Introduction to the Rank-and-File Strategy

Chicago School Teachers Strike

The challenge we face today is one that socialists could not have imagined just a few years ago: how to advance socialist politics on a mass scale. As impressive as DSA’s growth has been in recent years, we have a long way to go.

It’s not just that we need more socialists; we also need them in the right places. That means more respected leaders and organizers throughout all sectors of the multiracial working class, capable of moving people to action.

This is not some romantic or nostalgic vision; it is based on a strategic assessment that the organized working class is the only force with both the material interest and the place in the structure of the economy to transform society and build socialism.

In previous eras socialists were often respected workplace leaders. These radicals helped organize workers into a collective force that went beyond workplace fights and into the political arena.

That is much less common today. The left often finds itself on the outside looking in when workplace struggle erupts. Socialists are more likely to be organizing strike support than leading strikes.

This divide has weakened both workers’ movements and the left. The socialist movement is stronger when tied to workers’ movements, and vice versa. Rebuilding the link between them is key to revitalizing both, and to keeping our movement grounded in the reality of workers’ lives.

That’s where the rank-and-file strategy comes in. It provides a strategic vision for re-linking workers’ movements and the left.

The Cold War purges of left-leaning union leaders and the shift of union leaders toward business unionism resulted in a staid bureaucracy unwilling to combat concessions, and a demobilized rank and file that too often lacks the organization to fight its own battles. One goal of the rank-and-file strategy is to reform unions into sites of class struggle: democratic, member-led movements with the confidence and cohesion to fight and win real power.

It would be easier if there already existed such a strong workers’ movement that socialists could just dive into. Instead, much of the labor movement is weak and on the defensive. That’s why our challenge is two-fold. We need to help create a “sea of class struggle for socialists to swim in.” And we also need to rebuild the link between socialists and the majority of the working class.

To do this we connect with workplace leaders, those who do the day-to-day organizing. Socialists can both learn from these leaders and help make the connections that let them know they are part of something bigger — not just a union, but a working class — that is capable of fighting, winning, and ultimately ruling. We want to create the conditions where fighting for a socialist future makes sense to ever larger groups of workers.

Why Unions Matter

Given the weakness of the current labor movement, why focus on unions and workplaces as key to building socialism? Simply put, because the working class, including socialists, can only develop the consciousness and skills needed to transform society through active struggle with the capitalist class, and the workplace is the most direct and obvious site for that to happen.

Even in labor’s diminished state, there are more than 14 million union members in the United States. That’s a solid base to start with, and few other organizations can match the resources that unions have.

What’s more, even though unions have much work to do against racism, sexism, and homophobia, the workplace is the least racially segregated institution in society, where the working class comes together when they show up for work every day and have to work together simply to get the job done. Unions create structures that can forge bonds of solidarity across race, gender, religion, region, immigration status, and more.

Unions give workers a platform to wage class struggle in a coordinated and sustained way. The fact that actually existing unions often fall short of their potential means that a central part of socialist strategy must be to strengthen unions, not bypass them.

But fomenting class struggle in the workplace is only part of the job. To close the gap between workers in struggle and organized socialists, DSA chapters can be proactive about seeking out relationships with unions and other worker organizations such as workers centers. We want to be allies in their fights with the boss and we want them as allies in our broader campaigns such as Medicare for All and a Green New Deal. We need to rebuild the reputation of socialists and make normal and natural the relationship between socialists and labor.

This pamphlet offers a how-to manual for DSA members who want to put the multi-pronged rank-and-file strategy into action. It includes actions DSAers can take in the workplace and work that chapters can do as chapters.

Solidarity Rally for General Motors

A National Strategy

The rank-and-file strategy has the advantage that it can be implemented just about anywhere in the United States, even in areas of low union density. Our work is stronger when we can make national connections. Every county in the US employs teachers who are either already union members or who have the potential to become so. Likewise with UPS workers, USPS workers, grocery workers, telecom, and other national industries. Health care workers and airline workers are widely distributed. Amazon is hiring and opening new warehouses all the time. DSA members who want to hook up with unions, either as members getting jobs or as chapters making connections through campaigns, can find them in their local areas.

The Rank-and-File Strategy: What It Is, and What It Is Not

The rank-and-file strategy is a broad vision based on the idea that struggles for concrete gains reshape people’s understanding of what’s possible — and of what they themselves are capable of. It is only in a context of raised expectations that people on a mass scale can be won to the idea that workers can and should be in charge. We want to join with worker leaders to raise those expectations!

The rank-and-file strategy is not a single tactic. “Encouraging socialists to take union jobs in particular industries” is just one part of a broader strategy.

Helping to rebuild a layer of militant workplace leaders is not something that today’s socialists can accomplish by themselves. Even if every single DSA member dropped everything and found a job in a strategic industry, we would be far short of rebuilding that leadership layer.

The strategy is not anti-staff or anti-leadership. It does not mean that socialists should avoid union staff jobs or leadership positions. On the contrary, militant unions require talented leadership and dedicated staff.

Without an active, organized membership, union staff and elected leaders will be limited in what they can do, no matter how well-intentioned. At worst, they are too often subject to conservatizing pressures.

The core focus is to find and work with militant, respected, workplace-based leaders. A necessary step will be to run for elected positions, and it will make sense for these reformers to hire socialists as staff to help implement their agenda. In today’s best examples, staff have played a big role in helping train rank-and-filers and strengthen their unions.

The rank-and-file strategy is not just about current union members; organizing the unorganized is a key component. We need millions more workers in unions so that they are better positioned to fight further. We can’t expect a strong socialist movement when only one in ten workers belongs to a union. And fighting your boss to win a union is one of the best consciousness-raisers.

Given the size of the non-union workforce, organizing at a scale that can make a difference will require existing unions to take on that enormous job. Of course, millions of workers belong to unions that don’t encourage them to recruit their neighbors. Those unions need change from within in order to find the confidence and ambition to gamble on new organizing.

When reformers took over the Chicago Teachers Union, for example, they went on to organize charter school teachers into their local. Recognizing the threat of the low-wage Amazon model, in 2021 the Teamsters United reform slate pledged to put millions of dollars into a long-term plan to organize Amazon.

And new organizing becomes much easier when unions are fighting and winning — the power of a good example. When the Teamsters won their historic strike at UPS in 1997, FedEx workers began calling the union seeking to join too. As then AFL-CIO President John Sweeney observed: “You could make a million house calls, run a thousand television commercials, stage a hundred… rallies, and still not come close to doing what the UPS strike did for organizing.”

The rank-and-file strategy is not DSA’s only strategy for getting to socialism. We run in elections and participate in all kinds of social movements that organize working people toward power. The rank-and-file strategy is a part of our politics that is specifically about organizing workers as workers.