“Salting” Built the Labor Movement—It Can Help Rebuild It, Too

Erik Forman

We’ve been telling workers for decades that it’s time to organize. Now the labor left needs to listen to its own advice. We know what is to be done. So get a job, and let’s get to work. (Alan Sung/ Flickr)

This arti­cle was first post­ed by Jacobin.

The Left has a long tra­di­tion of ask­ing our­selves, What is to be done?” Ever since Lenin posed this rhetor­i­cal ques­tion, it has served as the hook for an ever-expand­ing genre of think pieces and calls to action on every imag­in­able social-move­ment dilemma.

What is to be done?” bounces from move­ment to move­ment, cri­sis to cri­sis, and occa­sion­al­ly illu­mi­nates more foun­da­tion­al exis­ten­tial prob­lems of the Left. In that spir­it, Jacobins recent Rank and File” issue exam­ined one of our more urgent con­tem­po­rary ques­tions: what is to be done to revi­tal­ize the labor movement?

Con­trib­u­tors offered up numer­ous diag­noses and pre­scrip­tions. Char­lie Post point­ed out the cru­cial role the mil­i­tant minor­i­ty played in labor’s twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry suc­cess­es; Jane McAlevey called for whole work­er orga­niz­ing,” Joe McCartin urged unions not to squan­der the brief win­dow between the Friedrichs deci­sion and the next attack on col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights; and Sam Gindin pro­posed the class-based left” as an alter­na­tive to social move­ment unionism.

Since pub­li­ca­tion of these arti­cles, labor’s cri­sis has deep­ened. The right wing now con­trols all three branch­es of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment and the major­i­ty of states. The sequel to Friedrichs, Janus v. AFSCME, is head­ed for the Supreme Court, threat­en­ing to dec­i­mate pub­lic-sec­tor unions nation­wide. Talk of a nation­al right-to-work law is spreading.

Fig­ur­ing out what is to be done” has only become more urgent. But there’s a prob­lem with this ques­tion, evi­dent first at the lev­el of gram­mar. What is to be done?” com­mits every writ­ing teacher’s car­di­nal sin: the pas­sive voice. Who is the sub­ject here? Who is going to do what needs to be done?

The absence of an active sub­ject is more than a gram­mat­i­cal prob­lem — it rep­re­sents the prob­lem of the labor left. The mil­i­tant minor­i­ty is small to nonex­is­tent, and it’s not even clear who is going to do the work to rebuild it. There is a large gap between the intel­lec­tu­al left and the work­ing class it discusses.

Work­ing-class voic­es are rare among the talk­ing heads who dom­i­nate left dis­course. Most the­o­rists on the Left write of labor from the per­spec­tive of intel­lec­tu­als who stand above the class strug­gle, rather than work­ers in the thick of it.

The deci­sion-mak­ers for labor are often lit­er­al miles away from their own rank and file. As a result, we more often talk about unions orga­niz­ing work­ers than work­ers orga­niz­ing unions. Work­ers are posi­tioned as the objects rather than the sub­jects of their own organizations.

This alien­ation man­i­fests in a vari­ety of ways: mem­bers don’t par­tic­i­pate in meet­ings, are unready or unwill­ing to strike, accept con­ces­sion­ary bar­gain­ing, and as the recent elec­tion made clear, express alarm­ing lev­els of sup­port for right-wing candidates.

Labor lib­er­als believe these prob­lems can be cor­rect­ed with small-pic­ture fix­es: social media, paper coali­tions with com­mu­ni­ty groups, nar­row cam­paigns against this or that par­tic­u­lar right-wing leg­is­la­tion, and oth­er tac­ti­cal shifts that leave the struc­ture of the union unchanged. The present moment shows that this band-aid approach has failed to reverse labor’s decline.

And even if they could, they would not go far enough. The labor left must seek not just to sal­vage labor’s exist­ing insti­tu­tions but to trans­form them and build new ones. Our goal should be to make work­ers the sub­jects rather than the objects of their own orga­ni­za­tions — and of history.

Our pre­scrip­tion for the labor movement’s renew­al needs a new gram­mar. Instead of ask­ing What is to be done?”, we could start with a dif­fer­ent ques­tion: What should I do?”

As it turns out, the right-wing heck­lers we’ve all encoun­tered are half right: we should get jobs. And then we should do what we tell work­ers to do all the time: orga­nize our workplaces.

This tac­tic has a name and a his­to­ry. It’s called salt­ing,” and it was foun­da­tion­al to the devel­op­ment of the Amer­i­can labor movement.

Salts of the Earth

Salt­ing has deep roots in the his­to­ry of the labor move­ment and the Left. It has gone by many dif­fer­ent names: indus­tri­al­iza­tion, indus­tri­al con­cen­tra­tion, col­o­niza­tion” (a tone-deaf term used by the Com­mu­nist Par­ty in the 1930s), and l’Établi” in French, which denotes estab­lish­ing your­self in a workplace.

Each term reflects a slight­ly dif­fer­ent appli­ca­tion of the same basic idea: get­ting a job with the express pur­pose of orga­niz­ing the workplace.

