The utter rout of the Labour Party in the 2019 British elections has raised serious questions about the immediate viability of an electoral road to socialism “across the pond.” Some commentators have since tried to distance the democratic socialism of Jeremy Corbyn from that of his American counterpart Bernie Sanders. However, after the latter’s underperformance in the “Super Tuesday” primaries and beyond, the question is set to pose itself with greater urgency in the months ahead.
Many left-wing pundits located the failure of the Labour Party in the deep divisions brought on by Brexit. Fewer have situated the defeat within the larger context of the continued decline in the fortunes of organized labor. In the United Kingdom, trade union density has declined by nearly 10 percentage points between 1995 to today, representing a devastating loss of power for organized labor.
In the United States, we are on even less advantageous ground; union density rates are less than half that of the UK. As of today, union participation rates in the US are the lowest on record. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, “In 2019, the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of unions—the union membership rate—was 10.3 percent, down by 0.2 percentage point from 2018, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions, at 14.6 million in 2019, was little changed from 2018.”
If socialism is the political program of the working class, how can we reasonably expect to win a majority of the population to this program in a national election if we are incapable of organizing the class into even the most basic institutions of self-defense, such as trade unions? Regardless of whether the path to socialism runs through reform or revolution, it seems abundantly clear that laying the groundwork for a resurgence of organized labor is a sine qua non for the establishment of working class political power.
Empirical data, as well as historical experience, shows that union members are more informed about politics than non-union members, that the presence of a union encourages workers to become more active politically, and that unions actively develop the political thinking of their members, helping shape views on diverse political questions. Unions are unique in their ability to shape long-term opinion within the working class, as opposed to the more ephemeral impact of electoral campaigns, because unions are permanent ideological anchors, rooted in the daily lived experience of the workers, and offering a competing perspective on political questions to other influencing factors such as mass media, the education system, religious institutions, etc.
Given the importance of unions in socialist strategy, it stands to reason that socialists should favor the expansion of organized labor — more workers organized into unions. However, recent socialist thought has tended to discount the role “organizing the unorganized” has to play in expanding the ranks of organized labor. Instead, the dominant position among socialists has been that the focus of our movement should be on joining already-existing trade unions and taking over their leaderships (often called the “rank-and-file” strategy).
In this essay, I argue that, while this “rank-and-file” strategy may be appropriate in a minority of situations, the socialist movement must prioritize organizing the unorganized and take up the task of becoming the prime driver of new organizing in the labor movement. This task will take on newfound immediacy once the US economy kicks back into gear and new hiring begins picking up in the wake of the recession prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.
New factors at play: Class consciousness, worker combativity, and structural change
Although the US economy is coming off of the longest period of economic expansion in history, record-low unemployment hasn’t resulted in significant gains for workers. Indeed, the entirety of the post-recession economy has been marked by a combination of low unemployment and anemic wage growth.
This has resulted in widespread feelings of unfairness; workers bore the brunt of the impact of the Great Recession in the form of layoffs, loss of access to healthcare, long spells of unemployment, etc. But while the capitalist government moved heaven and earth to put the economy back on the road to recovery through bail-outs, trickle-down stimulus policies, tax cuts, and massive quantitative easing, we have seen the very wealthy disproportionately seize the gains of the recovery, so much so that inequality is even starker now than before, reaching the highest levels in fifty years.
It should come as no surprise then that labor unions today are perceived more favorably than any other time in the past fifty years among the population at large. More importantly, this sentiment has translated into action on the part of at least some workers. Beginning with the wildcat strike of West Virginia teachers, 2018 became the year the highest number of workers walked off the job since 1986. While the total number of strike participants decreased slightly in 2019, the number of large work stoppages involving 20,000 or more workers, was at its highest in nearly 30 years. The number of workdays lost due to strike actions also hit a new high in 2019 — the most days lost since 2004. Long atrophied, the muscle memory of the working class is beginning to show signs of life.
As capitalism recovered the epoch-defining structural readjustment of 2007-2008, its reorganization has opened the door for workers in certain industries to exert greater leverage. This argument is sustained by an abundance of theoretical and empirical data presented in Kim Moody’s seminal 2017 book On New Terrain: How Capital is reshaping the battleground of class war. Moody’s central argument in that text is that “the consolidation, integration, and relocation of capital” has occurred “in ways that are potentially more advantageous for working-class resistance, organization, and power.”
