Within the discussions about how DSA can relate to and build the workers’ movement from the bottom-up, there seems to be two paths often counterposed.
The first is to get DSA members to organize “where you’re already at.” This can be seen in Collective Power Network’s (CPN) critical piece about the Bread and Roses (BR) labor proposal. Annabel Vera challenges the idea of a separation between workers and socialists as described in Kim Moody’s “Rank and File Strategy” (RFS). She writes:
[O]ur members’ identities as socialist organizers and worker organizers are inextricable. Socialist politics are worker politics. Unions are not mere vehicles for socialist politics. Rather, workplace organizing is a critical plane of struggle for socialist politics and DSA should encourage these efforts in whatever milieu members find themselves.
The second could be called organizing “where they’re at” through the RFS. Expanding upon and defending this strategy as it is presented in the BR proposal, Barry Eidlin writes:
Rank-and-file strategy proponents have prioritized tactics that include getting rank and file jobs in unionized workplaces, forming and joining reform caucuses to win leadership in and transform existing unions, and building rank and file cross-union education and organizing networks such as Labor Notes. As part of union reform efforts, many have run for elected leadership.
Eidlin lays out a helpful balance sheet on rank-and-file reform efforts, but ultimately how this is superior to other alternatives for DSA members interested in labor:
First, DSA members seeking jobs as union staff organizers. Second, DSA members “salting” a targeted unorganized workplace, i.e. getting jobs there with the intent of forming a union. Third, DSA members seeking to organize the non-union workplaces where they already work.
Aside from seeking jobs as union staff organizers, these strategies all share a similar from-below, democratic approach to organizing our coworkers, whether “salting” within yet-to-be unionized workplaces or “peppering” (as it was called by members of the Rank and File Youth Project of the 2000s) existing unionized shops.
As someone who has engaged in both organizing “where I’m at” and getting a rank-and-file job in a unionized workplace, I wanted to speak to the comparative opportunities and challenges of the two strategies in my experiences.
Salting, of a sort
Like most DSA members today, I entered labor work as neither staff nor a member, but as a community member joining pickets in solidarity. Supporting the Chicago Teachers’ Union during their 2012 strike radicalized me as a socialist, and deepened my understanding of the power that workers have to press for not only their own demands but also the demands of the working class as a whole. I learned all about the stuff that “Solidarity Forever” put into song, and I wanted to live my life in that tempo.
I was working at the time for a health clinic on the West Side of Chicago, and witnessing frustrations by coworkers as well as frustrations by patients. If teachers could go on strike and win better public education for their students, perhaps we could organize and strike for better health care for our patients. So, I moved sideways into a position that would put me in better contact with my coworkers, and got to work.
But I was unsure what “getting to work” meant in a union drive. I had contacts with union organizers and CTU members through my previous organizing experience, and I set up a couple of sessions to understand what I needed to know to get started. I got different answers from different unions with different methods, and had to synthesize what I could. I also discovered I had one fellow socialist who was in the workplace with me, which was helpful as we initially mapped our 200-person unit and started our organizing committee.
This training period was cut dramatically short. Thanks to a recent victory at another health clinic, two of the unions I had approached—both locals of SEIU locked in a jurisdictional dispute—were trying to box each other out of my campaign. The day of my first meeting of our organizing committee—secret but successful—I learned that one of the locals I had been talking with blitzed my coworkers—secretly even to me and the rest of my organizing committee. Management sent out an email that afternoon telling employees to call the police on any union organizers coming to their door. The entire union campaign was severely set back by this lack of coordination, which continued throughout the campaign as the international told the two SEIU locals they had to collaborate and box out any other unions I had already talked to. Over the course of the campaign, I tried to get more clarity about the status of the jurisdictional dispute and how it might resolve, hoping it would lead to more focus for the campaign. I was given the brush-off for months, and eventually told it would last until the union election.
Management hired union busters. The union campaign dragged on. My comrade at the clinic moved along their career path when a good opportunity presented itself. Management isolated me from my coworkers (and patients) with BS paperwork.
Ultimately, we lost the campaign. We lost because the health clinic was a private corporation with a huge reserve of cash. (And it was probably granted an even larger reserve by a city-wide network of health clinics trying to prevent a domino effect of unionizing health clinics.) We lost because they could use almost half-a-million dollars of that reserve to hire union busters and lawyers to mobilize anti-union, patriarchal, and fear-based ideology among our coworkers. It was exactly as Eidlin describes in his overview of the difficulty of salting:
It is hard to overstate how difficult it is to organize a union in the U.S. today. Labor law is stacked against workers, and there is a multi-million-dollar “union avoidance” industry made up of high-priced lawyers and consultants whose sole purpose is to prevent workers from unionizing. Of course, employer responses vary — the modest uptick in media and tech worker organizing, for instance, has not been met with the same type of full-throttle bosses’ offensive directed at, say, Amazon or Walmart workers. But most workers seeking to unionize can expect to be systematically threatened, harassed, intimidated, and even fired.
