Labor: The Rank-and-File Strategy

There can be no socialist movement without a strong and militant workers’ movement. Major changes in the structure of the global economy have not invalidated the basic insights of socialist politics – they have simply reshaped the battleground of class conflict. Unfortunately, labor movements in the US and around the world have struggled mightily to adapt to these shifts. While there are signs that a new upswing in working class organization and struggle may be on the horizon, after thirty years of unrelenting attack labor’s position remains weak and insecure.

Labor’s dire condition is, to a significant extent, a result of forces beyond its control. At the same time, the dominant strategic orientation among the union leadership – often described as “business unionism” – has proven itself to be utterly incapable of combating capital’s war on the power and living standards of the working class.

What is the role of a socialist organization in the labor movement today? We argue that the current situation leaves us with one choice: the adoption of a rank-and-file strategy. The rank-and-file strategy is the most promising path for reviving the unions that still exist (e.g. the Chicago Teachers Union) and organizing the vast majority of unorganized workers. It is also the best and most effective way for socialists to root ourselves in the working class, avoid sectarian isolation, and build the social power working people need to win fundamental political change.

Simply put, there is no socialist movement without a strong labor movement rooted in the power of rank-and-file workers. Without a strong base in the workers’ movement, there is little that distinguishes DSA or any other socialist group from the wide array of single-issue activist groups and foundation-funded nonprofit organizations. It is the key to building an independent base of social power that can effectively fight employers in the workplace; support the creation of a new socialist political formation; and hold our politicians accountable to our goals once they are elected to office. It would also be the most effective way to diversify our membership base along the lines of class, gender, race, ethnicity, and national origin. Unions, for all their problems, are among the most integrated institutions because they have to organize whomever the boss hires in order to be effective. The working class is the most diverse part of our society – if we want to change the demographic composition of DSA, this is where we must go.

If elected to the NPC, we will work to develop a national program that encourages DSA locals around the country to adopt and implement the rank-and-file strategy. This will entail intensive political education in the thinking behind the strategy; an analysis of the most strategic sectors and occupations for DSA members to enter; and the creation of a support network for DSA members who choose to do this work. Our view is that this program should focus on three main strategic “industries”: education, health care, and logistics/distribution. These fields are critical nodes in today’s economy; offer opportunities to both rebuild existing unions and organize the unorganized; and give rank-and-file socialist organizers the chance to build power while living a decent life.

The deep crisis of US labor may offer hidden advantages to socialists practicing the rank-and-file strategy. The so-called “right-to-work” drive will throw the big and bureaucratic public sector unions into turmoil, and expose the weaknesses of incumbent labor leaderships who can’t – or won’t – fight back. Despite the massive challenges confronting labor activists today, socialists will have new opportunities to fight for positions of leadership in the labor movement, and to lay the groundwork for a new upsurge of working class struggle. We have no choice but to seize them.

Electoral Strategy, Not Electoralism

Socialism will not come through the ballot box alone, but developing a socialist electoral strategy is one of the key tasks for our organization today. Historically, socialists in the US have tended to adopt one of three main types of electoral strategies: realignment, the “inside/outside” approach, and independent political action.

Under the realignment strategy, socialists sought to unite all progressive forces in the Democratic Party and drive all reactionary forces into the Republican Party, with the intention of turning the Democrats into the equivalent of a western European social democratic or labor party. This was the strategy DSA founder Michael Harrington advocated from the 1960s through the 1980s, and it was DSA’s dominant orientation for much of its history. While we reject this strategy as inappropriate to the current political situation, it had the merit of being based on a critical analysis of potential points of leverage in the party system issuing from splits within the ruling class over major political issues. In previous decades, there were real conflicts between major wings of the Democratic Party coalition over key questions such as civil rights. It made sense to work to intensify contradictions between northern liberals and Southern Dixiecrats and push the latter into the Republican Party. This realignment did in fact happen, but it did not result in the transformation of the Democrats into a social democratic party. Instead, the party recruited a layer of culturally liberal members of the professional-managerial class that now constitute a core component of the party’s social base. Today we are faced with a partisan alignment that does not offer much room in either party for the socialist left, and which does not seem conducive to moving any major bloc from one party into the other.

