Want To Build the Labor Movement? Get a Job at a Union Workplace.

The case for the rank-and-file strategy.

Laura Gabby November 6, 2019

Supporters of public education march against funding cuts in Los Angeles at a Dec. 15, 2018, rally organized by United Teachers Los Angeles. (Ronen Tivony/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

Only work­ers them­selves have the pow­er to trans­form soci­ety, and work­ers must orga­nize them­selves to do so. Union staff and elect­ed lead­er­ship can play impor­tant and some­times piv­otal roles, but in the fight against cap­i­tal to win sub­stan­tive, last­ing gains, work­ers must be in the driver’s seat.

Wins are less likely to be rolled back when a majority puts its own sweat into the process and stands ready to defend its gains.

When work­ers are side­lined, at best we get staff-dri­ven mobi­liz­ing, which Jane McAlevey describes as ded­i­cat­ed activists who show up over and over … but [lack] the full mass of their cowork­ers or com­mu­ni­ty behind them.” With an orga­nized rank-and-file base, by con­trast, ordi­nary work­ers them­selves are the change agents, deeply involved in devel­op­ing an analy­sis of what’s wrong in the work­place and a strat­e­gy for how to fight the boss (and, ulti­mate­ly, cap­i­tal­ism). Their pow­er comes from build­ing majori­ties large enough to lever­age mil­i­tant action. Wins are less like­ly to be rolled back when a major­i­ty puts its own sweat into the process and stands ready to defend its gains.

The wide­spread teach­ers’ strikes of 2018 and 2019 and the Chica­go Teach­ers Union strike of 2012 illu­mi­nate the poten­tial pow­er of work­er-led orga­niz­ing, as they were pri­mar­i­ly led and ini­ti­at­ed by rank-and-file union members.

This deep orga­niz­ing, how­ev­er, does not yet exist in most indus­tries. To build it, union­ists and labor move­ment activists can look to the rank-and-file strat­e­gy” (RFS). The phrase was coined by Kim Moody in 2000 but takes inspi­ra­tion from 20th-cen­tu­ry labor upheavals like those led by the Min­neso­ta Team­sters in the 1930s and black work­ers at a Chrysler assem­bly plant in Detroit in the 1970s, when rad­i­cal union­ists and social­ists were at the heart of big gains.

What social­ist rank-and-file activists such as Moody iden­ti­fied was a gulf between the Left and the orga­nized work­ing class, devel­oped under McCarthy­ism. The class char­ac­ter of this gulf — with left­ists more often in the mid­dle class and dis­con­nect­ed from the day-to-day strug­gles of the work­ing class — has weak­ened the Left and the labor movement.

When class con­flict and labor strug­gles arise, as they inevitably do under cap­i­tal­ism, they can expose under­ly­ing cap­i­tal­ist ide­ol­o­gy — an oppor­tu­ni­ty for peo­ple in these strug­gles to active­ly raise work­ing-class con­scious­ness. RFS pro­po­nents have sought to close the Left-labor gulf by build­ing a lay­er of work­place orga­niz­ers — includ­ing social­ists join­ing the labor move­ment and respect­ed work­place lead­ers of all polit­i­cal per­sua­sions — to height­en class con­flict and devel­op this consciousness.

Part of the answer to over­com­ing the iner­tia that ails the labor move­ment may lie in a new, young and ener­getic Left — which already shows signs of being clos­er to the broad­er work­ing class than oth­er recent gen­er­a­tions of left­ists. How­ev­er, this Left remains large­ly divorced from the orga­nized work­ing class, where RFS sug­gests young left­ists would best be able to exer­cise real pow­er along­side cowork­ers. (While young work­ers are fast join­ing unions, 2017 data shows only 7.7% of work­ers between the ages 16 and 34 were union members.)

Evi­dence sug­gests that young left­ists are already play­ing key roles in labor strug­gles that pro­duce wins and raise class con­scious­ness. As Eric Blanc notes, Though few in num­ber, young social­ists inspired by the Bernie Sanders cam­paign played an out­sized role [in the teach­ers’ strikes].”

But rad­i­cal union­ists act­ing by them­selves aren’t enough to win.

At the core of any suc­cess are rank-and-file lead­ers, the ones cowork­ers respect and come to for advice. What’s nec­es­sary is a mix, work­ing in coor­di­na­tion: organ­ic, work­place lead­ers — able to move cowork­ers and fel­low union mem­bers to action — and social­ists, who can bring a broad­er analy­sis and orga­niz­ing expe­ri­ence, and who are some­times work­place lead­ers them­selves. This lay­er of activists and rank-and-file lead­ers is some­times called the mil­i­tant minority.”

The mil­i­tant minor­i­ty orga­nizes and wins cam­paigns around work­place issues to grow its ranks and raise class con­scious­ness through these prac­ti­cal strug­gles, and it fights for the demands of the broad­er work­ing class by cre­at­ing an ever-larg­er group of work­er-orga­niz­ers with a shared vision of class-strug­gle unionism.

The mil­i­tant minor­i­ty seeks to build super­ma­jori­ties in the work­place. And super­ma­jori­ties are nec­es­sary to raise class con­scious­ness, fight cap­i­tal, strike and win.

For alter­nate per­spec­tives on the rank-and-file strat­e­gy, see 90% of Work­ers Aren’t in a Union. Labor’s Future Depends on Them.” and Labor Needs To Embrace Social Jus­tice Unionism.”

Lau­ra Gab­by is a car­pen­ter in Local 157 and mem­ber of the Labor Branch of the New York City Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of America.
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