The section of Moody’s book that has generated the most interest has been the increased salience of just-in-time supply chain systems due to the “logistics revolution,” the increased concentration of supply chains, and the decreasing number of supply firms. This raises the specter of working class interventions (such as strikes) in the circulation process: “the country’s larger, more consolidated firms and industries are themselves far more vulnerable to disruption at many points along the just-in-time supply chains.” In other words: a few organized workers sitting idle could shut down the entire supply system, and beyond.
While unions still face many challenges to organizing, new opportunities for workplace organizing are opening up.“Capital has seen a period of unprecedented rapid concentration and consolidation through merger movements that accelerated in the mid-1990s,” Moody continues. “The consolidation of the past twenty years has been along industrial and product lines. Bigger firms command increasing masses of capital, much of it sunk, and employ larger numbers and concentration of workers producing related products by increasingly similar methods. As a result, capital is often potentially more vulnerable to unionization along industrial lines.”
Zooming out from the economic base and shifting over to developments on the ideological plane, we see that objective contradictions have worked their way here as well. The increasing popularity and mainstream discussion of socialism is one of the most visible political impacts of the Great Recession. Due to the resulting deprivations forced on many workers, hundreds of thousands, even millions, of working people have radicalized — some even going so far as to identify as socialists. This profound ideological shift somewhat mitigates the risks of red-baiting and weakens the anti-communist wing of the labor movement.
How will this new mood of worker resistance fare in the fallout of the mass layoffs and a sharp uptick in unemployment? Normally recessions cause a decrease in worker activism. However, that’s not always the case; the struggles of workers during the Great Depression in the 1930s resulted in enormous gains in terms of workers rights, and established the labor movement as a truly mass movement, culminating in the establishment of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
Will our brief but visceral memory of working class resistance have any impact on how workers respond to the present crisis? Will the socialist movement be able to extend, consolidate, and expand the momentum generated by the rapid granting of various emergency concessions by the ruling class as a response to the coronavirus pandemic?
This fusion of increased working class resistance, greater openness to socialist politics, significant changes to the process of production and circulation, and a large-scale public health crisis presents the socialist left with tantalizing opportunities for revitalizing the labor movement unimaginable even a few short years ago. What will be the prospects for the labor movement coming out of the current crisis? Part of this depends on the severity, and especially the duration, of the recession. How the macro factors of increased class consciousness and revitalized worker fightback combine with economic depredation, a return of mass unemployment, followed (possibly) by a sharp uptick in hiring and new opportunities to organize critical supply lines, along with the repercussions of coronavirus interact is unknowable. However, the combination is likely to be combustive. We will return to this question at the conclusion of the essay.
Rank-and-file strategy — A strategy for the (militant) minority
The socialist left owes a great debt to Kim Moody for the analysis presented above. But Moody is perhaps more well known — and certainly has been more influential — for a “working paper” he wrote twenty years ago called “The Rank-and-File Strategy.”
There are several differences between Moody’s perspective as articulated in that document, as opposed to the lessons the socialist movement has drawn from this document. However, this is beyond the scope of this essay. For the sake of political relevance, I will focus on how the rank-and-file strategy has been discussed and actually implemented contemporarily.
In the “rank-and-file” model of today, socialists ignore the immediate necessity of organizing the millions of unorganized workers in the USA. Instead, socialists are encouraged to get jobs in already-unionized industries (this is sometimes referred to as “implantation”) and struggle against conservative trade union leaders in order to put socialists (or progressives, or reformers) into leadership positions.
The task of bringing in the masses of unorganized workers into unions, if it is reckoned with at all, is consigned to a distant future (much like socialism itself). Instead, the directive is to run in internal union elections as a rank-and-file caucus, until, presumably they win leadership and are no longer the rank-and-file.
Rank-and-file caucuses have an uneven history of success over the last twenty or thirty years. While there have been several success stories (such as the CORE caucus within the Chicago Teachers Union) there have also been many failures (e.g. the New Directions caucus), numerous instances of accommodation with or co-option by the labor bureaucracy, and many more instances of simply falling short of their goals, especially in terms of campaigns to capture union offices.
These efforts, even where successful, have been ambiguous in some ways. To offer two recent examples, the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) offered left cover for bureaucratic leaders such as Sean O’Brien. Or consider that the Chicago Teachers Union, which was given effusive praise and coverage by the socialist paper of record, Jacobin, failed to deliver on expectations when they declined to support Bernie Sanders in his presidential bid.