Salt­ing built and sus­tained all of the major labor upsurges in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. In fact, it was once so foun­da­tion­al to labor activism that it didn’t even have a name — work­ers guid­ed by rad­i­cal ide­olo­gies sim­ply orga­nized where they were, build­ing the labor move­ment as they went.

Both the Knights of Labor and the Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World (IWW) owed their suc­cess to attract­ing mem­bers among immi­grant and itin­er­ant mem­bers in rad­i­cal pol­i­tics, which they car­ried with them into fac­to­ries and sweat­shops. Every mem­ber was a salt, and every­one orga­nized — not just the professionals.

The IWW became a school for strug­gle for a gen­er­a­tion of orga­niz­ers, many of whom sub­se­quent­ly joined oth­er rad­i­cal groups and built the CIO. Weath­er­ing the dol­drums of the 1920s, these mil­i­tants kept the seeds of labor rad­i­cal­ism alive, ready to blos­som into mil­i­tan­cy when the polit­i­cal cli­mate changed.

All of the land­mark gen­er­al strikes of 1934 — the Min­neapo­lis Team­sters Strike, the San Fran­cis­co Water­front Strike, and the Tole­do Auto-Lite strike — came to fruition thanks to years of painstak­ing shop-floor orga­niz­ing by cells of rad­i­cal work­ers in var­i­ous social­ist organizations.

The mass strikes the mil­i­tant minor­i­ty cat­alyzed led to the labor movement’s insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion with the pas­sage of the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act in 1935. Iron­i­cal­ly, this insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion cre­at­ed con­tra­dic­tions that would call forth a new wave of rank-and-file strug­gle sev­er­al decades later.

When the mil­i­tant minor­i­ty appeared again in the late 1960s and ear­ly 1970s, it had to face not just the employ­ers, but also unions that were more used to part­ner­ing with cor­po­ra­tions than fight­ing them.

Like the mass actions of the late nine­teenth and ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­turies, the wild­cat strike wave of the 1960s and 70s — doc­u­ment­ed in the col­lec­tion Rebel Rank-and-File—start­ed with rad­i­cals bring­ing their pol­i­tics to work. This time, it wasn’t social­ist and anar­chist immi­grants, but black pow­er activists, cam­pus rad­i­cals, and for­mer GIs, all fresh from the strug­gle in and against the Viet­nam War.

In Detroit espe­cial­ly, con­scious orga­niz­ing aid­ed spon­ta­neous mass rad­i­cal­iza­tion. Found­ed by stu­dent and work­er rad­i­cals with deep roots in the city’s black work­ing class, the League of Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Black Work­ers (LRBW) orga­nized against the racist hier­ar­chy of Amer­i­can cap­i­tal­ism both on the job, in the UAW lead­er­ship, and in soci­ety more broadly.

As Detroit smol­dered from the Great Rebel­lion of 1967 — a work­ing-class upris­ing that took 17,000 sol­diers and 155,576 rounds of M1 ammu­ni­tion to quell — the LRBW adopt­ed a rev­o­lu­tion­ary strat­e­gy of acti­vat­ing the indus­tri­al pow­er of the black work­ing class in the beat­ing heart of Amer­i­can indus­tri­al cap­i­tal­ism. Salt­ing quick­ly became a key weapon in their arsenal.

Gen­er­al Bak­er, one of the organization’s lead­ing mil­i­tants, got a job in the Dodge Main plant and began to orga­nize. On May 2, 1968, orga­niz­ing bore fruit: a wild­cat strike of four thou­sand work­ers shut down the plant in response to racist fir­ings. The com­pa­ny retal­i­at­ed with more racism: Bak­er and twelve oth­er work­ers lost their jobs for orga­niz­ing the strike.

The auto indus­try attempt­ed to black­list Bak­er, and the UAW refused to defend him or his cowork­ers. But, using a pseu­do­nym, he even­tu­al­ly got a job at the Ford Rouge plant (the largest fac­to­ry in the world at that time) and quick­ly became chair of the facility’s UAW local.

The League went on to orga­nize work­ers in fac­to­ries, hos­pi­tals, a UPS dis­tri­b­u­tion cen­ter, the Detroit News, and all across the city. It planned wild­cat strikes, chal­lenged the UAW’s unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic and racist prac­tices, protest­ed police bru­tal­i­ty, won exon­er­a­tion for a work­er who had mur­dered two fore­men, got the city to dis­man­tle a racist anti-gang police unit, built a bridge to mid­dle- and work­ing-class whites through a mas­sive­ly pop­u­lar book club, cre­at­ed a pub­lish­ing house, book­store, and press, and pro­duced a doc­u­men­tary about their work.

The League’s suc­cess­es were pos­si­ble because of the com­ple­men­tary rela­tion­ship between rad­i­cals get­ting a job to orga­nize and work­ers orga­niz­ing on the job after they had been rad­i­cal­ized — either in the plants or on the streets. The achieve­ments of the LRBW, fol­lowed by a nation­wide wave of wild­cat strikes in the ear­ly 1970s and the per­cep­tion that six­ties social move­ments had reached their lim­its, inspired a gen­er­a­tion of rad­i­cals to turn to the work­ing class.

