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What’s become of the rank and file strategy?

Mel Bienenfeld traces the evolution of the debates around the rank and file strategy within New York City Democratic Socialists of America and DSA nationally.

It has been two years since the 2019 Convention of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) passed Resolution 32, committing the organization’s Democratic Socialist Labor Commission to “focus on pursuing the rank and file strategy” (hereinafter RFS). It is unclear how the delegates, or DSA’s membership, perceived that commitment at the time—the resolution only passed by a small margin after a debate that failed to clarify the issues. There was certainly no discussion, for example, of how the development of workplace leaders relates to the advancement of class consciousness—a central purpose of the strategy as it has been pursued historically by socialists. But in any case, it is appropriate now to attempt an assessment of the mandated strategic focus.

One might hope for a clear and candid assessment by the Democratic Socialist Labor Commission (DSLC) itself, but that has not been forthcoming. In fact, the DSLC has neither created “general educational materials” about the labor movement nor published the “materials explaining the rank and file strategy and how members can participate”, both of which the resolution required.

No such assessment was presented to the 2021 DSA Convention. The DSLC’s convention report did mention the RFS and promised a forthcoming pamphlet about it, but did not cite 2019’s Resolution 32 specifically, and any progress (for example) on “jobs programs” in the chapters. How, then, was the existence of the 2019 Resolution reflected at this year’s convention? Delegates did pass Resolution 5 on labor work (as part of the “consent agenda”), nominally including some of the constitutive points of the rank and file strategy. Was this a reaffirmation of the strategy?

One of the “resolved” sections read:

This convention affirms that DSA supports the organized efforts of rank-and-file workers, inside and outside of DSA, to transform their unions into militant and democratic vehicles of and for the multiracial working class at work, in the community, and in the political arena. Socialists in unions should aspire to become activists and eventually leaders in the workplace, including through shop floor organizing, bargaining, contract enforcement and, when possible, contesting for formal leadership. Additionally, DSA supports our members in building worker power on the job by taking initiative to politicize the workplace by going beyond bread-and-butter issues and tying workplace demands to whole community demands and campaigns and building possibilities for experiential solidarity.

The resolution also stated that networks of labor activists being created by the DSLC “should support job pipelines where they deem it strategic,” a reference to the 2019 resolution’s mandate to “help chapters create jobs programs”. The more cautious language (“where they deem it strategic”) could reflect a difference in the approach to the drafting of these two resolutions. 2019’s resolution was authored entirely by members of DSA’s Bread and Roses (B&R) Caucus, while this year’s resolution was “cross-caucus” hence the authors also included individuals who have been sharply critical of the suggestion that chapters should urge young members to get “rank and file” jobs in unionized “strategic industries”.

Understanding how jobs programs fit into the rank and file strategy is a key part of assessing the strategy in practice. In what follows I won’t attempt an evaluation of DSA’s labor work on a chapter-by-chapter basis. DSA is a highly decentralized organization and its practice can vary widely. Instead, I examine what has been written about labor work by some DSAers with national influence and refer to the practice I am familiar with as a member of the New York City DSA Labor Branch.

It is unlikely that the DSA majority, in 2019, felt strongly committed to the RFS, or even shared a common understanding of its meaning. This is revealed in the debate prior to the 2019 convention in the publications of DSA’s leading caucuses. Ryan Mosgrove, arguing for the superiority of Collective Power Network’s (CPN) Resolution 3 to the B&R resolution, characterized the RFS as consisting of socialists getting jobs in unionized workplaces in order to elect reform leaderships. He quoted B&R member Barry Eidlin, who had in fact discussed those aspects of the RFS (though Eidlin actually wrote that RFS proponents “have prioritized tactics that include” the ones Mosgrove referred to). Eidlin had already written (in Jacobin) that “…. [taking rank-and-file jobs] describe tactical decisions aimed at achieving a strategic goal, given a specific context. They are not the strategy itself.”