We also lost because of the multi-jurisdictional, internally contradictory, and bureaucratic nature of SEIU, and how those contradictions were imposed upon us by SEIU’s international. It was a union at odds with itself in terms of both tactics and goals. It was also at odds with me and others on the organizing committee who wanted to have a say in those tactics or goals. Both SEIU locals and the international all saw the idea of workers deciding for themselves as jeopardizing their room to maneuver, especially within the limited terrain of Harris v. Quinn. As Kim Moody, author of RFS, states in a reflection on the strategy today, these “giant, multi-jurisdictional conglomerate unions … render union democracy even more difficult, without significant organizing breakthroughs or financial well-being.”
Lessons from Salting
The loss was very demoralizing and depressing. Unless pursuing card-check and minority unionization, a defeated union election is sudden and decisive. (Unlike an election, card-check and minority unionization can peter out slowly.) Union elections win only about half the time. When they lose a new election would be a year away at legal minimum, and almost certainly won’t happen at all due to the tension and confusion sowed by the boss’s anti-union messaging.
Chicago DSA had a similar campaign that provides the same lesson, although with a silver lining. The Labor Working Group supported a member who tried to organize where they were at, but eventually lost. The loss was very disorienting for our members who were supporting the campaign from the sidelines, especially given how much this campaign relied on external solidarity. This will be a risk in trying to support DSA members who are pursuing campaigns at their jobs. At the same time, the wider network of members who watched that campaign learned firsthand the challenges the labor movement faces today, and the struggle part of “class struggle.”
For me, even with the loss, the lessons I learned from my experience were richer than going to grad school to study economics, ideology, and power, and with slightly better pay. The consciousness gained by those of us on the organizing committee will last our entire lifetime, which is longer than the three-year contract we would’ve negotiated had we won. But, without a robust and growing socialist organization like DSA behind me, I never reflected with comrades and cohered those lessons into something generalizable.
The same was true in reverse: I started the campaign starved for trustworthy and objective lessons from previous campaigns. The experience of “organizing where I’m at” wouldn’t have been possible without initial conversations I had with socialists and activists before I knew anything about how to start a union. If I hadn’t had those networks from previous activism, I would have been completely lost, and likely fired before the campaign even began.
And these lessons need to be shared in a way that is transparent, self-critical, and politically compatible. The fact that we relied so heavily on unions who had bureaucratically driven motives undermined our campaign.
While I was already in a much, much smaller socialist organization at the time, a group like DSA could’ve been a stronger conduit for this information. By connecting members who have experience as worker-organizers with members who are trying it out, we can distribute this knowledge directly, especially the “soft skills” during a campaign: the emotional equanimity involved in being a leader during a trying experience; how to talk about your politics and when; how to have an organizing conversation with a coworker. By collecting information from members who have tried to form unions, we can distribute this knowledge indirectly in pamphlets, relying on or supplementing the amazing resources from Labor Notes.
Most campaigns require more experienced and dedicated organizers than just mentoring and written materials. For this, DSA can direct members to the democratic and strategic unions that are aligned with their workplace’s industry, and guide them away from ones that might hamper the win and the democratic control of the campaign. Deeper relationships with unions might develop from this collaboration, depending on the size of our operation and the standards we set for suggesting a union local.
An additional difficulty in the campaign was the isolation within it. During the time that I had a comrade working with me on the campaign, we were able to both be greater than the sum of our parts. By the time they left, I could talk strategically and openly with some of my coworkers who were not previously socialists, which was helpful on both ends of the conversation. However, they didn’t always share the commitment or broader vantage point that came with socialist politics.
This presents a potential limit to the “where you’re at” model. In some lucky cases, we might find that workplaces already have a clustering of DSA members. In some cases, we might be able to combine this strategy with members who are willing to take on a new job. In these cases, existing clusters of members can become strategic considerations as we target specific workplaces.
At the same time, this suggests a strength of the “where you’re at” approach. Many new socialists in DSA have been radicalized into socialism by, among other things, their jobs. If they work at a workplace that has contributed to the radicalization of one socialist, then perhaps this suggests the workplace, or that industry, may be fertile ground for recruiting more and more socialists. This suggests a deeper resonance of the idea of organizing “where you’re at”: you have been radicalized by a nexus of social and economic structures, and it is within those structures that you may find others who may be open to your politics. It wasn’t by accident that two socialists were working in a community health center on the West Side of Chicago, for example, and it wasn’t by accident that we found our coworkers were open to talking about how bonkers the capitalist healthcare system is.
After the failed election and after my pro-union coworkers and I were pushed out, and after some time to recuperate, I started looking for another job in the struggle. I had fought so hard to be in a union, so I decided I had to find a job in one. I weighed three things: what could I get hired for, what would I be content enough with, and what would be strategic. I thought of these criteria like three panes of cloudy glass that, once aligned, could point towards some sector in the Chicago economy. So I ended up “peppering” as a Teamster in a hospital, working second shift as an ER clerk.
The hospital was much larger than the health clinic had been, with 1,400 fellow Teamsters mixed in among the 10,000 total employees. There were multiple unions already at the hospital, and my union represented the workers at the lowest rungs of the ladder. Being a university hospital, it had some additional strategic importance in the proximity to campus struggles.
