Socialists Need To Do More Than Walk the Picket Line

Socialists Need To Do More Than Walk the Picket Line

This is the third installment in a series from the Chicago DSA Labor Branch entitled “Strike Support Perspectives.” Each piece represents a different view of how DSA should engage with labor disputes. In this piece, authors Ryan Watson and Dustin Spence argue that strike support must be accompanied by analysis and leadership from socialist organizations, especially when conservative union leadership remains opposed to radical action.


In pandemic America, bosses are doubling down on demands for unsustainable extensions of the working day while cutting overtime pay, threatening healthcare agreements, and breaking past promises to phase out two-tier contracts. Workers are responding by going on strike — and staying out. The growing popularity of unions and strikes is a sign that more and more workers are recognizing that struggle is how to get the goods! The problems that have developed in the global supply chain together with hysteria about a “labor shortage” are increasingly revealing what socialists have known all along — the wealth of the world is created not by a handful of billionaire bosses but by the international working class. For the first time in many years, it’s possible to imagine the organized labor movement turning around its decades of decline. Inequality, climate change, abortion rights, racism, evictions — on every important issue, we can imagine how an organized, militant labor movement would be one of the most powerful weapons with which workers and young people can fight against the bosses who perpetuate exploitation, violence, and division.

We are dual members of CDSA and Socialist Alternative. Ryan is a member of CDSA Labor Branch Steering Committee, and Dustin was an elected delegate to the 2021 DSA National Convention. We wrote this piece to raise the question for discussion: what role should DSA seek to play in the rebuilding of the labor movement? 

Socialists agree that the movement’s power is based on its mass number of rank-and-file workers and their fundamental antagonism with the bosses. However, labor struggles historically develop based on the objective crisis of world capitalism — like the COVID-spurred labor shortage of today — which socialists do not control but around which we need to strategize. To win, workers need big gains in organization, fighting capacity, and a rounded-out class consciousness that will motivate them to build the movement and to break down obstacles. 

There is no simple blueprint for rebuilding the labor movement. But we believe DSA can play an important role in the development of the movement’s fighting capacity by offering analysis, action steps, and a fighting example based on our socialist politics — the politics that workers need to win. The ideas here should be raised in dialogue with struggling workers and will need to be made specific to each struggle. However, we want to focus on some general starting points. 

Union Leadership Bureaucracy: The Decisive Brake on the Movement 

A precondition for DSA to make a positive impact in the labor movement is to politically recognize the role of the top leadership of most unions as a decisive barrier to struggle. This can be seen in the 2018 West Virginia education strike, where educators’ willingness to challenge their own union leadership was the key that opened the way to the Red State Revolt. Leading workers — who were also DSA members — played an important role in this process.

Almost every exciting labor development of the last decade (Wisconsin 2011, the CORE CTU leadership victory, the Red State Revolt) developed through the movement bursting outside the confines set down by the labor leaders. And in all of those cases, the pull of the existing labor leadership was in the wrong direction.

In CDSA, naturally, when strikes emerge, we look for ways to support them. But the contribution the labor movement needs from socialists can’t be limited to holding up picket signs or delivering supplies. We have to engage in discussions about how to win, and our contribution begins with our political analysis. 

The thinking of virtually all of the existing union leadership is based on the idea that there is no alternative to capitalism. This is expressed through their deep connections to the Democratic establishment. When union leadership accepts that bosses have the right to own society and make a profit off workers’ labor, they cannot build an effective working-class struggle. Unfortunately, this is the outlook of even the most progressive union leaders.

A key feature of the current strike uptick is workers pushing back against conservative union leaders and voting down weak contracts that have been negotiated without their input. This happened in Nabisco when BCTGM did next to nothing to prepare for an effective strike, hampering it from the outset, and at John Deere, where we saw a membership in open, angry revolt against the corrupt leaders of the UAW. In 2018, the Teamsters’ leadership undemocratically overruled the membership vote against the UPS contract, blocking what would have been a nationwide strike – a key factor in the recent victory of the insurgent OZ slate. A strike of IATSE film and TV production workers would have been the most important and high-profile strike of 2021, but IATSE leadership pushed to settle the contract, just narrowly prevailing over an enthusiastic rank-and-file. Socialists should draw a clear lesson from 2021: a low class consciousness amongst workers is not the primary barrier to the growth of struggle and victories. Most often the main barrier is the union leadership itself. 

This is what led tens of thousands of workers, the vast majority of whom do not consider themselves socialists, to the correct instinct to confront their union leadership’s concessionary tactics, timid approach to picket lines, and an unwillingness to mobilize the wider working-class community into the struggle. The CDSA labor branch can prepare for this by organizing discussions on the real lessons of the labor movement, building rank-and-file committees in every union, and recruiting union workers. 

Labor leaders and Democratic Party allies will not appreciate socialists pushing for a new class struggle direction, but our role must include offering ideas for how workers can overcome bad leadership in the heat of battle, and also helping them draw conclusions from the experience. Our orientation should be toward the rank and file, who have to be the agents of their own emancipation, and not toward a union leadership that sees themselves as bargaining partners with capital rather than class enemies of capital.

Fighting Inspiration: Examples of Nabisco and Seattle Carpenters

To win, workers in this period need a fighting leadership which makes clear demands so that workers know and can agree on what it is they are making sacrifices for. Such a principled fighting leadership and program of demands can only be built through robust democratic discussions within the union movement. 

