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Unions and the rank and file strategy

Socialists in the labor movement

The following essay, originally titled "Labor and Labor Strategy," was written for a Marxism School hosted last month by the NYC Chapter of the Tempest Collective. This is the first in a series of essays that Tempest will be publishing from regional Marxism Day Schools the Collective hosted in cities around the country.

The name of this class is “Labor and Labor Strategy.” The title might make it sound like we’ll be focusing mainly on nuts-and-bolts workplace organizing. However, as a Marxist school, and as a space where we can hopefully help orient our organization, I want to zoom out and talk, firstly, about how revolutionary Marxists define labor unions; and, secondly, the rank and file strategy (RFS), which is a product of that Marxist perspective.

Then I want to address a couple of historical examples from Kim Moody’s pamphlet, The Rank and File Strategy; some of the concepts from Charlie Post’s piece, “The Forgotten Militants”; and, lastly, what the RFS means for us today.

To even have a labor strategy we first have to be clear about what our perspective is on unions, the labor movement, and what our general approach should be.

I think most of the debate that has occurred among the resurgent left in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has basically evacuated the RFS of its actual meaning—both organizationally, as a method of rank-and-file-led unionism, and by belittling the sociology within unions, namely, the conflict between the labor bureaucracy and its rank and file membership.

It has been almost completely disregarded that, first and foremost, the RFS was a political strategy. And much of the history has also been omitted. If not done consciously, it has still had the effect of glossing over its revolutionary tradition and heritage. This tradition was directly bound up with Marx’s maxim of the self-emancipation of the working-class.

Origins of the Rank and File Strategy

The RFS was a product of the early congresses of the Communist International (Comintern), and was actually the united front strategy in the labor unions. As Moody writes, the united front and RFS were meant to replace the overly schematic minimum-maximum program and to provide a bridge between “here” and “there,” i.e. between trade-union consciousness and socialist consciousness. This was to be carried out mainly through action—during a period when the revolutionary events following World War I had ebbed.

At that time, of course, the RFS was about trying to build mass, revolutionary workers’ parties. I think our task today is much more modest: a) reconnecting the socialist Left to the labor movement; and b) as Charlie Post writes, helping rebuild a militant minority of class-conscious workers.

Starbucks workers march behind a giant red banner that says “SOLIDARITY,” holding picket signs with various slogans, including, “DEMAND THAT STARBUCKS REINSTATE ALL WORKERS FIRED FOR ORGANIZING!” and “REBUILD A FIGHTING LABOR MOVEMENT,” and “AN INJURY TO ONE IS AN INJURY TO ALL!”
Unionizing Starbucks workers on the march. Photo credit: Elliot Stroller.

Such a layer of militants should be willing to take direct action in defiance of the law, independent of capital, and, if necessary, the labor leadership—without, as Hal Draper said in his Marxism and the Trade Unions, “recoiling from the consequences.”

But positions in DSA on the RFS have, at best, argued the need to simply reconnect the left to labor, and at worst, have rather myopically meant: just get a union job. Moreover, hovering ever-present in the background are DSA’s ties to the capitalist-dominated Democratic Party.

How we bring our socialist politics into the workplace is a big question when thinking about the RFS. On the one hand, we don’t want to appear ultra-left, or, what Draper called “ultimatist”—imposing a socialist program or set of politics, or making that program a condition on which to base activity. On the other hand, we don’t want to soft-pedal, or conceal, our politics, either. How we thread that needle has always been a big question for revolutionaries.

The aim of the RFS has always been to move as many workers into motion as possible in an independent way—independent of management, but also, independent of top union leadership, when necessary. This is because it’s only through the experience of struggle on one’s own terms that people become more ready to hear and accept radical politics. This can only happen if workers are given the space to test their ideas in action, learn what does or does not work, and draw their own conclusions.