The inside/outside strategy also attempts to work within the two-party system, but in a different manner from the realignment strategy. The “inside” part of the strategy is similar to that the realignment approach: socialists are encouraged to run as Democrats and agitate and organize within the party for a leftward shift. The inside game would be supplemented by organizing and agitation outside the party system through non-electoral social movement pressure. Advocates of this approach, however, tend to leave the question of the proper balance of inside and outside work unaddressed. This results in a high level of ambiguity as to what exactly this strategy should look like in practice and what its long-term aims are.

Finally, there is the strategy of independent political action. Its advocates reject working within the two party system altogether, and argue for the establishment of an independent socialist, labor, or people’s party.

We find all three of these approaches to be strategically limited. Realignment has been attempted multiple times throughout US history, and the results have fallen far short of expectations at every turn. Insurgent candidates are pushed in practice toward the political center, as they have to campaign for all Democratic candidates and are expected to maintain party discipline in legislative voting. Wealthy donors give moderates and centrists a major advantage in intra-party conflicts, regardless of the wishes of many Democratic voters. These structural limitations severely constrain even the most well-meaning and politically savvy insurgents who want to turn the Democrats into a legitimate labor or social democratic party.

The inside/outside strategy rightly recognizes the barriers to realignment, and advocates a guerilla warfare-style engagement with the Democratic Party. It too, however, does not offer a fully satisfactory approach to electoral politics. While pressure from the outside may help to push Democratic officeholders to support reforms in periods of political and economic crisis (e.g. the 1930s and 1960s), these gains will inevitably be rolled back with the support of Democratic politicians when the political winds shift and Democratic politicians face electoral costs by continuing to support social-democratic reforms. Because it doesn’t aim to build an internally democratic and member-driven mass party capable of holding officeholders accountable to its agenda, the inside/outside strategy is highly vulnerable in periods of relative social movement inactivity, and risks lapsing into realignment by another name.

Yet calls to “leave the party” and found a new formation right now seem to misunderstand the unique nature of the US electoral system. As we have seen time and again, third parties are structurally hobbled by the a peculiar combination of single round, first-part-the-post voting for legislative offices; a strongly presidential system of government; and draconian electoral laws designed to protect the two main parties from meaningful competition. Simply leaving the party without an alternative strategy in place will produce little more than quickly forgotten insurgent campaigns.

We believe that any viable electoral strategy for building a mass left-wing formation in the US must be based on a recognition of these realities. Where possible, we should attempt to use the major parties’ ballot lines without confronting the major parties’ infrastructure. This is not to say that we can simply “enter” these parties and wield them for our own ends. We reject the realignment strategy on precisely this basis.

Rather, we propose an approach that could be called building a “party beyond the party,” one that formulates a clear political program and develops, runs, and disciplines candidates in select campaigns. If candidates are not organically linked and held accountable to a strong political organization, office-holders of any political party will betray their electoral base for political expediency. Wherever possible, especially in cities and states dominated by the Democratic Party, we will seek to run candidates on an independent, openly socialist basis. However, the choice of ballot line is secondary to the strength of a political organization that can develop candidates and hold them accountable once in office.

Any socialist organization must engage in electoral politics. But we must avoid the trap of electoralism (an excessive focus on election campaigns) while doing so. Campaigning for public office complements our work of building social power, and is not a substitute for it. Also, this strategy should be built very carefully and patiently. We believe that DSA’s current approach to running candidates lacks a truly strategic orientation, and requires a comprehensive rethinking. This will not happen overnight.

Internationalism: Our Struggle For Global Liberation

Internationalism is one of the fundamental principles of the socialist project, and as residents of the world’s leading capitalist power we bear a special internationalist responsibility. A strong movement for socialism in our country would open up space for popular movements around the world to order their societies how they see fit, without the political and military intervention of the US.

