Without a Clear Strategy for Labor, Socialists are Falling Behind Workers

Ryan Mosgrove
Sep 30 · 10 min read
UAW members on strike in Detroit marching with Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sept 25, 2019.

While labor unions are seeing a breathtaking resurgence in the United States, socialists are still working to gain their footing in this new terrain. Debate on the floor of the recent convention of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) showcased a wide array of approaches socialists could take up to build within a number of movements, and labor was no exception. One approach socialists have taken toward labor has recently gained public attention.

In August Politico published an article outlining the strategy approved by the New York City chapter of DSA which takes up the particular approach known as the Rank-and-File Strategy (RFS). But NYC-DSA’s strategy drew a fair bit of criticism from unions themselves. The 37-page document outlining their strategy, which Politico published alongside the article, lead to a number of labor leaders in NYC speaking against the strategy and defending their records as progressives. This has lead in turn to advocates of the RFS defending their specific approach.

Since the Politico article, RFS advocates have generally made two main arguments defending their strategy. The first is that the only union members angry at DSA over this are bureaucrats in conservative unions. NYC-DSA co-chair Bianca Cunningham told the NYT in a quote that “We’re not surprised that conservative unions come out and say they don’t support this kind of strategy…because they see it as a threat to their own power.” But while certainly some unions do see this approach as a threat, even going so far as to send spies to DSA labor meetings, this sort of blanket statement doesn’t appear to be consistent with NYC-DSA’s own internal reports.

This appears to be the case with New York Transit Workers Union (TWU 100). In their labor strategy document the NYC-DSA Labor Branch stated that “TWU Local 100 has the potential to be one of, if not the, the most powerful local unions in the country. It has a history of militancy, internal democracy, and rank-and-file activism — including successful reform slates taking over administration of the organization.”

Despite this, former TWU Local 100 president and current president of the TWU International, John Samuelsen, was one of the labor leaders to speak against the NYC-DSA strategy (he also endorsed Bernie in 2016). The relationship between how Samuelson represents this conservative layer in what they consider to be a union with “a history of militancy, internal democracy, and rank-and-file activism” is left unclear in NYC-DSA’s report.

The second defense that has been that the rank-and-file strategy is about empowering union members to have a say in their own unions, not about infiltration as it has often been spun by labor leaders. In an August tweet about the Politico article NYC-DSA member and NY state senator Julia Salazar said, “The rank-and-file union members in @nycDSA’s Labor Branch, and those seeking to organize their currently non-unionized workplaces, are the opposite of ‘outside agitators.’ They’re dedicated to labor movement and want to finally see union membership increasing instead of declining”.

But this argument, again, is not internally consistent with NYC-DSA’s own report. It is not at all clear that this rank-and-file strategy was developed bottom up by members in these union themselves. Hard numbers in terms of to what degree NYC-DSA already has DSA members in these unions are somewhat vague, but reading over the NYC-DSA document one does not get the impression that it is all that many and where they are that they are particularly organized.

For AFSCME DC 37, a union of 130,000 members, they claim “a network of approx 25 DSA members”. For CWA it is stated that there is “a scattered group of a dozen or so socialists throughout the NYC CWA telecom network including both rank and file workers and union officials and staff,” adding that “This group is not yet cohered into a single project.” For the Teamsters and TWU, two of the strategy’s six targets, no members are listed at all.

The NYC-DSA rank-and-file strategy reflect two basic ideological assumptions consistent with the RFS more broadly. First, that all labor leadership are by their nature “conservative” and antagonistic to the interests of the workers they represent regardless of, whether they actually are or not. Second that socialists represent the real leadership of workers, again regardless of whether they even have members in that union or not, by their nature as socialists. The RFS makes these ideological assumptions first and then works backwards to make these assumptions conform to the movement on the ground.

The arguments made around the NYC-DSA strategy conform very cleanly to the ideological points raised in a recent piece in Jacobin by Joe Evica, attempting to frame the RFS in the context of union officialdom and give us some of the political arguments for the RFS’s a priori assumptions.

Evica begins the piece by going into great detail about the “conservatizing effect” on labor officials that make them generally unable to pose a serious threat to capital. But from there Evica attempts to explain away contradictions within this narrative, stating that “while unions like UNITE HERE and CWA do often engage workers in militant activity, such as strikes, each action is often largely curated and developed by those within the bureaucracy, rather than workers themselves”.

This piece also tries to address the contention raised by one of the critics of RFS that the strategy has a “certain ambivalence” about leadership challenges within unions. Evica attempts to counter this, but ultimately is forced to make a number of qualifiers in order to avoid stating outright that the RFS is deeply at odds with the natural and obvious need for leadership challenges within unions.

Evica restates the need for “rank-and-file caucuses” which they define as internal groups advocating democracy and militancy, but then pulls back on the question of leadership challenges and is ultimately dismissive of the need for these caucuses to contest for leadership, stating that it is “simply one tactic within many which could be available to rank-and-file strategists.” Evica goes on to say that without these internal ideological formations that leadership challenges are basically pointless, “If the rank and file is not already organized enough or activated by your campaign for leadership…you take on many of the pressures and risks of leadership with few potential rewards.”

