Putting the Rank-and-File Strategy to Work

What does the rank-and-file strategy mean for DSA members and chapters? Here are concrete steps that members and chapters can take, along with examples of how DSAers are already putting the rank-and-file strategy to work.

Strategic Jobs

DSA and YDSA members who are looking for a job, thinking of changing careers, or unsure where they want to work after they graduate should consider taking jobs in strategic workplaces where they can organize with other socialists. In some cases this could entail further education or certification.

DSA labor committees can figure out key workplaces in their cities and encourage members to get jobs there together. It is important not to go into this project alone. Chapter labor committees can set up regular meetings for those getting new jobs, along with mentoring from more experienced comrades or from experienced non-DSA union members who know the lay of the land in your new local. In the best case the chapter supports the union member and the union member creates connections from their union to the chapter and recruits co-workers to DSA (see examples below).

Portland DSA set up four “socialist job fairs” over two years, at a union hall and a community center. At each one, representatives of organizing committees in different workplaces presented what they were doing and then sat behind tables where the 50 or so attendees could follow up. The organizing committees were in non-union, trying-to-unionize, and already-union workplaces.

Besides using social media to advertise, the chapter put up fliers in coffee shops and community colleges, attracting some non-DSA attendees. Registrants were vetted first by phone or in person, to weed out management spies (none were found, but there were some folks who thought it was a regular job fair). They were told the location on the day of. Specific employers were not mentioned until organizing committee members had talked one on one with the potential new hire.

“People have salted into non-union spaces such as hotels, restaurants, manufacturing, warehouses, and social services,” said Portland DSAer Jamie Partridge, “but we’re oriented more and more in the last year to already unionized places.” He cited the Letter Carriers local, which has a reform caucus, where DSA members came in through job fairs, as they did into the Portland public schools: “They’re coming in as cafeteria workers, bus drivers, and some are thinking about getting a degree. We hope to have a mentor program for those going to school to become teachers.”

What do we mean by a “strategic workplace”? That could be argued at length. When socialists chose industries in the 1970s, they generally went into blue-collar jobs that were linchpins of the economy: auto, steel, the Post Office, trucking, telephone. From 2018 to 2021, YDSA focused on K-12 education, healthcare, and logistics as its targets.

Strategic workplaces could vary from place to place. In New York, the Labor Branch went through a lengthy process of first deciding on criteria for “strategic” workplaces in their city. The criteria included economic leverage, social/political leverage, ease of entry, demographics, working conditions, and whether DSAers were already working there. The branch then applied those criteria and ended up voting for a total of six target industries: nursing, teaching, UPS, transit, building trades, and city government. Labor branch members made presentations at each of the city’s geographic branches to explain the strategy and the priorities and to encourage DSA members to choose one of these jobs.

How might we assess different sectors? Teaching and healthcare raise the potential for coalitions with others in the community — parents, students, and patients. They offer an opportunity to “bargain for the common good.” When teachers speak up, people listen — especially if schools are closed in a strike — and nurse is one of the most trusted professions. Healthcare workers have a central place in fighting for Medicare for All. In addition, these jobs are not vulnerable to being outsourced abroad and less threatened than others by automation.

Teaching is also attractive because of its recent outburst of militancy — the strike wave of 2018–19 — and many educators organized around safety during the pandemic. A teachers’ strike creates a kind of political crisis in the city where it happens. Healthcare too saw a ripple of worker actions demanding COVID protections in 2020.

A strategic sector could also be one that is central to the economy and thus causes disruption when workers strike, as in the 1997 walkout at UPS (logistics) or the 2019 strike at General Motors (manufacturing). Manufacturing is still a huge profit center in the US economy. Workers who bring down a cascading number of employers feel their power.

National sectors generally offer greater organizing opportunities; the Postal Service, grocery and retail chains, airlines, telecom, and many others fit the bill.

Because patience, humility, and longevity are crucial to our plan, DSAers should find jobs they will enjoy doing for a long time. As 20-year veteran Pam notes, “Most of your time is spent doing the work.” You can contribute to certain drives, and learn a lot, with a quick in-and-out “salting,” but the kinds of co-worker relationships we’re talking about building require some seniority.

The jobs we’ve mentioned are certainly not the only ones where DSAers can contribute to class struggle. Some jobs that could be strategic offer very low pay or are hard on the body; they can be difficult to maintain long-term. We need a combination of “important” (relatively large and impactful) and “sustainable.” The point is to think through what makes sense in your city with your cohort of DSAers.