The global climate crisis only intensifies the long-standing need for a truly international socialist movement. This is why we support the resolution to fully withdraw DSA’s affiliation with the moribund Socialist International (SI), which will not be the vehicle for such a project. DSA should begin to develop stronger relationships with new left parties and movements around the world, from Podemos (Spain) to PSOL (Brazil) to Momentum in Britain, to name only a few.

We also recognize that it’s long past time to end Israeli apartheid and occupation of Palestinian territories. As Americans we bear a special responsibility to end our country’s support for Israeli policy, and that’s why we back the resolution to endorse the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement at the convention.

Internal Democracy and the Spring Platform

While DSA’s organizing capacity has expanded dramatically over the past year, any DSA leader can tell you that the size of our membership (let alone our potential for further growth) has greatly outpaced our current organizational infrastructure. DSA is a completely different organization today than it was a year ago, and we urgently need to develop structures that match DSA’s current needs and anticipate further growth.

To that end, we offer a range of proposals to increase our capacity to meaningfully absorb new DSAers, increase democratic participation within DSA, and create mechanisms to strengthen accountability the between membership, its elected leaders, and the national staff. We’ve endorsed the Spring Platform, a program of structural reforms and internal organization intended to help DSA keep pace with renewed interest in socialism without sacrificing democracy. Most of all, the Spring Platform aims to dramatically increase the participation of members in decision making at the local, regional, and national level through the following reforms:

A. Membership Mobilizers

To keep pace with interest, DSA must look to other mass based organizations and implement internal organization systems to rapidly orient new members. The Mobilizers Program piloted in New York City and Philadelphia is based on traditional labor organizing structures (i.e. shop stewards) to develop an organized layer of activists between the membership and elected leaders. Mobilizers are trained to teach new members how the chapter works, share opportunities for participating in committees and campaigns, and relay member interests and concerns back to the elected leadership. We want to establish a national DSA Mobilizers program to support locals across the country looking to develop their own internal organizing capacity.

B. Amendment for a Petition Process for Debate

This amendment to the DSA Constitution creates a mechanism whereby 20% of locals or 8% of members can petition the NPC to take up an important issue and hold an open debate, with reports back to the membership. This will give members a much greater say in the running the national organization between conventions, while increasing transparency and helping keep NPC accountable to members and locals. The process of petitioning and publicly debating issues across locals will foster a culture of internal organizing, debate, and transparency. It should also contribute to our internal political education work by developing members’ capacity to formulate and argue for their ideas in a democratic setting.

C. Reviving the National Advisory Committee

Article IX of the DSA Constitution reads:

Section 1. Members of the National Advisory Committee shall be available to consult with the NPC and the officers of the organization. It shall, however, have no decision- making authority.

Section 2. Members of the National Advisory Committee shall be chosen by the NPC and must be members of the Democratic Socialists of America. In electing members to the NAC, the NPC shall act so as to ensure fair representation of women and minorities.

The National Advisory Committee (NAC) has not been active in many years, and we want to bring it back. This body, which could consist of representatives from each chapter or from different regions and constituencies, will allow for much better communication between the NPC and locals. Currently, the only regular and direct communication between the national organization and locals takes the form of email blasts and surveys, occasional check-in calls with DSA mentors, and informal interactions between individuals.

In the long term, NAC would be the foundation for a DSA congress, to which all recognized locals elect representatives. With the NAC, the NPC could be much more transparent and accountable to locals.

D. Internal Bulletins and Quarterly Debates

Many DSAers are actively engaged in political debates in various places, whether in person, in print, or online. But DSA currently lacks any central forum for sustained organization-wide debate around key strategic and theoretical questions. Our various publications (Democratic Left, the Democratic Left blog, Talking Union, etc.) offer important updates on DSA’s organizing work and provide useful analyses of various political questions from DSAers and fellow travelers. But none allow DSAers with different strategic and tactical perspectives to engage each other publicly. This both inhibits the degree of internal democracy within DSA and limits our capacity for effective organizational decision-making.