This rationale highlights a critical weakness of the RFS. In any campaign, whether it be a strike, an electoral challenge, or a community initiative, there is always the key question of what demand would allow the campaign to institutionalize the power that organizers are able to build on the ground. With many campaigns this can be rather direct. In an electoral campaign the goal is to win the election, thereby cementing the power that organizers have been able to build. In a strike this is winning a favorable contract, and so on.

The reason that this is so critical to the anatomy of campaigns to the point of being almost elementary is because the nature of organizing is that you cannot simply agitate forever. At some stage you need to leverage the pressure the campaigns has been able to build and institutionalize this power or the pressure you’ve built will dissipate. People will get tired, burnt out, overworked, or flat at not see the point in going on. This target and demand component to organizing is always present whether that be a city council seat, a new law, or a collective bargaining agreement.

This is part of the basic criterion that any strategy would need to be able to clearly articulate; “what does winning look like?” But if the RFS sees leadership challenges as simply one tactic, and not even necessarily a desirable one, then what then is the strategic purpose of the RFS more broadly? To explain this the RFS advocate must bring in a litany of ideological baggage to explain it. But in the absence of this essential strategic component, then the cash value of RFS as a strategy is just a forced march of endless agitation and consciousness raising with no clear idea about how exactly this activity is intended to translate into victory. We are simply given a collection of tactics and talking points and meant to intuit a strategy out of it.

This inconsistency is further underscored by the lack of a concise view of how RFS is meant to relate to even basic functions of unions, such as the role of union staff (which has been pointed out elsewhere). In the Evica piece cited above the author is deeply antagonistic to the role of staff stating that “reliance on staff to develop the union’s strategy, messaging, and activity both has the effect of subordinating the membership to the staff and setting limits on the horizons of rank-and-file members.”

But elsewhere RFS advocates have argued that control of staff in order to help determine the trajectory of the broader union is a key tactical feature of the RFS. One recent piece argues that historically “Elected reformers have created openings for union staff to help develop workplace leaders.” Far from the role of staff having some natural antagonism to worker organizing, here the role of staff is more neutral and can play an important role under a left union leadership. “Those who pursue the staff route can do good work — the role of experienced staffers in helping build up workplace leadership was powerfully demonstrated, for instance, in the Los Angeles teachers strike.”

It is one thing for the rank-and-file strategy to demonstrate its lack of coherence on paper, quite another to show this in action. The controversy surrounding NYC-DSA’s labor strategy is a predictable and natural outgrowth of a chapter pursuing a strategy that attempts to relate to ideological articles of faith over the real conditions within unions on the ground. The full extent of the damage of this approach remains to be seen, but it is difficult to say the least that at this stage this approach has done much more than to alienate socialists from the very movement they seek to embed themselves within.

But this controversy comes at a time when the prospects for socialist labor could not be more favorable. 2018 saw the most workers participate in work stoppages since 1986, almost half a million. 2019 is panning out to continue this momentum, and even broadening it. While 90% of those workers who struck in 2018 were from social service sectors such as education and nursing, 2019 is seeing this strike wave spread to other industries such as manufacturing and communications.

On top of the currently ongoing United Auto Workers strike against General Motors and the Communications Workers of America strike 50,000 workers strong against AT&T which concluded with an agreement favorable to the workers, 2019 has also seen another critical development: the climate strike.

On September 20th over 4 million people across the globe participated, including a quarter of a million in New York alone. The climate strike was not formally lead by labor, though the protest has utilized the language of a strike. Still labor was not altogether absent from the events. A number of US unions signed on to the actions, and many local unions mobilized around the protests. Hundreds of Amazon workers also walked out in Seattle in solidarity.

As modest as formal labor involvement in the climate strike may be, it represents a critical development for socialists who occupy a unique political position to thread the needle between these two movements. Especially at a time when at least a wing of the labor movement are working to undermine and oppose any serious climate policy.

This sort of cross movement work is not just theoretical. A Green New Deal resolution was passed by the Texas AFL-CIO after being moved by a DSA member in the IBEW. At their 2019 convention DSA overwhelmingly passed a resolution to support the Green New Deal that called for collaboration between its Ecosocialist and Labor committees to “work with & support union organizing & worker struggles for a GND alongside the development of Just Transition implementation plans.” The groundwork for a serious movement within labor for anti-capitalist and worker-centered climate justice is already being laid and DSA is one of the few organizations with the base and orientation to make these ambitions a reality.

But even this only scratches the surface of the opportunities for socialists to build the workers movement. A recent Gallup poll showed that support for unions is hitting its highest point in decades and other data shows that the desire among workers to join unions far outstrips current density. Presidential front-runner Bernie Sanders has recently rolled out a truly massive plan to expand the access of unions to workers that want them, making it the most comprehensive plan for unions from a presidential candidate in a generation. Even beyond the general election, 2021 will likely see a contentious election for the AFL-CIO’s top office that has the potential to turn into a serious reckoning. The election will likely become a referendum on the two souls of labor: militant collective action versus business as usual.

Taken alone, any one of these developments would present a once in a generation type of opportunity for the left. Taken together they are an opportunity for socialists on par with the 1934 strike wave or the formation of the Knights of Labor in the 19th century. It would be a gross understatement to say that if socialists want to maintain any relevance among workers that unforced errors such as the recent controversy must be taken with extreme seriousness and reflection. Because while labor is clearly on the march forward, socialists appear to be floundering, still unsure about the way forward. But if the past year is any indication, workers will not be waiting for socialists to catch up.

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