The strategic reasoning connecting the rank-and-file strategy to the tasks of new organizing is what convoluted. Typically, the contradictory idea is floated that new organizing of workers should be postponed until existing unions first have a changing of the guard. As labor journalist Jane Slaughter states: “Although it will take time, a more fruitful strategy for organizing the unorganized is to change our existing unions so they will be able to do that work.” In other words: the fastest way to organize the unorganized is to not organize new workers, but to spend years (decades?) on internal factional union politics. This is a serious dereliction of duty for socialists. An insurgent rank-and-file slate may take three, four, or perhaps several more election cycles to displace an existing leadership (if they succeed at all). That means waiting perhaps twelve, sixteen years, or longer, before we can begin the process of organizing new workers into unions.
Eric Blanc, one of the most articulate voices representing the dominant position within largest socialist organization in the country — the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) — reiterates and expands upon this point, citing DSA’s successful efforts to unionize Anchor brewing company in the bay area (more on this below) as an exception proving the rule:
“As exciting as the Anchor win is, it would take more than 13,000 equivalent campaigns to raise union density by one percentage point. Scaling up to this level is not possible through DSA alone. It would, however, be possible if a reformed Teamsters union organized FedEx and Amazon, or through a reformed UAW that stopped crashing and burning in the South.
Until we can push our unions out of the political rut they’ve been stuck in for decades, there’s only so much that individual socialists can do to organize the unorganized. DSA cannot replace the infrastructure, experience, institutional memory, resources, legal protections, or connections to the working class that the union movement has – and has sadly failed to make full use of.”
What Blanc’s calculus ignores is that such new organizing campaigns potentially have multiplier effects over time. Imagine if the socialist movement — with thousands of active members in organizations across the country — were to buckle down and attempt to establish a new, socialist-led nationwide union or worker organizing project with a laser focus on organizing the unorganized. If this were to happen, each successful campaign would mean consistent dues income which could be immediately reinvested in further new organizing, instead of being sunk into electoral campaigns which have yet to bear fruit in terms of economic and political advances for workers.
Does this mean that the rank-and-file strategy has no usefulness today? Certainly not. For the 6% of private sector workers and 37% of public sector workers already represented, joining a union that’s already in place and getting involved should be a no-brainer. However, given that nearly 90% of the workforce is emphatically lacking a union, the question is raised as to what the vast majority of the working class should be doing while socialists are slogging through several rounds of union elections over the next decade or longer.
While rank-and-file members of existing unions are the most well-placed political actors to undertake union reform efforts, our ability to undertake the crucial task of new organizing is somewhat problematic. Oftentimes, union members have no direct way to get involved in collective bargaining, much less in new organizing drives that are initiated by their union. New organizing drives must first and foremost rely on the initiative of unorganized workers, usually supplemented by the catalytic presence of union staff. In a left-driven new organizing model, experienced volunteers may be able to take on an outside support role in the place of staff, or at least provide backup to the latter. If we believe that the task of new organizing needs to take greater precedence than our movement has given it up to now, it follows that the rank-and-file strategy has little to offer here.
The central task: Organizing the unorganized
“The organization of the unorganized millions of workers is primarily the task of the left wing. There is no other sector of the labor movement possessing the necessary courage, energy, and understanding to carry through this basic work… The left wing alone has a realization of the tremendous social significance of the organization of the unorganized.
”The organization of the unorganized is of tremendous importance to the left wing. It tends to revolutionize the labor movement, to make it more responsive to left wing slogans, and to generally create a more favorable situation in which the left wing can operate.
Moreover, in the organization process, by taking an active lead in the campaign, the left wing will win direct leadership over large sections of the newly organized masses, for whoever organizes the workers leads them. It will also give the left wing invaluable experience in mass work and leadership.”
—William Z. Foster, “Organize the Unorganized” (1925)
A strategy of organizing the unorganized would have socialists focus their efforts on the vast majority of unorganized workers. This is especially critical at a time when the number of unorganized workers interested in joining a union is at the highest level it has been in four decades.
Socialists, with our deeply-held ideological commitments and greater willingness to take risks, are particularly well-suited to break new ground and begin a process of revitalizing the labor movement through organizing the unorganized. Socialist leadership in new organizing campaigns will also have the effect of radicalizing the newly-organized workers. In the book Reds or Rackets? The Making of Radical and Conservative Unions on the Waterfront, Howard Kimeldorf writes:
“Whoever reaches… unorganized masses first,” labor historian David Saposs long ago observed, “generally holds their confidence permanently.” In the drive to organize basic industry during the 1930s, leftist insurgents were indeed most durable when they were in on the ground floor of unionizing efforts…
In fact, of the eleven left-wing unions expelled from the CIO in 1950, six were based in industries with little or no history of unionism before the appearance of Communist organizers… The question of leadership sequence, or, as Richard Hamilton put it, “who got there first,” thus emerges as a key consideration in any study of working-class politics.”