We propose a monthly or bimonthly internal discussion bulletin that curates key debates within DSA and offers a public forum that all DSA members can access. We also propose quarterly debates around DSA’s highest-priority strategic questions. These could consist of recorded debates involving a small group of DSA leaders representing specific points of view, and with extended Q & A based on questions from DSA members.

E. Regular Strategy Discussions

DSA should develop an annual process of organization-wide strategy discussions leading up national meetings. This process would consist of monthly conference calls or videoconferences on a different strategic or theoretical question each month for the 4-6 months leading up to a national meeting. All DSA leaders and activists will be encouraged to participate on the calls, and would be provided with key background readings and questions for discussion leading up to each set of calls. These calls would culminate in state or regional-level meetups where members from a given geographical area can come together to discuss and debate the key issues coming out of the calls.

F. Caucuses

DSA prides itself on being a multi-tendency political organization, but for most of its history it has actively discouraged the development of distinct political tendencies within DSA. We understand concerns over the potential divisiveness they might produce, as well as the feeling that political and theoretical debates could distract from the business of organizing. In the absence of of organized tendencies, key political questions are resolved largely based on staff and elected leaders interpreting what the “mainstream” political views of DSA are. The result is that strategic differences within the organization are rarely discussed openly and explicitly. This limits understanding among DSA’s membership about the key issues facing the organization, and limited coherence in DSA’s political decision-making. If elected, we will work to facilitate the development of organized political caucuses in the organization that will provide space for members to develop their political perspectives, and perform the valuable function of assembling the wide range of political views in the membership into a set of coherent tendencies.

G. Reviving the National Activist Conference

Article 7 of the DSA Constitution establishes a “National Activist Conference” to be held in off years between DSA’s biannual convention. The text reads as follows:

Section 1. A National Activist Conference shall be held at least once between Conventions in the year in which a Convention is not held.

Section 2. The National Activist Conference shall include the officers of the National organization, the members of the National Political Committee, Chairs of Commissions, the Honorary Chairs and Vice-Chairs, two delegates selected by each Local, and any additional DSA members who want to attend.

Section 3. The Conference Planning Committee for the National Activist Conference shall include members of the NPC, chairs of Commissions and a Youth Section representative.

The national activist conference has not been held in decades, so the biennial national convention is the only chance for members to gather across the organization. This places an undue burden on the biannual convention to do too many things - organizing trainings, convention proceedings, socializing time etc. - over a single weekend. We propose to bring back the national activist conference, which would focus on organizing training and political education, so the biennial convention can provide enough time to conduct a proper convention.

H. National Grievance System

Many DSA chapters have language in their bylaws stating that members who are disciplined locally or who have their membership revoked by their local chapter have the right to appeal that decision to the national organization. However, there is currently no process or body specifically dedicated to review and respond to these local situations. In the long term, we would like to see DSA fund national grievance staff position for a national grievance staffer to help locals manage their own internal grievances and also to step in where asked by the local or in cases where members appeal disciplinary decisions made locally. As socialists committed to a future where socially necessary but unpleasant labor is justly compensated, we think it is critical that our shared organizational resources are used to compensate this work so that it is not informally pushed down onto our women members and care-taking personalities, who disproportionately resolve these grievances at the expense of their political engagement in the organization.

Our Grievances proposal seeks to do four things. First, it explicitly empowers the National Political Committee to enforce a grievance and/or mediation procedure on members and locals. Second, it requires locals to have both a democratically elected Grievance Officer, as well as a local grievance procedure. Third, it requires the National Political Committee, in consultation with members and locals, to develop a guidelines for handling grievances at the local and national level. Fourth, it calls on the National Political Committee to hire a national grievance officer who will assist members and locals in handling grievances.