Ongoing support and coordination are key. Some chapters, including Detroit and Los Angeles, have set up “labor circles” where DSAers and their co-workers, union and not-yet-union, can strategize around day-to-day organizing challenges and get feedback from experienced members. In some chapters mechanisms are more informal. DSA labor activists will be effective to the degree that they plan together and learn from each other, from other comrades — and especially from their co-workers.

National Networks

DSAers who are already in the relevant unions should work in existing national networks of K-12 educators, campus workers, nurses, Teamsters, United Auto Workers (UAW) members, and postal workers. There we find workers with wide-ranging contacts who are already thirsting to fight the boss and to democratize their unions. Often local reform caucuses exist as well.

Teachers in the United Caucuses of Rank-and-File Educators (UCORE), for example, often led the fight for safe schools during COVID. A national network of postal union activists has sought DSA’s help. UAW members in Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD) campaigned for direct election of their officers. Teamsters for a Democratic Union supported candidates for top offices in 2021 and will agitate for a contract campaign at UPS in 2023.

Where there are local groups of union members like these, DSA may be able to offer practical support, invite speakers, invite union members to educational events, or do fundraising. The goal is always to bring together socialists with workers who are fighting.

Strike Support

Strikes are not common enough, but they are great opportunities to develop relationships with willing unions. It’s not bad just to show up at a picket line (see the Denver example), but far more effective is to offer aid long before the strike jumps off — which is possible only if you know it’s going to happen, which in turn is possible only if DSAers are in the union or close to it. Read on below for some ways to build connections with locals long before strike time.

In building strike support, the first thing to figure out is what the chapter has to offer union members that will strengthen their strike.

  • Connections with unions or other organizations that will support the strike materially and morally. What relationships can the chapter or individual members call on?
  • Research on the employer’s vulnerabilities
  • Technical help with leaflet making, communications, media strategy
  • Fundraising
  • Tasks during the strike, such as food distribution, child care, and picket line presence

It is difficult to offer support if local officers are uninterested, which is most likely if (a) they’ve never heard of DSA or (b) they have never tried to mobilize their own members. They may be wary of socialist outsiders. On the eve of a strike you may be able to convince a reluctant but desperate executive board they could use DSA’s help, but the best remedy is a prior relationship.

A good example of DSA strike support that tightened connections between the chapter and union members happened at Alameda Health System (AHS) in the Bay Area in 2020. This was actually support for the union’s months-long contract campaign, in which DSA built relationships with rank-and-file leaders, and which then culminated in a winning strike.

An East Bay DSA member and nurse, Johnny Pearson, was president of the AHS chapter of Service Employees Local 1021, and he introduced DSA members to union activists more than six months before the strike. The fight was going to be a political one: leaders knew that in order to get a decent union contract, the health system would have to be “unprivatized.”

Twenty-two years earlier the County Board of Supervisors had voted to give up control of its public health system (10 hospitals and outpatient facilities with more than 3,500 union workers) to an unelected Board of Trustees. The results for patient care and working conditions were predictable. Administrators referred to their system as “the company.” The AHS unions, representing nearly all the job titles in the system, would need to build public support for the county to take back control — a tall order.

In March 2020, Pearson introduced DSA members who had various skills or organizing experience to elected officers who six months earlier had run with him on a slate dedicated to energizing the union. The DSAers explained that (a) they believed in strong unions and (b) as Alameda County residents and patients, they too had an interest in a well-run health system where workers had a say. They made clear that this was not a one-way, “we want to help you” relationship.

The DSAers began by assisting workers with a plan for a press conference, and as the campaign escalated, the DSA working group grew and more DSAers learned new skills. They brought social media expertise, video experience, and organizing savvy.

Over the course of the campaign union members and DSAers organized town halls that drew 100 people, featuring union activists and DSA’s political candidates who supported them, held an art build for picket signs and a mural painting session, produced videos, did car caravans, sponsored many email and text campaigns to pressure the Board of Supervisors, and held a dozen phonebanks to get DSA members out to AHS picket lines. Footage of the first action DSA helped organize was shared by Bernie Sanders’s campaign, which drew attention, and they used the contact list the chapter had built up during Sanders’s presidential run.