Eric Blanc made similar points in responding to Mosgrove in B&R’s publication The Call. But the conception that urging socialists to get rank-and-file union jobs was the basis of the RFS – or its entire content – had taken hold, and in fact, persists. An In These Times article from March referred to the “school to union pipeline” being organized by DSA’s youth group Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) as the current incarnation of the rank-and-file strategy advocated in the 1970s by the International Socialists (IS), when organizers were sent into industrial jobs in order to “inspire” their co-workers. The same article quoted Mosgrove as opposing the strategy on the grounds that it is impractical to ask members to “switch jobs” into shrinking unionized sectors.

In one sense the prevalence of this conception is very strange. DSA members familiar with the phrase “rank and file strategy” are generally aware that it stems from a pamphlet by that name written in 2000 by veteran IS leader and Labor Notes founder Kim Moody (and reprinted by Jacobin in 2018). Mosgrove referred to this pamphlet in his critique of Resolution 32. (He revealed his failure to understand it, however, by stating that a focus on creating a militant minority arose because “majoritarian politics were totally off the table” in 2000, and that it was, therefore, necessary for members to “stop whatever they were doing to go become a teacher or a nurse” in order to aspire to union leadership.) And B&R member Jane Slaughter, a former ISer, “industrialized radical” and Labor Notes editor, responded to an article referencing the Moody pamphlet by another DSA member, in part by providing a set of corrections and clarifications.

So whether the question of what sort of job a young socialist should get was the core point in arguing for or against the RFS could have been answered by actually studying the pamphlet.

John Deere workers on strike. Photo by Lance Cheung.

Moody introduces the RFS by writing:  “We call this the Rank-and-File Strategy because it is based on the very real growth of rank-and-file activity and rebellion that occurs in periods of intensified class struggle.” This is a proposition he argues for in-depth on both theoretical and empirical grounds. If socialists are part of this rank-and-file activity they can “build transitional organizations and struggles that help to raise the class-consciousness of activist workers, in order to enlarge the layer of workers in the class who are open to socialist ideas”. Elsewhere in the pamphlet, he writes: “The notion of a bridge between rudimentary class consciousness or trade union militancy and socialist consciousness is the cornerstone of transitional politics and the Rank-and-File Strategy.”

In an extended historical section, Moody refers to the Trade Union Education League organized by the Communist Party in its earliest (pre-Stalinized) years as “the first experiment in rank-and-file strategy”, meaning an attempt to introduce transitional organizations and ideas to workers already in struggle. In the early 1920s, it was not necessary for socialists to take industrial jobs in order to create these organizations, for the simple reason that socialists already worked in those jobs. Socialism was not then divorced from working-class activism; nonetheless, a strategy was needed to raise the level of the entire class struggle, and the consciousness of the mass of workers, towards socialism.

Referring to the labor unrest of the early 1970s—one of the periods of intensified class struggle to which Moody applies his analysis—he remarks on the absence of socialists from those struggles (as among the reasons they were not sustained) and does not mention the attempts of his own organization to overcome that absence by getting industrial jobs. He focuses on the organizations of rank-and-filers that arose in several unions during that period (organizations he considers potentially “transitional”) and briefly points out that in some cases socialists helped maintain, or even initiate (in the case of Teamsters for a Democratic Union) those organizations. But, despite having identified the isolation of socialists from the working class as the main problem for socialism since the 1950s, never once in the entire pamphlet does Moody argue that socialists “should get union jobs” – or any type of jobs. Put differently, the “rank and file” Moody refers to are not the socialists who are (or may become) rank-and-filers, but the rank and file of the entire working class, particularly its most active members.

This does not mean that he believes socialists can end their isolation without working in rank-and-file jobs, though. It is certainly true that IS members – Moody among them at one point – took such jobs in the 1970s in an organized attempt to link the Left and the working-class uprising. I was a member of the IS myself for part of that time and was briefly involved in the “industrialization” attempt.