The turn to the work­ing class

Marx­ists dubbed Detroit the Amer­i­can Pet­ro­grad.” For­mer stu­dent activists began arriv­ing in the city in droves, tak­ing fac­to­ry jobs and hop­ing to help form a work­ing-class sub­ject that could fin­ish the rev­o­lu­tion the pre­vi­ous decade’s social move­ments had started.

It was a glob­al phe­nom­e­non. In France, many rad­i­cals locat­ed the fail­ure of the 1968 gen­er­al strike in the weak con­nec­tions between work­ers and stu­dent rad­i­cals. Espous­ing the clas­sic Marx­ist view of the indus­tri­al pro­le­tari­at as the rev­o­lu­tion­ary sub­ject par excel­lence, a small num­ber of rad­i­cals entered fac­to­ries and worked to under­stand and over­come work­ers’ lack of rev­o­lu­tion­ary impulse — a sto­ry told in Robert Linhart’s grip­ping first-per­son nar­ra­tive The Assem­bly Line (apt­ly titled L’Établi in French).

In Italy, the 68 rebel­lion last­ed a full decade. Scores of inde­pen­dent work­er orga­ni­za­tions sprung up in fac­to­ries under the ban­ners of autono­mia, com­ing clos­er than any oth­er move­ment to cre­at­ing a last­ing orga­ni­za­tion through which the mil­i­tant minor­i­ty could influ­ence nation­al politics.

Max Elbaum tells the sto­ry of the Amer­i­can turn to the work­ing class. He notes that polls showed three mil­lion Amer­i­cans in favor of rev­o­lu­tion in 1971, at a time when the pop­u­la­tion of the Unit­ed States was a third small­er than today. Of these three mil­lion, a hard core of more than ten thou­sand formed the New Com­mu­nist Movement.

The shift­ing con­stel­la­tion of orga­ni­za­tions that made up this move­ment pri­mar­i­ly came from the most­ly white, ex-stu­dent milieu and nation­al lib­er­a­tion move­ments in com­mu­ni­ties of col­or. Inspired by Marx­ist-Lenin­ist thought, many groups sent mem­bers into heavy indus­try, with vary­ing approach­es to engag­ing their cowork­ers in ant­i­cap­i­tal­ist struggle.

Accord­ing to his­to­ri­an Kier­an Walsh Taylor’s account, these rad­i­cals enjoyed some suc­cess, notably in sup­port­ing strikes and reform ini­tia­tives, under­min­ing white work­ing-class racism, and launch­ing fem­i­nist inter­ven­tions both at work and in the labor move­ment more broad­ly. But cum­ber­some polit­i­cal bag­gage under­mined their cadre’s long-term effectiveness.

Tay­lor explains that Maoist trans­plants in mines, mills, and work­shops tried to incite their cowork­ers to poor­ly planned mil­i­tan­cy, or worse, spent their polit­i­cal cap­i­tal fight­ing oth­er polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions in the move­ment over accu­sa­tions of revi­sion­ism.”

Fur­ther, this move­ment too often under­stood pro­le­tar­i­an­iza­tion” as the emu­la­tion of a car­i­ca­tured work­ing class, com­plete with patri­ar­chal gen­der roles and unex­am­ined homo­pho­bia. Male mem­bers were expect­ed to keep their hair short, avoid coun­ter­cul­tur­al expres­sions, and live what the par­ty con­sid­ered a nor­mal work­ing-class life.

Iron­i­cal­ly, this cul­tur­al con­ser­vatism hap­pened at a time when the work­ing class was increas­ing­ly aban­don­ing tra­di­tion­al mores. Women were fight­ing sex­ism, the LGBTQ move­ment was chal­leng­ing homo­pho­bia, and rad­i­cal­ism in gen­er­al was growing.

The New Com­mu­nist Move­ment failed to rec­og­nize the lib­er­a­to­ry polit­i­cal shift already under­way, instead ascrib­ing to Lenin­ist ortho­doxy — for them, the van­guard par­ty knew what was to be done, and they had to deliv­er this news to the workers.

This top-down mode of oper­at­ing impact­ed the lives of cadre. Mem­bers were often sent to work in jobs they were ill-pre­pared to han­dle phys­i­cal­ly or social­ly. Some strug­gled with the strains of back-break­ing labor and to con­nect with cowork­ers from vast­ly dif­fer­ent class and race back­grounds. All of these fac­tors reduced these orga­niz­ing projects’ lifes­pans, and most col­lapsed after a few years at the longest.

One instruc­tive excep­tion to the New Com­mu­nist Movement’s rapid fail­ure can inform our efforts to do bet­ter. The Sojourn­er Truth Orga­ni­za­tion (STO), described by Michael Stau­den­meier in Truth and Rev­o­lu­tion, based its inter­ven­tions on a more dynam­ic under­stand­ing of class for­ma­tion: a the­o­ry of dual con­scious­ness” derived from Gram­sci and W. E. B. Dubois.