This does not preclude bringing our political message to those already ready to hear it, or even making political interventions on questions that might be unpopular at times. It often requires some tact and timing—which socialists have by no means mastered. As Draper said, it’s very difficult to be a “trade union expert”—owing to the variability across industries, unions, workplaces, and so on.

The first thing to consider about unions is that they’re class organizations. Kenneth Lapides, in his book Marx and Engels on the Trade Unions, synthesized 3 main elements of Marx’s “general theory of trade unionism”: 1) Unions are an inevitable outcome of the rise of industry, as an attempt to take workers out of competition with one another and resist the worst effects of exploitation;  2) the union struggle is a necessary precondition for any political transformation workers might initiate; and 3) unions and strikes, despite their importance, are alone insufficient to abolish the exploitation and degradation of capitalist rule, and efforts must be made to fight for all of the oppressed, lest the unions “degenerate into almost reactionary enclaves of privilege.”

Much has changed since the nineteenth century, but relations between the capitalist class and the working class are still characterized by conflict. The point of origin of these two classes and the key node of that class relation is, and remains, at the point of production.

Therefore, a union is not a revolutionary organization. Its aim is to eliminate the worst symptoms of exploitation without actually eliminating exploitation. Unions are reform institutions—which, incidentally, is why so many early socialists were critical of unions and, incredibly, refused to support them. Marx, however, saw the potential in unions of bringing workers up against capital in the most elemental sense and, in the course of that struggle, the possibility of raising class consciousness for the struggle for socialism.

The period when Marx and Engels were writing in the 19th century was certainly a time of more militant unionism, where any effort to enforce workers’ demands had to include direct action in the workplace. Yet, even now, unions are a place to train cadres of workers capable of administering society. Even beyond simple bread-and-butter issues, unions can deepen the leadership of the class among the rank and file.

Despite the relative weakness of U.S. unions over a generation of ruling-class assault and the rolling over of the labor bureaucracy, unions still have 14.3 million or so workers organized in around fifty thousand locals. This makes unions the only mass organizations of the working class, and they are socially integrated—by race, gender, and ethnicity, with women making up around half of union membership. As of the 2022 Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys, Latino and Asian workers made up nearly one-third of union membership. Moreover, Black workers are more likely to be union members than any other demographic.

Therefore, as Moody writes, unions remain “the obvious place to connect the theory and practice of socialist politics with the only force that can fulfill the hope of those politics.”

The Union Bureaucracy

Central to the formulation and implementation of the RFS is the existence of a union bureaucracy—a layer of full-time officers and professionals who occupy a uniquely distinct position in that they are neither employer nor worker, yet are key players in the labor movement as mediators between labor and capital.

Because of their institutional function and social location remote from the workplace—involving greater autonomy, higher income, and social and political connections—the labor officialdom is naturally prone to conservatism. This leads them to seek stability in preserving the organization, rather than militancy which may threaten its existence. In fact, it’s the continuation of the wage-labor/capital relationship that is necessary for the union bureaucrats’ survival. In essence, the union bureaucracy strives for a permanent state of consensus with the bosses.

Because the rank and file relies on selling their labor power to survive in return for a wage, their material interest is in getting the maximum return on that sale. The day-in, day-out exploitation and indignity suffered in the workplace will periodically lead workers into collective confrontation with the bosses. In periods of heightened militancy, this can even bring workers up against the very limits of capitalism itself.

Not so with the labor official. Because they receive a salary from the union, not the employer, their security, power, and prestige is bound up with the preservation of the labor union itself, not the labor movement.

This opposing social dynamic is most evident during strikes, when the basic necessities of life for rank and file workers hinge on the outcome. Union leaders, however, are usually more concerned with the stability and reproduction of the union apparatus than they are with victory—not because of an in-built preference for conservative politics or strategy, but because of union leaders’ social and material position under capitalism.

However, we shouldn’t see this one-sidedly. The union leaders also have to answer to and deliver the goods for the members. Their behavior is conditioned by the employers’ pressure from above and by the ranks from below. But when workers move into struggle against their employers, they often find themselves hemmed in by their union leaders and find they have to do battle with both as a condition of victory. This is the material basis for the RFS.