The local also had a history of a rank-and-file reform effort, though that had been bureaucratically squashed a couple years before I started. I met with someone from that effort, who told me that I wouldn’t survive long if I went in alone.
With that in mind, I tried to encourage coworkers to get a job in the hospital alongside me. I organized meet-ups of pro-union socialist young people, and followed up with them one-on-one; first as a way to recruit potential coworkers to pepper with me; later as a way to provide some outside support for what might be years of implantation in this job.
I tried my best to befriend and work with my coworkers, although I stood out as a white man among a staff of mostly black women. I tried to become a steward, but the positions were seemingly lifetime appointments. A contract campaign came and the most to show for it was a single personalized button that I wore to a single rally. The contract actually lowered our wages, once the rising healthcare premiums were taken into account.
Meanwhile, the conditions of the work were less than humane, even with the union protection. And the work itself was being automated through new electronic medical records systems. I felt ground down and defeated more and more by the work, the hours, the bureaucratic blockers to collective action both by my managers and by the union local. I left behind the job, and no longer looked for a day job that would be strategic for the labor movement.
Lessons from peppering
The lessons from this round of “rank and file strategy” were less clear. The clearest one was that any entry into a workplace needs to be well-organized, with multiple socialists collaborating. Thanks to the growth of the socialist movement, this should be much easier now than when I was attempting to recruit comrades.
That said, a second lesson was how difficult it was to recruit comrades to join me in the rank-and-file strategy. After many efforts to encourage others to join me, I was still politically alone.
As much as I tried to heed the words of that comrade who advised me to enter the job along with others, he rightfully pointed out that an impediment was the fact that the socialist organization I was in at the time had no democratic centralist means of getting members to join me. This is a problem that DSA should be especially prepared for, given its decentralized, porous, and voluntary basis for membership. How will we, as a decentralized and volunteer-based organization, make a sub rosa decision about what shops to target in a democratic manner, and how will we maintain a wide commitment by our members to that decision?
There were two main reasons it was so difficult to recruit other young socialists to the rank-and-file strategy.
First was the allure of standard moves among politically engaged people looking for a career transition, like grad school and union staff positions. In comparison, a $20/hour job in an ER was not a leap that most young socialists wanted to make at the time. It took a while for me to line up the three panes of cloudy glass—what is strategic, what could I do, and what could I do for a while—and each additional person came with their own three panes that needed to be brought into at least a rough alignment with my own. If I had decided to enter a job with someone, we could have likely come to some alignment before applying, though this still would have been difficult.
Second, not only the workplace but also the strategic orientation was challenging and uncertain once you’re in there. If I had been starting a union there, I would have had a long and unlikely road, but along a clearer path—or a couple, depending on which union strategy I pursued. I looked to the model of CORE and spoke with comrades who had built that reform caucus. Still, the path remained less defined, steeper. Many potential recruits I spoke to sensed those difficulties—despite my best organizing pitch—and stayed away. Eventually the challenge of the organizing task, the demoralizing work, and the social upheaval of Trump’s election overcame me, and I couldn’t even recruit myself to stay in the job.
This defeat was in some ways more depressing than the union election, since it never came to any sort of head, but simply ate at me. Even with Eidlin’s caveat above about the difficulty of a new union drive against the “union avoidance” industry, trying to reform a moribund local still seems much, much harder.
Which one for DSA members
Despite the challenges I’ve raised, I’m happy that I did both. Ultimately, the time I spent on these campaigns did not lead to the victories I had hoped for, but they never felt like a waste of my time or resources. DSA members should consider both of these options when thinking about how their work can be strategic.
Even though I believe strongly that the rank-and-file strategy will be a keystone in the strategy of transforming the labor movement, at the moment the choice for whether to organize where you’re at or to target a new job is a conjunctural one. It’s shaped by who (if anyone) you are entering the job with, where you currently work, the size and history of the shop, the strategic role of that shop, and how that role would change with a strong union there. DSA members should weigh all of these factors, and share what they learn from this conjunctural analysis. My report above suggests that I made mistakes in my own analysis when heading into each of my two efforts; hopefully others will make new mistakes instead of repeating mine.
Some of the larger strategic questions are sidestepped if we encourage members to organize where they’re at as an experimental and lower commitment tactic to learn skills, become experienced labor organizers, and politically connect with their coworkers. These questions are also sidestepped if DSA is large enough to already have members concentrated in workplaces. We can develop a broader and more nuanced rank-and-file strategy as our members develop into trained union activists through some preliminary struggles that are closer at hand. This approach makes a virtue of a necessity by eschewing coordination where coordination is simply difficult. As evidence of that difficulty, organizing where you’re at seems to be the more dominant of the two strategies locally, based on events by the Chicago Labor Working Group.
Each approach, whether organizing a union where you’re at or entering a job strategically for labor agitation, has its own challenges and opportunities. And in the end, we’ll need to rely on both to revive the labor movement and the socialist movement together.