STO believed that work­ers hold mul­ti­ple and con­tra­dic­to­ry inter­pre­ta­tions of their real­i­ty simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. In their for­mu­la­tion, the mil­i­tant was tasked with draw­ing out the social­ist side of work­ers’ con­scious­ness while dis­man­tling ret­ro­grade ideas. This activ­i­ty did not pre­cede col­lec­tive action, but hap­pened through the process of class strug­gle itself.

The party’s task then became to

dis­cov­er and artic­u­late the forms of thought, action, and orga­ni­za­tion which embody the poten­tial of work­ers to make a rev­o­lu­tion. These pat­terns are man­i­fest­ed, embry­on­i­cal­ly, in the course of every gen­uine strug­gle … [T]he real work of the par­ty involves link­ing these frag­men­tary autonomous ele­ments and social­iz­ing them into a new cul­ture of struggle.

Many STO mil­i­tants salt­ed in Chicago’s fac­to­ries, enter­ing a world rich with work­ing-class strug­gle. There they would par­tic­i­pate in and encour­age shop-floor con­fronta­tions, facil­i­tate con­nec­tions between rank-and-file mil­i­tants, and offer resources that would allow work­ers to win cam­paigns with­out or against hos­tile union bureaucracies.

The reces­sion of the ear­ly 1970s, accom­pa­nied by the ear­ly stages of neolib­er­al­ism and glob­al­iza­tion, snuffed out the organ­ic mil­i­tan­cy that had attract­ed New Com­mu­nist rad­i­cals. The­o­ret­i­cal debates — like the cor­rect ori­en­ta­tion to Chi­na as it inte­grat­ed into world cap­i­tal­ism — and of course more mun­dane issues like per­son­al­i­ties and egos even­tu­al­ly tore apart the declin­ing movement.

Dur­ing peri­ods of mil­i­tan­cy, the line between salt­ing and rank-and-file rebel­lion blurs, as was the case not only with the League of Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Black Work­ers but also the Knights of Labor and IWW. When the tide of insur­gency recedes — as it did in the ear­ly 1970s — the mil­i­tant minor­i­ty ends up iso­lat­ed, a rev­o­lu­tion­ary fish with­out a sea to swim in.

While much of the Left burned out and fell apart in the late 1970s and ear­ly 1980s, one cur­rent of rad­i­cals man­aged to sus­tain them­selves: the Inter­na­tion­al Social­ists, which found­ed the Labor Notes project and lat­er split into Sol­i­dar­i­ty and the Inter­na­tion­al Social­ist Orga­ni­za­tion (ISO).

For over thir­ty years, Labor Notes has sought to build rank-and-file pow­er with­in unions through oppo­si­tion cau­cus­es, in which mil­i­tant mem­bers take over and trans­form their unions. Kim Moody’s pam­phlet The Rank and File Strat­e­gy” clear­ly lays out the strat­e­gy, whose notable suc­cess­es include Team­sters for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Union, respon­si­ble for the 1997 UPS strike, and the 2012 Chica­go Teach­ers Strike, orga­nized by a cau­cus of rad­i­cals using a sim­i­lar model.

When the first edi­tion of Labor Notes rolled off the press­es in 1979, its pub­lish­ers had no way of know­ing that it would become the chron­i­cle of rank-and-file revolt against the con­ces­sion­ary bar­gain­ing that marked the 1980s labor move­ment. More than a keep­er of the flame, Labor Notes stoked a resur­gence of mil­i­tant union­ism. It rep­re­sents a mod­ern take on the Trade Union Edu­ca­tion­al League, a net­work of AFL mem­bers who tried to bore from with­in” the con­ser­v­a­tive union and trans­form it into a rad­i­cal organization.

Busi­ness unionism

Labor Notes has helped trans­form many unions in our own time, lead­ing to sev­er­al strikes that have left an indeli­ble mark on his­to­ry. But the busi­ness unions have trans­formed them­selves since the 1920s as well, in ways that com­pli­cate the task of expand­ing the mil­i­tant minor­i­ty. There was noth­ing pre­or­dained or nat­ur­al about this evo­lu­tion. It came out of a polit­i­cal strug­gle — one that the Left most­ly lost.

Labor’s land­mark vic­to­ries in the 1930s result­ed from rank-and-file insur­gency waged on shop floors all across the Unit­ed States. Staughton Lynd’s We Are All Lead­ers: the Alter­na­tive Union­ism of the Ear­ly 1930s sketch­es out this his­to­ry in a series of detailed case stud­ies. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the democ­ra­cy, rad­i­cal pol­i­tics, com­mu­ni­ty con­nec­tions, and capac­i­ty for mass direct action that these unions built rep­re­sents a road not tak­en in the US labor movement.

The 1935 Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act (NLRA) marked one of the ear­ly bat­tles. The leg­is­la­tion states:

It is declared to be the pol­i­cy of the Unit­ed States to elim­i­nate the caus­es of cer­tain sub­stan­tial obstruc­tions to the free flow of com­merce and to mit­i­gate and elim­i­nate these obstruc­tions when they have occurred by encour­ag­ing the prac­tice and pro­ce­dure of col­lec­tive bargaining.