All this work was possible because of weekly Zoom meetings between DSA members and chapter leaders, both the new officers and rank-and-filers. “We built a strong relationship over Zoom,” said Molly Stuart, the East Bay DSA member who led the solidarity effort. “Once the collaborative relationship was established, Local 1021 members would bring ideas to the meetings and continue developing them with DSA members through follow-up one-on-ones, which could sometimes be done in-person with social distance. I wonder how much bigger it could have been without the pandemic barriers.”

Stuart emphasizes having something to offer: “It came in handy, especially in the beginning, to have media, art, and action planning skills. If we had shown up and said ‘we want to help, we don’t have any ideas or resources,’ we might have still been able to be involved, but I don’t know if they would have wanted to meet with us every week.”

On the second day of the October strike, the Board of Supervisors demanded the resignation of the AHS trustees and announced they would make AHS a public system once again. The workers’ months-long campaign had won!

Stuart advises DSA chapters who want to support strikes or other worker organizing to “get involved as early as possible” and to build relationships first: “If we had shown up at the first press conference trying to proselytize for DSA, that would not have led to the same kind of collaboration. Once relationships are strong, people will naturally be curious and excited about being invited personally to find out about your organization.” And a number of the new union leaders did in fact join DSA.

Building Labor Notes

Just as important as building shop-floor and local struggles is connecting workers across unions and regions — allowing worker activists to experience that they are indeed part of a bigger movement of people who think like them. Since 1979, Labor Notes has existed as the unofficial coordinator of that “troublemaking wing” of the labor movement — that is, the class-conscious current we’ve been talking about. It does so through its articles and books, through its industry-specific networks of activists in K-12 schools, the Postal Service, nursing, and higher education, through trainings put on for local unions, and through national and local conferences that draw thousands of participants.

The conferences bring together workers from different unions to learn from each other. They solidify the notion that “you are not alone”: there are many others working to “put the movement back in the labor movement,” as Labor Notes’ slogan goes. DSAers can bring co-workers to these biennial national conferences where the electricity in the room energizes attendees for months to come.

They can also help other unionists organize one-day local conferences (Troublemakers Schools) where workers learn organizing skills and discuss big-picture political questions. In the best case the local organizing committee for the school stays together and sponsors other events.

Although Troublemakers Schools aren’t DSA projects per se and need to be organized by a broad committee, DSAers can initiate them, build them, speak at them, and bring their co-workers to them.

Many chapters use Labor Notes training materials, in particular a facilitator’s guide for a three-part training based on the book Secrets of a Successful Organizer. Portland DSAers, for example, trained a dozen DSAers to lead these sessions, which sometimes spun off organizing committees in attendees’ workplaces, even leading to successful union drives. In New York City, the Labor Branch alternated regular monthly membership meetings with Labor Notes–style trainings led by members, and members brought their co-workers — a good introduction to DSA.

Taking Our Campaigns to Union Members

Unions can be key connections for our campaigns for candidates, Medicare for All, and a Green New Deal. The same goes for other campaigns that arise, such as for personal protective equipment, the PRO Act, or Black Lives Matter. Chapters should be familiar with the locals in their area and know their political proclivities. When a national union endorses Medicare for All or the Green New Deal, it becomes easier to approach a local. Chapters can offer to sit down with officers or the appropriate union committee to discuss how they can work together (without assuming that the local is 100 percent on board with what the national has passed).

We can ask to make presentations at union meetings and request official support in the form of donations, publicity, and recruitment of volunteers. Of course, such requests carry more weight when coming from a member of the local, or even from a member of another local. They are more likely to be successful when the ask is “how can we work together?” rather than “come join our existing campaign.”

In Portland, DSA’s electoral working group launched a tax-the-rich ballot measure to win universal pre-school at the same time that the labor working group was helping DSA members organize a union at a local pre-school chain. Those pre-school workers helped create a Childcare Workers Alliance, both for mutual support during the pandemic and to promote the pre-school ballot measure. DSAers in the Portland teachers union and in the National Organization for Women mobilized their members for signature gathering and to get out the vote. The ballot measure won, the union election was won, and Portland DSA’s labor connections and credibility rose dramatically.

Here’s a case where several kinds of chapter outreach worked together: When General Motors workers struck for six weeks in 2019, Denver DSAers searched social media to find whether there was a GM facility nearby. They discovered a small and fairly isolated UAW local. The DSA chapter not only sent five to ten people to the picket line every day; they organized other unions, such as the teachers and communications workers, to mobilize their own turnout. One night a central labor council activist brought a projector and everyone watched the movie “Pride” — which is also about an “outside” group supporting strikers.