I. Raising Dues

To make the most of our recent growth and keep the momentum going, and in order to carry out ambitious plans like a national Medicare For All campaign, DSA needs to expand its operations in a big way. Conferences and trainings, regional offices, organizers, national political education, and materials all cost money. There is a real possibility that many of the new members who joined after Trump’s election last year won’t renew their annual membership when it expires. This would reduce the organization’s income, forcing us to cut back at a time when we should be expanding. Therefore, we support the proposed constitutional amendment to implement a monthly dues system.

J. New Chapter Bylaws Amendment

A constitutional amendment requiring new chapters to provisionally adopt national sample bylaws for their first 6 months so they can establish a baseline of internal organization and leadership before going through the tedious process of drafting new bylaws. (Currently, the national provides sample bylaws but cannot require that chapters adopt them instead of writing new ones.)

Political Education

A socialist organization must be able to communicate its political vision confidently and coherently. A confusing message will only confuse our audience. We don’t want to impose a single point of view on the entire membership. In fact, we seek to do the opposite.. We want to stimulate more internal debate in order to clarify our points of unity and disagreement within the organization, and to arm every member with the tools to participate in DSA-wide discussions about our organization’s political vision and strategy.

An intentional, systematic approach to political education would help to offset the process by which those with the most formal education, socialization into traditional forms of “leadership” behavior, or the most previous experience in social movements become the “natural,” unquestioned leaders of the organization. We want to ensure that every member has the tools and knowledge to become a leader, someone with a voice in internal debates with the ability to speak confidently as a DSA representative in wide range of settings.

Our political vision is also one of the most important things that distinguishes us from the wide array of single-issue activist organizations and foundation-funded nonprofits that have dominated the US left in recent decades. DSA is not just another activist group that happens to call ourselves socialist. Our socialist politics are at the core of our organization’s project, and everything we do must flow from that.

This applies most urgently to the production of socialist antiracist analysis. The cynical use of identity politics by the Clinton campaign reinforced in the popular imagination an artificial divide between “economic” issues embodied by the Bernie campaign and “social” issues pertaining to race, gender, sexuality, etc. This has hardened the idea that it is impossible, or even offensive, to talk about the material basis and consequences of racism. It has suffocated the development of an organic, independent socialist rhetoric around race. As it is, much of our antiracist discourse uses the exact vocabulary and tropes of “identitarian” discourse, slapped awkwardly onto a class-struggle narrative. It ends up sounding like an after-the-fact add-on rather than a seamless element of our analysis. This is a shame, because our chapters nationally have been throwing themselves into racial and economic justice across the country. Our activism shows that we know and feel how antiracism is a central terrain in the class struggle. We just have trouble expressing it, and that “rhetoric gap” is sensed by the same audiences to which we’re trying to speak. As we deepen our work for racial justice we also must deepen our understanding of how that work fits into our wider struggle.

Medicare for All Campaign

We believe we need a national campaign to mobilize our members behind a unified and politically viable campaign. Medicare for All has become a key working class demand and enjoys strong majority support across the country.

A number of DSA locals are doing important and inspiring work in support of universal health coverage in their cities and states, but these efforts are currently fragmented and uncoordinated. A nationally-coordinated approach would increase collaboration across chapters, provide chapters with resources to build their organizing capacities, and open the door to working relationships with all sorts of potential coalition partners. The campaign gives every chapter an opportunity to work with unions or other community partners on tangible, strategic campaign that build mutual trust. And it would plug chapters in states where single payer legislation is not viable into a national, organization-wide effort for Medicare for All.

Concrete steps to build such a campaign include:

  • Adapting East Bay DSA’s single payer mass canvassing program and share it with every chapter nationwide.
  • Supporting state-based campaigns for single-payer legislation where it’s viable and can provide momentum for a national campaign.
  • Mentoring to chapters on how to build relationships with union locals in their area, while engaging with Labor Notes Troublemakers Schools.
  • Building towards a March on Washington for Medicare for All, organized in tandem with labor and community allies. This would not replace local organizing, but amplify it on a much larger scale.
  • Encouraging members to build Medicare For All committees in their workplaces, union and non-union alike.