The goal was to move class strug­gle from the streets — where armies of work­ers bat­tled armies of cops — to office build­ings and court­rooms, allow­ing pro­duc­tion to go on unob­struct­ed. The ACLU, Com­mu­nist Par­ty, and most left orga­ni­za­tions ini­tial­ly opposed the NLRA, view­ing it as the first step on a slip­pery slope that would shift pow­er toward employ­ers and state offi­cials. More bureau­crat­i­cal­ly mind­ed labor lead­ers unsur­pris­ing­ly sup­port­ed its passage.

By agree­ing to play by cor­po­rate liberalism’s rules and keep pro­duc­tion flow­ing through World War II, labor lead­ers got a seat at the table. C. Wright Mills dubbed them the new men of pow­er.” But their access to the halls of pow­er came at a price. In 1948, Mills wrote,

The strat­e­gy of the labor leader in his present sit­u­a­tion is to nar­row the strug­gle by work­ing for its insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion. Yet his fear­ful search for safe­ty in legal and insti­tu­tion­al guar­an­tee means that he must act as dis­ci­plin­er of the labor force, the basis of any pow­er he may have. He begins with the sanc­ti­ty of union con­tracts and moves toward con­trol of labor-man­age­ment rela­tions by a gov­ern­ment over which he has lit­tle real power.

The gap between the rank and file and lead­er­ship widened, while union lead­ers moved clos­er to cor­po­rate and state bureaucrats.

From the pas­sage of the NLRA until today, the labor left lost a series of bat­tles with these so-called new men of pow­er, allow­ing busi­ness union­ism to become dom­i­nant. Dues check-off agree­ments and the closed shop forced union lead­ers to depend more on good rela­tions with boss­es and the gov­ern­ment than with their own mem­bers, prompt­ing an increas­ing ret­i­cence to call for strikes.

This trend grew stronger fol­low­ing the 1947 Taft-Hart­ley Act, which banned sec­ondary boy­cotts, mass pick­et­ing, fed­er­al cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions, and polit­i­cal, sol­i­dar­i­ty, and fed­er­al gov­ern­ment work­er strikes. It also allowed states to pass right-to-work leg­is­la­tion and required union lead­ers to sign anti­com­mu­nist affidavits.

By 1950, most unions had purged Com­mu­nists from lead­er­ship posi­tions, depriv­ing the labor move­ment of much-need­ed polit­i­cal imag­i­na­tion. Busi­ness union­ism became syn­ony­mous with union­ism itself.

Sum­ma­riz­ing this great trans­for­ma­tion, autowork­er and aca­d­e­m­ic Mar­ty Glauber­man wrote:

Amer­i­can work­ers today have seen the great indus­tri­al unions of the thir­ties become the one-par­ty states of today. They have seen the senior­i­ty that was won to pro­tect them against dis­crim­i­na­to­ry fir­ing and pro­mo­tion become the means to keep the young and the Negroes out and to keep the semi-skilled from work­ing their way up to the skilled trades. They have seen the union dues check-off change from a means of orga­niz­ing all the work­ers in a plant to a means of remov­ing the union from depen­dence on the workers.

They have seen full-time sta­tus for union stew­ard or com­mit­tee­man change from free­ing the union rep­re­sen­ta­tive from the pres­sures of man­age­ment to free­ing him from the pres­sures of the work­ers. They have seen the union con­tract and griev­ance pro­ce­dure change from the instru­ments which record­ed the gains of the work­ers to the instru­ments under which work­ers were dis­ci­plined. They have, in short, seen the unions turned into their oppo­site, from rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the work­ers to an inde­pen­dent pow­er that impos­es its dis­ci­pline over the work­ers in the peri­od of state capitalism.

We are the inher­i­tors of these orga­ni­za­tions, and, since the mid-1970s, busi­ness unions have become even more corporate.

Divi­sion of labor

Today in busi­ness unions, career labor lead­ers sit atop a staff hier­ar­chy that does the work of pro­duc­ing, or at least main­tain­ing, unions. Like auto man­u­fac­tur­ing or fac­to­ry farm­ing, the process has become sub­ject to the divi­sion of labor: a hand­ful of (osten­si­bly) elect­ed offi­cers make the deci­sions, while paid researchers and orga­niz­ers do the day-to-day work, often with­out form­ing any last­ing con­nec­tions to the com­mu­ni­ties they work in.

For the incred­i­bly ded­i­cat­ed and hard­work­ing activists who make staffing these orga­ni­za­tions their life’s work, this struc­ture often pro­duces heart­break­ing con­tra­dic­tions, par­tic­u­lar­ly when union lead­ers make deci­sions that fall short of labor activists’ val­ues. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, as employ­ees of the union, staff have lit­tle lever­age over their boss­es, and few exam­ples of suc­cess­ful reform efforts led by union staff exist.

While any good union orga­niz­er will tell you that their task is to work them­selves out of a job by trans­fer­ring skills to rank-and-file lead­ers, these good inten­tions run up against the real­i­ty of the busi­ness union divi­sion of labor. In most unions, rather than empow­er mem­bers with the skills need­ed to build a union, the rank and file appears on stage only peri­od­i­cal­ly as set pieces at ral­lies or as sig­na­tures on autho­riza­tion cards.