If we wish to ensure the working class takes up socialist ideas as their own, we must “get there first.” This entails involvement in new organizing drives headed by existing unions, but it will also mean the establishment of new organizations and completely new unions. Here we should take our advice from William Z. Foster, the great American labor organizer and communist: “Where there is an insistent and intelligent demand from the combined left wing and progressives, the right-wing [of the labor movement] can literally be driven into organizing campaigns.”
The idea is that if socialists begin organizing new workers, organizing new union affiliates, and even establishing new unions altogether, it will spur the more conservative elements of the labor movement into action. And if conservative labor leaders refuse to dedicate sufficient resources to new organizing initiatives, we must bypass them and form these unions as independent entities. Creating institutions which can organize the unorganized on a mass scale should be the primary task of socialists today. We sometimes refer to this process as “base-building.”
Several impressive examples exist to show how the socialist left can take the lead in organizing the unorganized. In San Francisco, DSA chapters have been instrumental in new organizing at Anchor Brewing and Tartine Bakery. The left-wing Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) has organized the largest fast food workers union in the country. In Philadelphia, Philly Socialists, an independent revolutionary socialist collective within the Marxist Center trend, has been diligently focused on new organizing, most recently culminating in the struggle for union recognition at Cake Life bakery. There are many other success stories as well.
One issue we need to get our heads around is that the problem in the current period isn’t that unionization efforts fail (although, certainly they do) but rather that there are not enough efforts undertaken. Labor researcher Eric Dirnbach points out that workers could be running more NLRB elections and losing more often, and still drive up the number of unionized workers in aggregate:
“The union win rate has been increasing, along with the smaller number of elections and reduced union resources. I think there’s really only one conclusion that makes sense here – unions are focusing their resources and efforts on a smaller number of elections, and they are winning them. Unions are choosing quality over quantity.
Given the massive expected employer opposition, unions are now understandably cautious in choosing which elections to run. You need to file signed authorization cards from at least 30% of the workers to have an election, but it’s generally considered malpractice to file with less than 60%, given the potential loss of support once the anti-union campaign starts. My guess is that in the 1970s unions filed with much less and accepted the lower win rate. In that sense, the labor movement of the time was bolder and took greater risks than unions do today.”
In other words: we can fight more often, lose more frequently, and still come out ahead. The labor movement needs to stop being afraid of losing and start being afraid of not fighting back.
Conclusion: The left needs an orientation toward new organizing in labor
In Roger Keeran’s classic 1980 study, The Communist Party and the Auto Workers Union, the author notes that communists possessed an orientation toward organizing the unorganized in the 1920s, but met with only mixed success in organizing workers into unions; “the relative economic and political stability of the 1920s deprived members of any sense of imminent crisis or high political purpose.” Between 1920 and 1922, the auto workers union dropped from an already-meager 45,000 members nationally to a mere 800. Undeterred, the communists maintained their focus on new organizing throughout the 1920s. They rebuilt slowly, but participation was anemic.
When the Great Depression began in 1929, the unions were absolutely devastated. To use the auto industry once again as an example, the Ford Motor Company, the largest of the Detroit auto firms, reduced payroll from 128,142 persons in March 1929 to 37,000 by April 1931. Communist organization in workplaces (“factory cells”) evaporated overnight.
However, the Party quickly and shrewdly pivoted toward agitation among the unemployed, leading mass marches demanding unemployment relief and setting up unemployed councils. These organizations later became critical as a means to mitigate scabbing during strikes. After only a year or two, the unemployed movement shrank considerably. The vanguard of struggle moved once again into the workplace, and worker struggle kicked off in an unprecedented fashion. The 1930s became known as a “turning point” for labor in the US.
The rapid shift from workplace struggle to unemployed organizing and back again is a history socialists should study carefully today. We have no way of knowing if the recession we are entering into will be long or short, deep or shallow. But we do know that we are going into it with higher levels of class consciousness, a very recent muscle memory of strike action and worker fightback, and, potentially, with stronger and more coordinated organization.
The surest road to socialism runs through organizing the unorganized masses into unions. The socialist left needs to once again take up our historic duty: the organization of the unorganized in the labor movement. We can wait around for somebody else to do it, or we can dive in, get our hands dirty, and make it happen ourselves.