Integrating Union Work and Electoral Work

Case Study
Bernie Sanders at the UAW strike

Shane Ruiz is a staffer for a healthcare local in California.

In East Bay DSA’s Medicare for All campaign, we’ve put together phonebanks and collected signatures to pressure the governor to request a federal waiver so California can pursue statewide single-payer. I’ve been working to cohere our labor activists to get their unions to endorse the petition and to then circulate the petition among members and do political education about single-payer.

Power Mapping

Our DSA Medicare for All Committee assigned two or three people with labor organizing experience to meet with all of our rank-and-file activists doing this work. We mapped out who the activists were and what unions they were in and had regular one-on-ones with all of them. The idea is to craft our labor activists a campaign that is custom to their unique situations. A first step is to get our DSA members to pass a resolution in their union.

If a union is lucky enough to have internal democracy, and it’s politicized enough that resolutions are regularly submitted by rank-and-filers or leaders, they should take advantage of that because that’s not true at a lot of unions. We can help them write the resolution, we have templates. But that’s the easy part. The challenge is getting the activist layer of the union, much less members who aren’t already politicized, into action around single-payer.

If we’re going to beat the insurance industry and the big employers it’s going to take hundreds of thousands, probably millions of people to demand it in a real way: demand it at the voting booth, in mass protest, and if possible in the future, by withholding their labor. That means having lots of conversations with regular people about politics in a world where that is not the norm at all.

The specifics of the work really depend on the situation and the union. If someone is in a progressive union with a culture of democracy, they could probably organize an 100-person Zoom call on single-payer and have the people who show up write down five people they think they could organize into joining the committee and signing the petition.

Solidarity at Work

This work wouldn’t be possible without the relationships we’ve developed through our past work. In the course of the 2018 teachers strike, through our support work DSA got very close with a whole layer of people in the Oakland Education Association and there is a lot of overlap between DSA members and the active layer of OEA. And we worked with Service Employees 1021 to help put the Alameda Health System back in public hands. Now there is an elected 1021 member who is on the system’s board of trustees and who is helping us with this campaign for single-payer.

When I think about the rank-and-file strategy in terms of my work in DSA, it’s about how to integrate the strategy into our legislative and electoral work. How are we orienting ourselves toward the already organized working class, particularly its rank-and-file members? How are we politicizing them? How are we incorporating them into our campaigns? How are we getting them to politicize their unions through our campaigns?

There’s this desire to separate out the rank-and-file strategy from our electoral work, but the whole point is to synthesize those two things and to get working people into struggle around basic necessities of life and having them taken out of the market. That’s the stage of American politics we’re in.