At best, these cam­paigns give work­ers a fleet­ing taste of col­lec­tive action’s pow­er, which gen­er­al­ly sub­sides after the con­tract fight or pol­i­cy cam­paign ends. At worst, work­ers fig­ure as the objects, rather than sub­jects, of the orga­niz­ing campaign.

Researchers and union offi­cers plan out work­er-lead­ers’ activ­i­ties, try­ing to find points of lever­age against com­pa­nies that require as lit­tle mem­ber par­tic­i­pa­tion as pos­si­ble. In light of how dif­fi­cult and risky col­lec­tive action can be, this makes some sense. How­ev­er, more often than not, it leads to inde­fen­si­ble quid pro quos.

For exam­ple, in Cal­i­for­nia, SEIU offered health-care employ­ers a deal that barred work­ers from orga­niz­ing around patient-staff ratios and advo­cat­ing for patients. In anoth­er case it offered to back leg­is­la­tion pre­vent­ing patients from suing for malpractice.

The prob­lems aren’t lim­it­ed to just SEIU. It’s sys­temic. UNITE HERE has helped casi­no devel­op­ers launch astro­turf cam­paigns to legal­ize gam­bling in work­ing-class neigh­bor­hoods in exchange for a pledge not to resist union­iza­tion. Sin­is­ter betray­als of work­ers abound in the build­ing trade unions, many of which sup­port eco­ci­dal projects like the Key­stone XL and Dako­ta Access pipelines. Their lead­ers recent­ly vis­it­ed Pres­i­dent Trump in the White House to dis­cuss mov­ing for­ward on these projects, while remain­ing silent on the president’s plans to unleash hell on the rest of the work­ing class.

As employ­ers have become more adept at fight­ing union­iza­tion, some labor orga­ni­za­tions have adapt­ed by mak­ing polit­i­cal­ly expe­di­ent deals that pro­tect the union, but sell out their mem­bers and poten­tial com­mu­ni­ty allies.

Yet for all the qual­i­ta­tive cri­tiques of con­tem­po­rary busi­ness union­ism, the quan­ti­ta­tive cri­tique is even more damn­ing. The mod­el doesn’t work on its own terms: unions con­tin­ue to lose mem­bers, prompt­ing a nev­er-end­ing scram­ble to repair the holes in their busi­ness model.

Some attempts at patch­ing up labor’s leaky boat have includ­ed the use of salt­ing. Giv­en its roots in labor’s rad­i­cal rank-and-file tra­di­tion, this has raised hopes not just for build­ing a larg­er labor move­ment but also for build­ing a left labor movement.

For exam­ple, for the last decade UNITE HERE has reg­u­lar­ly used salts. It recruits stu­dents, often from elite uni­ver­si­ties, to get jobs in tar­get shops to aid orga­niz­ing campaigns.

Some salts in these cam­paigns focused on forg­ing class con­scious­ness among their cowork­ers. More often, how­ev­er, the union used salts pri­mar­i­ly to gain ini­tial access and iden­ti­fy influ­en­tial work­ers, leav­ing the heavy lift­ing of orga­niz­ing to pro­fes­sion­al staff. The locus of deci­sion-mak­ing remained high up in the chain of com­mand, and the divi­sion of labor lim­it­ed work­ers’ con­trol over their union.

A num­ber of accounts—and now even a book—reveal some prob­lems with the busi­ness union mod­el of salt­ing. The UNITE HERE salts’ tell-alls resem­ble the tales of Marx­ist-Lenin­ist mil­i­tants from the 1970s, whose cen­tral com­mit­tees moved them from fac­to­ry to fac­to­ry, lim­it­ing their abil­i­ty to form last­ing bonds with cowork­ers and become a part of their communities.

To be sure, UNITE HERE’s use of salts has led to numer­ous orga­niz­ing vic­to­ries around the coun­try. But their instru­men­tal and shal­low use of its salts stands in stark con­trast to salts’ extreme com­mit­ment to their work and the real car­ing they have for their cowork­ers. While these salts make major sac­ri­fices for the sake of orga­niz­ing, their work’s impact is short­changed by a beg­gar-thy-neigh­bor orga­niz­ing strat­e­gy that often hurts the work­ing class as a whole. While salts build class con­scious­ness among work­ers, UNITE HERE lob­bies for casi­nos or advo­cates for tax breaks for lux­u­ry hotels.

The divi­sion of labor that reigns in busi­ness unions means that offi­cers and upper-lev­el staff do the think­ing, while low­er-lev­el staff, rank-and-file mem­bers, and the occa­sion­al salt do the doing, often for com­pro­mised ends and with lit­tle con­trol over the deci­sions that affect their lives.

If salts and work­er com­mit­tees are allowed to exer­cise their own ini­tia­tive and work togeth­er demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly, salt­ing can regain the trans­for­ma­tive pow­er it held less than cen­tu­ry ago. We can call this mod­el work­er-cen­tered” organizing.

The work­er-cen­tered campaign

Build­ing a work­er-cen­tered cam­paign trans­forms not only the union mem­bers involved but also the union they belong to. Far more than in a staff-dri­ven cam­paign, work­ers devel­op and dis­cov­er their own pow­er to enact change.