Rank and File Strategy as Historical Practice: The TUEL

I want to quickly look at two historical examples of revolutionaries carrying out the RFS in the labor movement; the first is the Trade Union Educational League, or TUEL, in the American Federation of Labor (AFL); the second is the Trotskyist-led Communist League in the Minneapolis Teamsters.

For various reasons, there isn’t a lot written about rank and file work in the unions from a Marxist perspective. Firstly, there’s the security issue. Yet, it’s equally true that there aren’t a whole lot of people who have had this perspective of union work, and the few who do get so caught up in it that they often fail to archive it. From what we know, the TUEL is the best example of socialists carrying out the RFS in the labor movement, insofar as the TUEL brought a big layer of leading rank and file militants together across industries, geographies, occupations, identities, etc.

As Draper has pointed out, there are other examples of socialists doing rank-and-file-type work in the U.S. to a lesser degree, such as Daniel DeLeon’s Socialist Labor Party in the Knights of Labor, and later the AFL, before DeLeon took it in a sectarian dual-union direction. The left wing of the Socialist Party (SP), led by Eugene Debs, also did rank and file work in the AFL and the rail unions, whereas the right wing of the SP had a much more top-down approach, controlling a third of the delegates to the 1912 AFL convention. But those delegates were nearly all union officers. Just as in the political arena, reformists believed elections were the key to success, and subsequently took over many unions electorally—which helped create a campaign machine for their candidates.

In 1920, William Z. Foster, who identified as a syndicalist at the time, organized the TUEL to try and advance the movement for industrial unionism and organize the unorganized into the AFL. He called this strategy—picked up in France—“boring from within.” By 1921, like many syndicalists, Foster had been won away from his anti-political, anti-party views and joined the Workers Party—the Communist Party’s (CP) outpost in the U.S. The TUEL then became the principal means by which it attempted to practice the RFS.

The TUEL stood for industrial unionism, independent working-class politics, in essence, the building of a revolutionary party based on the most advanced workers. The TUEL was also anti-racist, and wished to eliminate all discriminatory barriers and practices inside the unions. The TUEL also fought for union democracy, and built class-struggle organizations in over a dozen industries and rank and file opposition movements and united fronts with other working-class groups.

The prime reason the TUEL had actual potential was that it was led by experienced cadre who had cut their teeth in important labor battles, and because it attempted to reach tens of thousands of recently-activated workers who had played roles in major upsurges following the First World War in industries like steel and meatpacking.

But its success was not simply due to the shrewdness of its organizers, it was because TUEL activists became identified as the champions of the most popular demands at that time in the labor movement: industrial unionism through the amalgamation of existing craft unions and the push for a labor party.

The TUEL was able to get thousands of resolutions passed in local unions, city labor councils, and state federations. The locals they won over were then brought into the movement for a labor party. TUEL carried this out in coalition with other important progressive forces in the movement, such as the Chicago Federation of Labor and its militant leader, John Fitzpatrick.

Crucially, seeking union office was not an end in itself. It was looked at tactically by TUEL leaders and was weighed against other criteria; most importantly, would it aid in raising the confidence and militancy of rank and file workers, or would it isolate them from the experiences and consciousness of the workplace, thus rendering them less effective?

By 1924, however, the TUEL was a shadow of its former self. This had a lot to do with the CP’s bungling politics. There was also the fact of employer and AFL repression. The 1920s were not a “roaring” period for U.S. workers. It’s also true that the TUEL had a much harder time actually delivering on the substance of the resolutions they were able to pass in so many meetings.

What stands out about the TUEL was its success in building a pan-union organization that knit together thousands of rank and file militants across scores of different industries, and that didn’t ignore politics. It’s quite an interesting question to think what could have become of the TUEL had the Communist movement not been so afflicted with the sectarianism, hyper-factionalism, and opportunism that was so symptomatic of Stalinism.