During the John Deere strike, supporters from DSA and SA visiting the picket lines were told that there had been zero discussion around contract demands either before or during the negotiations that preceded the strike; UAW leaders simply sat down with the bosses and talked across the table with no discernible input from the membership. This is a widespread practice in today’s union movement. Fifty years of no meaningful resistance to neoliberal attacks have left most unions completely hollowed out. 

The leaders of these unions have nothing to offer the rank and file beyond the empty mantra of “one day longer,” and that’s only after they are forced to call a strike. “One day longer” is not a strategy for victory. On the contrary, on the basis of the customary ineffective picketing and other limits on strike strategy, this tactic tends to wear workers down long before it hurts the shareholders, allowing union leaders to push concessionary contracts on an exhausted membership. The BCTGM leadership is guilty of applying this approach to each of their recent strikes, most recently with the Kellogg’s strike which failed to win the workers’ key demand of an immediate end to two tiers. It is in these cases that socialists are most needed to provide a fighting example.

As students of working class history, struggles, and tactics, our organizations hold key parts of the living memory of the working class. In the present moment, most union members we meet on picket lines are striking for the first time in their lives, whereas many socialists have been involved on multiple picket lines, often intervening in several strike actions in a single year. This has certainly been true for many CDSA members who have participated in the BCTGM-Nabisco strike and the UAW-John Deere strike. We should strive to apply the lessons of these experiences to the struggle at hand. 

We have clear examples of what this can look like. There was a stark contrast between the BCTGM picket lines in Portland and in Chicago. Portland rank-and-file workers, with a leadership that were themselves rank-and-file workers, rejected the lukewarm tentative agreement and encouraged others to do the same. In Portland, DSA members helped to block the tracks of trains loaded with flour and challenged scab vans in many successful actions to keep the Nabisco plant shut down. Portland workers voted down the final weak contract agreement but were outvoted by workers across the country to end the strike. 

In Chicago such tactics would not have been supported by BCTGM’s local leadership, but had Chicago DSA taken stronger steps to develop an independent analysis of the struggle at Nabisco, more could have been done to encourage Chicago workers to follow the example being set in Portland. One small step could have been working with strikers to organize support in the community surrounding the plant. This would have been a way to build bridges with these workers and the community, energizing workers here to win a stronger contract like the workers in Portland and potentially building long-lasting relationships between socialists and those workers and communities.

Unfortunately, some in CDSA demonstrated the consequences of not taking an independent approach to struggle when they praised the final contract deal, which was passed with almost no time for review from rank-and-file workers. Instead of standing with the most militant workers in Portland, they caved to local pressure and were not willing to raise their voices against Chicago BCTGM strike leadership out of a misplaced fear of being seen as “overstepping.” The takeaway should be that socialists need to seek out the most militant workers, stand with them unabashedly, and seek to arm them with socialist ideas and tactics that can win. This should be done even if these workers compose a minority in the struggle.

A great example of just this approach arrived shortly after the Nabisco strike. In Seattle when Western Washington Carpenters went on strike, Seattle socialists, including Councilmember Kshama Sawant worked with the dissident rank-and-file Peter J. McGuire Group to lead “rolling pickets” that marched to worksites that remained open due to sweetheart deals with the construction companies. This brought Kshama Sawant and Seattle Socialist Alternative in sharp and public conflict with the Carpenters leadership and the King County Labor Council, who furiously denounced this activity. Carpenters and community supporters marched to these worksites calling for their union sisters and brothers to stop work and join the rolling pickets, successfully shutting down seven additional worksites against the opposition of the union leaders who were siding with the bosses in keeping many job sites running. Additionally, Kshama, a Socialist Alternative dual-member and the only socialist on the Seattle city council, pledged $10,000 to the carpenters’ strike fund from the solidarity fund she has set up out of her council salary. Kshama has also introduced legislation requiring that worksites pay for worker parking when on the job, a key demand of striking workers. The strike was not a big victory, but wildcat action supported by socialists undoubtedly improved the final contract. A bold confrontational approach to union leaders was vindicated when the Carpenters union leadership imploded and resigned following the strike after the pressure of events exposed their rotten and corrupt character. 

We need a strategy to transform the labor movement. This means we need to fight to turn unions into organizations that fight for the whole working class. We can look to the actions of the capitalists themselves to see just how great a threat working-class organization is to their rule. Why does Amazon invest in developing heat maps to track where Whole Foods workers might attempt to unionize? Why do they sink millions into crushing union drives? Why do they make campaign donations to ensure business-friendly politicians are elected? Why are bourgeois commentators in the Financial Times and the Bezos-owned Washington Post suddenly arguing in favor of “equitable distribution”? Because when push comes to shove, short-term profit is not the only thing driving capitalists. They’re also invested in the survival of their system. If workers went on strike for Medicare for All and were supported by mass demonstrations and direct action, we could force it onto the agenda. If youth climate strikers linked up with workers in polluting industries to demand green jobs, we could win meaningful climate protections. The main thing standing in the way of these forces cohering is the lack of militant working-class leadership, something socialists need to fight ferociously to organize. The development of our socialist organizations and that of organized labor are bound up in one another. The labor movement is strongest when led by socialists with clear militant politics. The mood and consciousness for struggle are evident on picket line after picket line; the role of socialists should be to help workers moving into struggle to understand that it is their class that has the power to overthrow capitalism and change the world.