Salts in a work­er-cen­tered cam­paign are part researcher, part pol­i­cy ana­lyst, part lawyer, part social work­er, part pick­eter, part pub­li­cist, part com­mu­ni­ty activist, and all orga­niz­er — work­ing to build a com­mit­tee of cowork­ers that can learn these skills and run an orga­niz­ing cam­paign. This is the mod­el I became famil­iar with as a fast-food work­er and IWW mem­ber from 2006 – 2012.

Inspired by New York City Star­bucks baris­tas who formed a union with the IWW in 2004, I got a job at Star­bucks in the Mall of Amer­i­ca in 2006 with the intent of orga­niz­ing a union. I had been work­ing at oth­er cof­fee shops before and dur­ing col­lege and need­ed to work some­where. I decid­ed to take a job in the bel­ly of the beast, then try to union­ize it.

I attend­ed a two-day train­ing with expe­ri­enced orga­niz­ers before start­ing to talk to cowork­ers about the union. Sup­port­ed by reg­u­lar phone calls with a for­mer union staffer, my cowork­ers and I orga­nized a two-year, under­ground cam­paign at the Mall of Amer­i­ca Star­bucks and oth­er loca­tions across the city. Our work touched off a new wave of union­iza­tion strug­gles at Star­bucks from Fort Worth, Texas to Que­bec City, and beyond.

Lat­er, I got a job at a ten-store Jim­my John’s fran­chise in Min­neapo­lis, join­ing around a half dozen oth­er rank-and-file rad­i­cals intent on union­iz­ing the first fast-food fran­chise in the Unit­ed States. In 2010, years before Fight for 15 made fast-food union­ism com­mon sense, our cam­paign gen­er­at­ed a small-scale youth move­ment in the city.

Hun­dreds of young peo­ple joined in sol­i­dar­i­ty actions and social events to sup­port the union cam­paign and often car­ried the seeds of orga­niz­ing into their own shops, launch­ing more cam­paigns. Unions weren’t going out and orga­niz­ing work­ers — work­ers were orga­niz­ing unions.

Baris­tas, cashiers, and oth­er ser­vice-sec­tor employ­ees began telling me unprompt­ed that they want­ed to orga­nize their work­places. Hun­dreds of young peo­ple joined an unper­mit­ted march through down­town Min­neapo­lis on the eve of a union elec­tion at Jim­my John’s. We had pre­vi­ous­ly held qui­et house par­ties to raise funds for orga­niz­ing; sud­den­ly we were throw­ing ware­house raves that drew hun­dreds of young workers.

For the first time since 1934, it felt like orga­niz­ing a union in Min­neapo­lis was cool. The bill for this small-scale rev­o­lu­tion came out to around $80, the price of a cheap keg of beer for a par­ty to bring work­ers from dif­fer­ent shops together.

Of course, we weren’t total­ly suc­cess­ful. The low-wage econ­o­my is still hum­ming along in Min­neso­ta; we fell short of estab­lish­ing the Twin Cities Sovi­et. Still, we accom­plished a great deal on a small bud­get. What would it take to revi­tal­ize the labor move­ment by scal­ing up this example?

Although fund­ing would cer­tain­ly help (the work­ing class would like more kegs, please), the real lim­it­ing fac­tor is peo­ple. We need more peo­ple will­ing to spend sev­er­al years orga­niz­ing unions in their work­places, becom­ing active mem­bers of their com­mu­ni­ties, and exper­i­ment­ing with new forms of work­er orga­ni­za­tion until we fig­ure out what works — just as the mil­i­tants who built the upsurge of the 1930s did.

If even a hand­ful of cam­paigns like this sprang up in major cities, they could trans­form the labor move­ment. A half-dozen salts in Min­neapo­lis built a cam­paign that cap­tured local news head­lines for months, inspired dozens more work­ers to begin new orga­niz­ing cam­paigns, and rein­tro­duced the idea that work­ers could orga­nize their own unions. Imag­ine if this hap­pened in five or ten or twen­ty oth­er cities.

Our expe­ri­ence in Min­neapo­lis has lessons for larg­er, more main­stream orga­ni­za­tions. For the busi­ness unions, mon­ey does seem to be the lim­it­ing fac­tor. In 2012, Fight for 15 and OUR Wal­mart hint­ed that the main­stream labor move­ment had final­ly moved beyond the out­mod­ed forms of NLRB-cen­tered union­ism, find­ing strate­gies that allowed it to con­nect with the most exploit­ed workers.

In the four years since then, Fight for 15 has scored very notable wage increas­es through pol­i­cy reform, but it has not been able to estab­lish mil­i­tant unions in the fast-food indus­try. Remem­ber, the orig­i­nal demand was $15 an hour and a union. OUR Wal­mart did devel­op a sus­tained rank-and-file base, but its par­ent union cut its fund­ing in a bout of short­sight­ed, bureau­crat­ic infight­ing, forc­ing orga­niz­ers to seek alter­nate sources of revenue.

As union den­si­ty drops to pre-NLRB lev­els and right-to-work leg­is­la­tion eats into labor’s cof­fers, main­stream unions will need to find new ways to organize.