So what led to the misconception that “industrialization” is the heart of the strategy? The history of how it came to dominate the discourse perhaps provides answers. The first widespread discussion of socialists working alongside other rank-and-file workers after DSA’s 2016-2017 growth surge was spurred by the pamphlet “Why Socialists Should Become Teachers”, published in 2018, after the massive teachers’ strikes of that year, by the DSLC and YDSA. That pamphlet was written by DSA members who were teachers in West Virginia and helped to organize the inspiring strike in that state. Although the pamphlet refers to the RFS pretty much as Moody conceived of it, the part of the strategy that YDSA actually implemented was its “jobs pipeline” aspect, with very little thought to how a national organization can help cohere a “militant minority” or create transitional consciousness and organization among workers. (Here it’s worth noting that Moody’s pamphlet does provide some guidance. It concludes with six tasks for socialists in the labor movement, each spelled out with some level of concreteness. This section of the pamphlet deserves to be much more widely known, read, and discussed.)

Without such discussion, it is not surprising that what was noticed most about the 2018 YDSA pamphlet was its title. Right-wing media had a field day arguing that socialists are about to infiltrate our schools and indoctrinate our children.

But it was not just the right-wing whose outrage fueled the perception that DSA intended to enter the workplace to “take things over”. About the time of the YDSA pamphlet —a full year before the 2019 convention—DSA’s New York City Chapter passed its own resolution on the RFS. The resolution, entitled “Encourage Members to Get Rank and File Jobs” largely concerned itself with identifying local strategic, unionized industries and providing infrastructure to help the Chapter’s branches place members interested in this work into jobs. By the following summer, the Labor Branch leadership had produced a 37-page memo outlining its choices of industries along with detailed descriptions of how to prepare members to work there. This memo – meant for internal consumption – was obtained by the news organization Politico, which published an article with the inflammatory title Democratic Socialists Look to Take Over New York’s Powerful Labor Unions, additionally – and inaccurately – tying New York DSA politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Julia Salazar to the effort. Not surprisingly, local union leaders publicly pushed back.

Caught off guard, the Labor Branch and Chapter leaderships found it hard to respond. Rather than attempt to better explain what they were up to, though, even within DSA—the Moody pamphlet is publicly available, after all—the only statement they produced was a report (July 2019) from the Labor Branch Organizing Committee (OC) to the DSLC consisting primarily of how the target industries were developed and what steps were taken to place DSA members there as workers. There was a final section on “assessment,” but that word seems to have been used to mean simply determining whether a particular effort is worth continuing.

Avoiding a debate in the public press was understandable. The hostile orientation of the Politico article and the characterization by the New York Times of the strategy being part of an internal Democratic Party debate about “working within the system versus burning it down” were unlikely to have been overcome by a still-small DSA providing a clearer presentation of the relative roles of the rank-and-file and the union leadership in the fight for socialism. But the Labor Branch OC failed even to bring the episode up among its members and discuss what can be learned from it. Why are unions in need of transformation, and why is the RFS the right way to transform them? Once again, Kim Moody’s pamphlet offers an extended exploration into these questions. He offers both a theoretical and historical analysis of the U.S. union bureaucracy and its relationship to rank-and-file struggles, going back to the 19th century.

DSA, by and large, has ignored this analysis. In New York, it took an effort by the Labor Branch’s Political Education Committee (of which I am a member) to organize a discussion of the RFS. In 2020 we produced a series of presentations and discussions which had to be held separately from branch meetings. While these were reasonably well attended, that was partly because of the presence of DSA members who were not part of the Branch. And not a single member of the OC attended or commented.

It is worth examining the practice of the New York City Labor Branch further. Because of the disproportionate percentage of DSA membership in New York, the one-year head start there in RFS implementation, and the national visibility of that effort, the New York experience can be taken as somewhat representative of how DSA conceives of its labor work nationally.