The CL in Minneapolis

About a decade later In Minneapolis, a group of Trotskyists actually showed that it was possible for a relatively small revolutionary group to carry out a successful RFS in a conservative, albeit decentralized, union. Members of the Communist League (CL) completely transformed Local 574, a small craft union of truck drivers, into an industrial fighting union from the bottom up, where workers in the industry, from drivers to “inside workers” (loaders/unloaders), would end up organized wall-to-wall. Every step in this transformation involved the mobilization of the rank and file, leading to the pivotal 1934 Minneapolis general strike.

Black and white photograph taken from above shows a man holding a metal pipe mid-swing as a uniformed police officer shields his face with an outstretched hand; in the foreground, just visible over the roof of a truck is the back of an officer who has tackled someone to the ground; in the background, a crowd of pipe-wielding men advances down a cobblestone street and another man moves toward a cop who is hoisting a nightstick overhead.
Striking truck drivers wield pipes in a street battle against police during the 1934 Minneapolis General Strike. Photo credit: Picryl.

Trotskyists entered Local 574 by getting jobs for a handful of their members in the unorganized coal yards, and then organizing their fellow workers through a recognition strike (similar to “salting” today). They then systematically won over the members to their strategy and tactics, and won over more advanced workers to many of their ideas through patient argument, but mainly through action. They eventually took over leadership, led heroic strikes, fought cops on picket lines, and, in the process of struggle, exposed the reformist weaknesses of the local Farmer-Labor-Party-controlled government.

One of the coal yard workers who was won through the organizing drive was Farrell Dobbs, who would end up joining the CL and organizing over-the-road trucking. In the process, Dobbs trained people like Detroit’s Red O’Laughlin and his protege Jimmy Hoffa on how to organize on a national basis. The Teamsters National Master Freight Agreement, which brought pattern bargaining to the trucking industry, can be traced back to a handful of Trotskyists in Minneapolis.

When the CL organizers met Dobbs, he was a Republican who had voted for Hoover—showing how workers can be transformed in struggle.

Dobbs, in his book Teamster Power, makes it clear—like the TUEL—that capturing union office wasn’t the initial aim. The leadership was pressured to alter their policies first. Even if the union leadership could be compelled to fight the trucking bosses, independent rank and file organization was a constant necessity. The radicals only looked to lead the union when they saw mass support was evident, if not for their politics, then at least for the sorts of tactics that flowed from them.

Dobbs summed up this approach, writing that “the indicated tactic was to aim the workers’ fire straight at the bosses, and catch the union bureaucrats in the middle.”

Dobbs also recognized that the best organizers were not necessarily paid professional staffers, but committed rank and file activists. In effect, each trucker became a de facto organizer.

The Rank and File Strategy Today

So, what does the RFS mean for revolutionaries now? While there are many signs of increasing restlessness among the U.S. working class, and there is a good deal of new organizing happening, unlike the TUEL experience, there isn’t a ready-made mass of radical workers to orient to. Nor do we have a sizable and coherent revolutionary Left. That doesn’t mean, however, that the RFS is without value. In fact, it is meant to address these very weaknesses.

Certainly unions retain their importance as a first line of defense against the bosses. Nor have the basic social relations of capitalism changed. The laws of capitalist exploitation compel workers into resisting. How exactly that fight plays out we can’t foresee, but the revolutionary Left must prepare for the struggles ahead by building our organizations in the here and now. The RFS should be part of that plan.

I’ll close with a few scattered thoughts: In order for the labor movement to truly be a force in society again, it will have to defy the law. That is what brought unions into being in the first place and consolidated their power. For instance, as Moody has written, the problem is not simply that unions throughout the last generation have failed to organize the unorganized. There were actually tens of thousands of failed certification elections. It’s probably the legal framework and the tactic that should be questioned.