Salt­ing may be the best bet for orga­niz­ing the unor­ga­nized if unions lose their foot­ing as legal enti­ties and can no longer finance staff-dri­ven orga­niz­ing. A shift toward salt­ing in non-union shops would help devel­op a cul­ture of strug­gle behind ene­my lines from which new move­ments would emerge.

Salt­ing can also help resolve the labor movement’s cri­sis of pow­er in union­ized shops. As Joe McCartin writes, orga­niz­ing with­in already union­ized shops and a revival of direct action mil­i­tan­cy to advance the com­mon good is the best way to turn the tide against attacks on pub­lic-sec­tor unions. Nurs­es’ unions could lead fights for uni­ver­sal health care, build­ing trades unions could lead fights for green ener­gy and pub­lic hous­ing, teach­ers’ unions could lead fights for high-qual­i­ty pub­lic edu­ca­tion, trans­port and auto work­ers could lead fights for new mass tran­sit sys­tems, and so on.

But in many cas­es, work­ers are union­ized but not orga­nized. To rebuild the sol­i­dar­i­ty and mil­i­tan­cy that would make these cam­paigns around class-wide demands pos­si­ble, unions could devel­op cur­rent or future mem­bers as rank-and-file orga­niz­ers — in effect, salt­ing already-union­ized shops.

His­to­ry shows that salt­ing mas­sive­ly con­tributed to labor’s great­est tri­umphs — from the break­throughs of the 1930s, to the rebel rank-and-file move­ments of the 1970s, to the Labor Notes-inspired reform strug­gles of the 1980s to today’s dynam­ic inde­pen­dent and union-led orga­niz­ing. But the ques­tion remains — who is going to do what needs to be done?

A work­ing class hero is some­thing to be

Since Elec­tion Day, thou­sands of peo­ple in the Unit­ed States have streamed into left orga­ni­za­tions in shock at the dystopi­an real­i­ty our coun­try is descend­ing into. They came look­ing for answers to the peren­ni­al ques­tion What should I do?”

The anti-Trump move­ment increas­ing­ly has turned to eco­nom­ic forms of direct action: a women’s strike, taxi strike, bode­ga strike, tech work­er walk­outs, and now calls for a gen­er­al strike. That can’t hap­pen with­out mas­sive orga­ni­za­tion at the point of pro­duc­tion. To esca­late to win, we need bring our pol­i­tics to work.

A turn to the work­place is the log­i­cal step for the thou­sands of peo­ple who have turned to social­ism in the past year. Salt­ing offers a mean­ing­ful and acces­si­ble point of entry to activism, because almost all of us have to sell our labor for a liv­ing. Mil­len­ni­als espe­cial­ly are expe­ri­enc­ing his­toric down­ward mobil­i­ty. We may have not have gone look­ing for the class strug­gle, but the class strug­gle has come look­ing for us.

Salt­ing can help over­come the gap between the Left and the work­ing class by quite lit­er­al­ly meet­ing work­ers where they are: at work. Unlike get­ting a union or NGO staff job, tak­ing time out­side of work to be an activist, or becom­ing an aca­d­e­m­ic, work­er-cen­tered orga­niz­ing is imme­di­ate­ly acces­si­ble to work­ing-class peo­ple, and doesn’t depend on a pay­check from bureau­cra­cies that may be either co-opt­ed or destroyed in the com­ing years.

While sup­port­ing salt­ing would be basic com­mon sense for unions, the cur­rent crop of labor lead­ers may or may not be will­ing to make this move, espe­cial­ly because the Repub­li­can Con­gress is already maneu­ver­ing to make it ille­gal.

The labor left will have to lead the way. We should coor­di­nate our actions to focus on key employ­ers and sec­tors and take jobs that would enable move­ment build­ing, ide­al­ly with­in the fields that we already work in to min­i­mize the dis­tance between orga­niz­er” and orga­nized.” Or be a work­ing-class hero, and seek out employ­ment in areas where work­er orga­ni­za­tion can have an out­sized impact, like logis­tics.

If it comes to pass, a large-scale turn to salt­ing could trans­form the labor move­ment and the Left by putting work­ers at the cen­ter. Salt­ing is where rad­i­cal labor began; it’s also where it can begin anew.

We’ve been telling work­ers for decades that it’s time to orga­nize. Now the labor left needs to lis­ten to its own advice. We know what is to be done. So get a job, and let’s get to work.

In These Times is proud to fea­ture con­tent from Jacobin, a print quar­ter­ly that offers social­ist per­spec­tives on pol­i­tics and eco­nom­ics. Sup­port Jacobin and buy a four-issue sub­scrip­tion for just $19.95.

Erik For­man has been active in the labor move­ment for over a decade as a rank-and-file orga­niz­er, at the fore­front of cam­paigns to union­ize the U.S. fast food indus­try. He cur­rent­ly works as a labor edu­ca­tor in New York City and is pur­su­ing a Ph.D. in cul­tur­al anthro­pol­o­gy at the Grad­u­ate Cen­ter of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Fol­low him at twit​ter​.com/​_​e​r​i​k​f​orman.
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