Early in its RFS work the NYC Labor Branch instituted the practice of “industry breakout groups”, in which members active in different work situations would meet separately from one another and separately from the NYC Labor Branch as a whole. This did provide an opportunity for socialists active in each industry to communicate among themselves. But there was no guidance from the whole branch regarding what the breakout groups were meant to achieve, no two-way feedback regarding how to set workplace-specific goals consistent with a socialist political strategy, and no discussion of how to measure success.

The branch meetings themselves often consisted of reports (from the breakout groups or elsewhere) of events of concern to the local or national labor movement, with only a few minutes of ensuing discussion and only rarely an attempt to formulate a way the branch could be involved. Beyond those reports, the OC used the meetings to urge members to help one another develop workplace organizing skills, with little discussion of how those skills might advance a socialist strategy.

Why Socialists Should Become Teachers” pamphlet played a key role in shaping the understanding of the rank and file strategy within DSA.

There has been some improvement in these practices of late. In 2020, the Branch established a Rank-and-File Committee (RFC) which has been able to take steps towards cross-union work on common issues. As well, strike support by the Branch as a whole has involved an increasing number of members. But the difficulties the RFC has had in its work have not been faced by the Branch in a way that can help with further strategy, and the strike support has been almost entirely in the form of “servicing” picketers (with food and drink) rather than making connections with workers looking for broader social and political understanding.

The NYC Labor Branch’s implementation of the RFS—in its own terms as well as those of the Moody pamphlet—is floundering. Attempts to place increasing numbers of members in strategic sectors have yielded very few results. And in a 2020 “proposal” to the NYC Chapter’s Citywide Leadership Committee, titled “Re-Establishing the Rank-and-File Strategy as a Strategic Priority”, the OC once again centered the process of placing members into jobs with the objective of building “the strongest most effective labor movement possible”. The specifically socialist content of the RFS was ignored: “our goal is not to recruit workers ideologically to socialism or to join DSA, although we believe that may happen as a helpful byproduct of our organizing.”

After the 2021 Convention, what can we say about the general consciousness within DSA regarding the RFS? This brings us back to Resolution 5, itself a compromise between the pro- and anti-RFS factions. Does the language of supporting the “organized efforts of rank-and-file workers…to transform their unions into militant and democratic vehicles” and “tying workplace demands to whole community demands and campaigns and building possibilities for experiential solidarity” indicate a clear commitment to the RFS, at least among significant sections of DSA, in anything like the form Moody intended it?

I doubt it. The resolution was not discussed in any public forum within DSA—there were no pre-convention meetings, for example—and once it became part of the “consent agenda,” that precluded discussion at the convention itself.

And an article entitled “No Left without the Labor Left”, by one of the authors of both the 2019 RFS resolution and 2021’s Resolution 5,  evidenced no commitment at all to a RFS. Writing in August 2020 for Organizing Upgrade, Jonah Furman, at that time a leading member of the B&R Caucus and former National Labor Organizer for Bernie 2020, argued that “we need the unions” in order to win electorally. He mentioned worker power on the job but rejected “the over-broad denunciation of labor bureaucracy”, and did not refer to workers gaining an understanding of their social power from the experience of struggle. He concluded by advocating an organization of members, staffers, and elected leaders (an “inside-outside strategy”) which will, among other things, “educate” workers on political issues.

All of this can be very disheartening to socialists placing their hopes on (to use Moody’s language) a “bridge between rudimentary class consciousness …. and socialist consciousness”. But among socialist activists, both inside and outside DSA, there are plenty of people inspired by working-class militancy. If we are entering a period of intensified class struggle, it is likely that many of these activists will seize on the promise of the RFS in response to the “very real growth of rank-and-file activity and rebellion” that we may well see.

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Mel Bienenfeld View All

Mel Bienenfeld has been a socialist activist since the late 1960s. He belonged to the International Socialists in the 1970s and 1980s and was involved then in labor and anti-imperialist struggles. More recently he has been president of the Westchester Community College Federation of Teachers, retiring from that position in 2019.