Labor Needs To Embrace Social Justice Unionism

A successful rank-and-file strategy must look beyond the workplace.

Bill Fletcher, Jr.November 6, 2019

The Chicago Teachers Union, in their 2019 strike, embraced "bargaining for the common good," a strategy that involved advocating beyond typical workplace bread-and-butter issues to include demands such as affordable housing and a nurse in every school. (Scott Heins/Getty Images)

Pro­po­nents of the rank-and-file strat­e­gy” (RFS) empha­size the need to lay the foun­da­tions of a revi­tal­ized labor move­ment through rank-and-file work­ers — as opposed to union staff or lead­er­ship. As Lau­ra Gab­by notes, this idea has a long his­to­ry: In the 1970s, for instance, thou­sands of left­ists (myself includ­ed) of both work­ing-class ori­gin and oth­er­wise entered the work­force to build a real work­ing-class Left and rebuild orga­nized labor.

The Left needs an alternative framework, a "social justice unionism," with objectives focused on the larger working class.

Though this rank-and-file empha­sis is more of an ori­en­ta­tion than a full strat­e­gy, it is good in that it encour­ages peo­ple on the Left to engage as rank and fil­ers — to enter into the work­ing class as cowork­ers rather than staff. The idea is not, as Andrew Dob­byn argues, elit­ist; instead, it sug­gests fel­low work­ers have some­thing to teach, rather than sim­ply being ves­sels for knowl­edge from leftists.

But the cur­rent dis­cus­sion has cer­tain impor­tant blind spots. First, the most­ly white social­ists dis­cussing the RFS often fail to rec­og­nize that left­ist for­ma­tions com­posed most­ly or entire­ly of peo­ple of col­or have his­tor­i­cal­ly been instru­men­tal in devel­op­ing and lead­ing efforts to retool the labor move­ment. The direc­tion and char­ac­ter of these for­ma­tions has fre­quent­ly dif­fered from that of white-led formations.

Peter Shapiro presents one exam­ple in his Jacobin arti­cle, On the Clock and Off,” draw­ing on his work with the League of Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Strug­gle. He writes about the Mex­i­can immi­grant women who emerged as rank-and-file lead­ers in the 1985 – 87 frozen food strike in Wat­sonville, Calif. They were not part of their union’s pro­gres­sive reform cau­cus, the Team­sters for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Union, nor would they have been con­sid­ered part of any con­ven­tion­al mil­i­tant minor­i­ty” — which is why, Shapiro writes, some strike sup­port­ers on the Left viewed them skep­ti­cal­ly.” But these women estab­lished their own infor­mal infra­struc­ture, bound togeth­er through the sol­i­dar­i­ty of not just work­ing togeth­er but the shared expe­ri­ence of racial and gen­der oppres­sion, and pro­pelled the strike to victory.

More broad­ly, pro­po­nents of the rank-and-file strat­e­gy must look beyond the clear, iden­ti­fi­able base of organ­ic lead­ers and left­ists and assess the forces with­in any work­place, includ­ing con­ser­v­a­tives and prag­ma­tists. As Fer­nan­do Gapasin and I write in our book, Sol­i­dar­i­ty Divid­ed, to defeat the con­ser­v­a­tive ele­ments, the Left must pull the cen­ter along. Advo­cates of a mil­i­tant minor­i­ty” can be skep­ti­cal of such alliances, but this is a mistake.

William Z. Fos­ter, a bril­liant trade union­ist who led the Com­mu­nist Par­ty USA, advo­cat­ed a mil­i­tant minor­i­ty strat­e­gy but lat­er adjust­ed his approach to pur­sue a Left-Cen­ter Alliance,” rec­og­niz­ing that, even in the mil­i­tant 1930s, the Left was not suf­fi­cient­ly pow­er­ful to act alone. Work­ers will not nec­es­sar­i­ly agree with the total pro­gram of a left­ist, so it is unlike­ly that left­ists will be orga­niz­ing work­ers around an exclu­sive­ly left-wing pro­gram. To the extent to which we ignore the cen­ter we cede ter­ri­to­ry to con­ser­v­a­tive forces that will build their own alliances to crush the Left.

Left­ists in the labor move­ment must also look beyond the nar­row objec­tives of trade union­ism as we know it, cen­tered on mak­ing gains with­in the work­place. In fact, the Left needs an alter­na­tive frame­work, a social jus­tice union­ism,” with objec­tives focused on the larg­er work­ing class — which includes, for instance, what Stephen Lern­er and oth­ers refer to as bar­gain­ing for the com­mon good.” Here, the union takes issues of the larg­er com­mu­ni­ty to the bar­gain­ing table. Unions, too, might pro­vide active sup­port to or estab­lish shared agen­das with oth­er work­er or pro­gres­sive com­mu­ni­ty organizations.

Last­ly, rebuild­ing the labor move­ment requires recog­ni­tion that labor, as Andrew points out, is not only trade unions. The rise of so-called alt-labor, such as work­er cen­ters and domes­tic work­er orga­ni­za­tions, is part of this rebuild­ing. Left­ists play a major role in this sec­tor, which is dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly work­ers of col­or. Unions can and should pro­vide direct mate­r­i­al assis­tance to this orga­niz­ing; the Zim­bab­we Con­gress of Trade Unions, for instance, has worked to ally with infor­mal econ­o­my workers.

A Left with­out a work­ing class base is not a Left, but a col­lec­tion of advo­cates for change. Our mis­sion is to rebuild that base, trans­form­ing the Left and the labor move­ment together.

For alter­nate per­spec­tives on the rank-and-file strat­e­gy, see Want To Build the Labor Move­ment? Get a Job at a Union Work­place.”and 90% of Work­ers Aren’t in a Union. Labor’s Future Depends on Them.”

Bill Fletch­er, Jr. is a talk show host, writer, activist, and trade union­ist. He is the exec­u­tive edi­tor of The Glob­al African Work­er, a co-author (with Fer­nan­do Gapasin) of Soli­tary Divid­ed, and the author of They’re Bank­rupt­ing Us” – Twen­ty Oth­er Myths about Unions. You can fol­low him on Twit­ter, Face­book and at www​.bill​fletcher​jr​.com.
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