When municipal elections came around, the UAW local was so grateful for DSA’s support that officers asked if there was anything they could do to help, and ended up endorsing DSA’s three candidates for school board and city council. One, Juan Marcano, had come to the picket line himself, and was elected to the Aurora, Colorado city council. It was one of the first political endorsements the local had made. And a couple of union officers started coming to DSA meetings.

Jobs on Staff

Many DSA members are union staffers and play a crucial role in the work of the union and by supporting the membership — even in unions with bad leadership. Staffers are often in the room with union officials and can weigh in on important issues, like a new organizing target or political strategy. But staff members’ ability to help build rank-and-file power varies widely depending on the elected officials who pay their salary and direct their work. If staffers are told to get out the vote to defeat Bernie Sanders or Medicare for All, for example, they may risk being fired if they object.

Even in unions with conservative or ineffective leaders, union staff can and often do work behind the scenes to support members. It’s risky and can be invaluable for union reformers. But unions aren’t going to reach their fullest potential without an active and engaged membership, capable of building democracy, directing the union’s affairs, and winning leadership. The kind of power and change we need can only come from the union’s members.

The Rank-and-File Strategy and Politics

While the rank-and-file strategy focuses on workplace organizing, it goes well beyond shop floor issues. DSA’s issue campaigns and electoral organizing can be integrated into our union work.

In New York, for instance, a group of teachers who were also DSA members helped build a loose network of hundreds of Educators for Bernie. Later, they and members of the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators (MORE), a reform caucus in the New York teachers union, organized to support teacher Jabari Brisport, running for State Senate with DSA’s backing. (His union supported his opponent.) The DSA Labor Branch also held phonebanks for all six of DSA’s candidates that cycle, enlisting members from different unions into the campaigns, all of which won.

When the Black Lives Matter uprisings kicked off, the Educators for Bernie group renamed themselves Educators for Black Lives and coordinated mobilizations to the protests. These efforts brought in hundreds of rank-and-file educators not in DSA.

When making political endorsements, union leaders often don’t engage their members nor ask much of them. But the Sanders campaign inspired thousands of members to insist they should have a say in which candidates their unions backed. “Labor for Bernie,” an independent effort that many DSAers or future DSAers joined in 2016 and 2020, brought the rank-and-file strategy to politics and inspired deep conversations with co-workers.

In 2020, Union Members for Bernie, part of Sanders’ official campaign, organized people to talk to their co-workers on the job and in their unions. They organized house parties to do workplace mapping, assess which of their co-workers supported Bernie, and make commitments to phonebank and knock doors.

The campaign also canvassed at workplaces. In the lead-up to the Iowa Democratic caucus, staff and volunteer organizers, including DSAers, went to the JBS Pork Plant in Ottumwa to talk to workers who would soon have a special satellite caucus at their union hall. They went multiple nights in a row from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. and engaged in long organizing conversations about the workers’ lives and the struggles they faced, securing commitments to caucus for Bernie and to talk to their co-workers. Organizers did follow-up house calls. Some of the workers helped identify organic leaders in the plant and in their immigrant communities, particularly among Ethiopian workers, leading Bernie to win the caucus among JBS Pork workers in a landslide.

The campaign continued this kind of work in the lead-up to the Nevada caucuses among Las Vegas casino workers. The leadership of the large and influential Culinary Union issued literature to its members that misrepresented and vilified Medicare for All, and Bernie by extension as the candidate supporting it. But volunteers, including many DSA members, spent days and nights speaking directly to Vegas Strip workers — leading to a landslide victory for Sanders. Workers gave rousing speeches for Bernie and how his program would improve their lives, the opposite of what their union leaders had promoted.

Not all efforts to reach union voters met with success. When reflecting on attempts to canvass auto workers in Michigan, Union Members for Bernie staffer Jonah Furman lamented, “We were between six months and 40 years too late.” The absence of class struggle in their union made it harder to interest auto workers in a class-struggle candidate.

The 2020 Bernie campaign showed the upper limit — about a third of the national Democratic electorate — of what socialists can achieve electorally without more class struggle. No matter how inspiring the politicians, they can’t magically cause big changes in how people think and vote come election time. That work has to be done between elections. Getting voters to vote for a class-struggle candidate will become much easier when millions of people have the first-hand experience of class struggle in their own lives.