The entire Wagner/Taft-Hartley system of state-led labor relations, with its collective bargaining, stepped-grievance procedure, no-strike clauses, arbitration, and excessive stafferism, are all methods by which power is removed from the shop-floor and stewards—and handed over to lawyers and labor professionals.

But workers’ power is on the shop floor.

Even if labor law reform is our goal, we should bear in mind that it’s always been a response to class struggle, not its catalyst.

I think Tempest has done some good work in its limited interventions in labor, holding some useful forums, like during the Teamsters election. More than anything, it has provided a critical voice within a Left that, frankly, does not place much value on criticism—where there has been mostly silence, and even cheerleading, of people like Sean O’Brien. This is true of Tempest’s intellectual work, in general, and its principled political contributions. This has played a large part in people finding their way here.

As a small group with limited resources, our contribution for the near future will undoubtedly be an educational one. But we do need to think about how we can make the RFS a method by which revolutionaries can transition to collective action in the working-class movement wherever and whenever opportunities arise.

Does that mean “industrializing” members, i.e., placing them into strategic industries as shop floor militants. Do we want to “salt” non-union workplaces and help organize the unorganized? These are live questions on the Left today.

We should also recognize that there is value in work that comrades are already doing. Tempest has plenty of union and non-union members already in the labor movement. We can find ways to connect that work more systematically to the organization so that our members get more support, both materially and in the realm of political perspectives.

A great point Samuel Friedman makes in his book Teamster Rank and File: Power, Bureaucracy, and Rebellion at Work and in a Union is that one of the big problems in the labor movement is a tendency to focus almost exclusively on day-to-day problems as they crop up, so that there is little energy or sensitivity to tackling long-term or political questions. Unionists often wind up seeing their problems in very specific terms rather than seeing them as needing a general solution. We tend to get subsumed in union minutiae. This is particularly true for stewards, who tend to get bogged down in the grievance procedure. This makes it all the more difficult to have strategic discussions. But socialists have to be the ones pushing back on this sort of routine pragmatism.

Socialist organization, ideally, can prevent you from “getting lost” in the labor movement, which many socialists have regretfully done. Our socialist organizations should be our lifeline. Conversely, we have to avoid making our political work in the labor movement too doctrinaire. We must find out how to thread the needle, politically.

A racially and gender-diverse crowd of workers, some wearing the brown UPS uniform, hold up yellow and brown picket signs (the colors of the UPS company logo); the picket signs read “UPS TEAMSTERS JUST PRACTICING FOR A JUST CONTRACT.”
340,000 Teamsters prepare to strike with practice pickets around the country. Image Credit: Teamsters Facebook page.

97 percent of UPS Teamsters just voted to authorize a potential strike. If a national strike happens, Tempest has a possible opportunity to build solidarity with Teamsters at UPS, particularly Local 804 here in NY. This should be a priority.

That being said, although supporting workers on strike is a principle, socialists should strive to ultimately be in positions where they can lead labor struggles from below, not simply be good allies. There is a qualitative difference in getting our unions to back strikes, as opposed to simply providing picket line support. And I say that with modesty. We should definitely support a UPS strike as Tempest, hopefully with other left-wing organizations.

I’ll close with this thought: The CP got in on the early CIO organizing drives and played the outsized role they did in the 1930s—despite squandering it through collaboration with the Democratic Party and what Moody calls “permeationism,” or merging with the CIO bureaucracy—by the unglamorous work they had done the previous decade. This included fighting for the unemployed in the depths of the Great Depression, anti-racist work, and organizing among largely immigrant, low-paid, but potentially powerful, mass-production workers neglected by AFL bureaucrats.

Through that work, the CP became identified by many workers as courageous, reliable, and the most trusted organizers. Revolutionary socialists should aspire to something similar today.

Featured image credit: Wallpaper Flare; modified by Tempest.

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Tim Goulet View All

Tim Goulet is a member of the Tempest Collective and Teamsters Local 810 in NYC.