DSA Labor Branch ultimately settled on six industries, detailed in the next section. You’ll want to apply the criteria to multiple potential target industries. Facilitate a space for proposals and debate, and take the time to appraise each proposed industry.

The NYC-DSA Labor Branch took several months to determine our priority industries. Once we selected criteria, we opened the process up to industry proposals from members, asking them to apply the criteria in their proposals’ analyses of the industries. We then disseminated the proposals and dedicated significant meeting time to debating each industry.

Finally, we put it to the membership to vote on which of the proposed industries to prioritize. There is no correct formula; some industries and their unions will be more amenable to a local rank-and-file strategy in some ways than in others. No industry will check all the boxes exactly.

NYC’s Strategic Industries
The target industries and their unions that the NYC-DSA Labor Branch adopted are:

Public Schools/United Federation of Teachers
Nursing/New York State Nurses Association
Logistics, UPS/International Brotherhood of Teamsters
Transit Workers, MTA/Transport Workers Union Local 100
Building Trades/District Council of Carpenters
NYC Public Sector Agencies, DC 37 AFSCME

II — Outreach, Recruitment, Trainings & Education

Public Events
In addition to meetings and trainings, we have hosted quarterly public events such as panels and forums to educate members and others about the politics behind the rank-and-file strategy and to highlight inspirational stories of its application from the past and present. The Labor Branch held or participated in the following events:

*Labor Notes Troublemakers School (September 2018) (recruited members and co-workers to a large Labor Notes event and some DSAers helped organize it or were presenters)
*Labor 101, or Why Socialists Should Care About the Labor Movement (December 2018)
*What Is the Rank-and-File Strategy? (March 2019)
*Socialist Job Fair, with DSA members or other workers from each focus industry tabling and providing critical analysis of their industries in one-on-ones and offering advice to potential job applicants (June 2019)

At the outset of our process, we began dedicating every other one of our monthly meetings to trainings inspired by the Labor Notes ‘Secrets of a Successful Organizer’ series. Each training is two hours long. Determining a full list of trainings for the next year as soon as possible allowed our branch to advertise early and create excitement around them.

The target audience was NYC-DSA members interested in or already engaged in the rank-and-file strategy as well as non-DSA members recruited from workplace struggles who might be interested in DSA. These trainings would be broadly useful to anyone interested in workplace organizing including those wanting to organize a new union at their job, such as members of NYC-DSA’s Service Workers or Tech Workers Working Groups.

We recruited Labor Notes staff and activists to help organize and facilitate these trainings. Where possible we asked Labor Notes to “train the trainers” among DSA members, so that moving forward we can organize these sessions in-house.

Trainings our local offered over the past year include the foundational “Beating Apathy,” which helps members learn to activate fellow rank-and-file workers through “organizing conversations”; “Assembling a Dream Team,” which teaches members to identify and develop leaders; and “Turning an Issue Into a Campaign.”

Presenting at Geographical Branch and Working Group Meetings
We developed a one-hour program to “take on the road” to other branches and working group meetings within our big DSA local. With the branch or working group’s permission, we hosted a section of their meeting where we would both educate attendees on the politics behind the rank-and-file strategy and highlight the work of DSAers pursuing it.

We passed around sign-up sheets to identify DSA members interested in taking rank-and-file jobs, stayed afterwards to speak with interested parties, and followed up accordingly. Here is a handy framework used by the 2018–2019 NYC-DSA Labor Branch organizing committee to plan these “on the road” presentations.

Media: Newsletters, Democratic Left, National and Citywide Email Blasts
We reached out to our media working group and chapter leadership to have our work around the rank-and-file strategy publicized in our local’s various media (social media, the website, working group branch newsletters, etc.) at about every step of the way. We continue to advertise our work, solicit participation, and encourage discussion via these means.

III — Developing Job Applicants

Intake Forms
At each branch event we pass around sign-up sheets for those interested in our jobs program and create a list of interested people to follow up. Throughout our various events and branch meeting presentations we identified nearly 300 DSA members interested in the idea of taking a rank and file job.

One-On-One Follow-Up
Everyone who signs up should be followed up within a week to set up an in-person one-on-one (or small group meeting if we are getting a lot of sign-ups). These should accomplish the following goals: 1) find out what makes the person interested in building rank-and-file power, 2) have a political discussion of the rank-and-file strategy, 3) find out the person’s work history and start to think through which industries they should be thinking about, and 4) leave them with a copy of Kim Moody’s paper on the rank-and-file strategy (or a link to a digital version).

House Meetings Follow-Up
We also held a series of house meetings throughout the year, during which multiple interested comrades (4 to 6 at a time) were able to have informal discussions with Labor Branch members about the program, their interests, and how they might proceed.

Job Applications
We have Labor Branch members from each of our target industries ready to assist members with their job applications, or, in some cases, such as with teaching and nursing, their credentialing process. We track applicants who have applied, or are soon applying, and follow up accordingly. We have had over 40 members apply to jobs in target industries or enter programs to obtain prerequisites for employment. Of those roughly a dozen have already been hired.

IV — Support for the Ongoing Work

Activist Networks
We connect newly hired activists to other DSAers in their industry. If there are no other DSAers in that industry already, we connect them to DSAers in other industries doing similar work, and are prepared to connect them with new hires down the line.

Where a critical mass exists in a target industry, members of the branch organizing committee have helped to identify leaders among the DSAers there. We then work with those leaders to cohere groups of DSA members in the industry and aid them in developing a strategy for their work. The OC keeps in communication with those groups to find out what other support they could use from the branch.

Branch Meetings
The regular Labor Notes-style trainings every other month build useful skills for new and seasoned organizers alike.

We have also had sections of our regular meetings dedicated to discussing strategy in target industries. Activists from the target industry have presented on the situations they face and the branch members discuss strategies and tactics with them.

Breakout Groups
We encourage rank-and-file activists to organize breakout groups for their specific industry, held before monthly DSA Labor Branch meetings. One group that has organized this way to great success is the Socialist Teachers group.

Reading Groups & Political Analysis
We host reading groups for people doing or planning on entering the work to sharpen their political analysis of the labor movement and its relation to socialism.

V — Regular Assessment

Rank-and-file strategists should assess their progress regularly, identify the challenges and successes of their work, and be ready to have honest conversations about whether the focus on a particular industry is worth continuing. There is no magic formula to picking the perfect strategic industry, and there will be some trial and error. This is why NYC-DSA at its convention voted to establish strategic criteria for industry selection rather than the industries themselves, which were selected at the branch level with the understanding that, as the work goes on, we may need to switch gears.

In hindsight, many members of the Labor Branch believe we should have included an additional criterion: the potential for rank-and-file power in a target industry to aid in the effort to organize unorganized sections of the same industry. For instance, a militant movement of UPS unionists could have an enormous impact on the ability of Amazon workers to organize. Likewise, a successful nurses union could activate workers at non-union healthcare providers.

That said, we have found that developing this program over the past 13 months helped unionists in NYC-DSA better integrate our labor work with the rest of the chapter’s work, and vice versa.