The Rank and File Strategy in Chicago

The Rank and File Strategy in Chicago

The coming years will be a high time for class struggle in Chicago. 

Next year, staff in Chicago Public Schools represented by SEIU 73 will see their contract expire, followed in 2024 later by teachers and professional staff in CTU. Next summer, the Teamsters will be negotiating a new UPS contract—the largest private sector union contract in the country—and leadership has stated openly that it plans to be ready to strike. The surge in new organizing at corporate behemoths like Starbucks and Amazon shows no signs of stopping as workers, primarily young workers, politicized by the Bernie campaign and the mismatch between “essential worker” rhetoric and a lack of concern about workers’ safety during the pandemic, push back against declining conditions.

Working people are showing through their actions that in order to win everything we want to win — from protections for abortion rights, to housing and healthcare for all, to fighting a violent, racist criminal justice system — the greatest power we have is the power to collectively withhold our labor. A major workers’ rights constitutional referendum this year, municipal elections next year, and federal elections the following year will all transpire with these fights as a backdrop, meaning the fight for state power will be tied up in the contest between workers and bosses at the site of production. How do we, as a mass socialist organization, meet this enormous challenge? How do we engage with all of these struggles to not only win substantive victories for the working class but to build the power necessary to take on the even more consequential fights ahead?

As candidates for Labor Branch leadership, we believe our labor work should follow from the Rank and File Strategy, the labor strategy supported in multiple DSA conventions and as outlined here by National DSA Labor. The Rank and File Strategy addresses two problems: 1) the organized working class (both unions themselves and the labor movement) is weak right now, and many unions avoid conflict with the ruling class; and 2) the socialist movement has become politically and socially separated from the broader working class. To resolve these problems, socialists need to prioritize the reintegration of socialism and the labor movement — which has historically been our home and center of power — into a working class that sees itself as a single class, in itself, and that can fight for the betterment of all those in the working class, for itself. 

Over the past year, the Chicago DSA Labor Branch established a Rank and File Jobs Pipeline Program, which helps get socialists jobs in strategic industries and supports the coherence and coordination of socialists in those strategic jobs so that they can think and act together. This program has not only helped DSA members get strategic union jobs, but has also built industry- and union-specific spaces within the Labor Branch that foster organization among current DSA members and recruit trade unionists into DSA. Several members of our slate have been deeply involved in building and growing the pipeline. Over the coming year, we plan to expand this program, directing more people to work in unions and workplaces with existing socialist contingents, as well as building concentrations in new unions. This program also provides unique opportunities to build alongside national DSA projects, including national industry projects in DSA Labor and YDSA labor programs like Red Hot Summer.

Important though it is, getting strategic jobs is far from the only tactic to pursue using the Rank and File Strategy. The strategy is meant to bring thousands of DSA members together with thousands of union members in a collective struggle for the liberation of the whole working class by taking on and beating the capitalist class. During strikes, the fight with the capitalists is never more acute, the conflict between our class and theirs never more direct. Building our capacity for and comprehensively engaging in strike support is a core aspect of our vision for the Labor Branch.

CDSA Labor Branch has a long history of dedicated strike and solidarity work that helps win strikes and builds the relationship between DSA and rank and file militants. From the 2018 hotel strike to the charter school strike wave to the 2019 Chicago Public Schools strike, Chicago DSA has led the way in devising and refining DSA strike solidarity. CDSA Labor Branch anchored likely the biggest mutual aid program in the history of DSA, Bread for Ed. Devised and run by several members of this slate, the Bread for Ed program worked with DSA national, other DSA chapters, community organizations and socialist electeds across the city to raise tens of thousands of dollars to feed striking education workers, students, and community members and help them keep up the fight. From picket line support, to community canvasses ahead of strikes to counter the boss’s message, to daily political education for our members and the public during a strike, to massive mutual aid efforts, DSA has, can, and should be advancing a comprehensive program of helping workers stay on the line one day longer than the bosses, all the while rebuilding the link between socialism and the labor movement and giving newer DSA members or DSA members with limited experience in the labor movement an easy, concrete onramp into labor organizing. The Mass Action Slate is committed to reconstituting and rebuilding a permanent Strike and Solidarity Committee, where the structures, materials, and trained solidarity organizers are maintained and developed in between strikes, so we don’t need to start from scratch every time. 

Supporting these fights and making them class-wide also helps bring about more new organizing. As history has shown, workers getting organized can be contagious, with exciting union victories often inspiring workers elsewhere to get organized themselves. In addition, building a layer of militant leaders in existing unions can transform those unions into organizations ready and willing to bring new people into the movement. Too often, unions can fall into a mindset of servicing existing members rather than going on offense against bosses not only at union shops but also at shops where the workers haven’t organized a union. The work we do both inside and outside of unions can help shift that paradigm. CDSA Labor Branch has long played an informal role in helping those who ask for help organize unions in their workplaces, but now we, as a national organization, have a vibrant, thriving project to do that work: the Emergency Worker Organizing Committee, or EWOC. With several experienced EWOC organizers running on our slate, we are excited to take the enthusiasm generated by worker struggle in the broader working class and direct it, through our CDSA Labor Branch EWOC Subcommittee, into organizing new workplaces and bringing excited, militant, often socialist workers into the labor movement along with their coworkers.

In addition to this outward-facing work, we need to create opportunities for our members to develop their own political perspective and analysis. An important component of our local program will be continued labor education, like the Labor 101s that we have helped relaunch with the Political Education Committee of CDSA. Providing baseline education is important for a few reasons. The divide between socialists and the labor movement and the sometimes insular and secretive nature of the labor movement can leave many socialists with only a general understanding of the labor movement. Equipping new socialists with a basic understanding of what unions are, how they operate, the history of the labor movement, and the work of the left within it is a first step towards bringing more socialists into the labor movement. We can build on this understanding by providing more directed trainings, including skills training and education focused on people in particular situations, similar to some of the trainings conducted by Labor Notes.

We can also tie our labor work to the chapter’s electoral work to build closer ties with rank and file militants. With the Workers Rights Amendment on the ballot this fall, enshrining the protections unions have against statutory union busting into the Illinois state constitution, we can talk to and canvass with unionists across the city and state for whom this issue can be an entry point to the socialist political project. With aldermanic elections coming up, we can ensure that all the candidates DSA endorses promise to bring all their power to bear to support worker struggle, even when facing powerful capitalists. Our DSA union members can organize in their unions to support our endorsed DSA candidates, creating a concrete opportunity to organize around a socialist vision within our unions and forcing those in the union bureaucracy, who often wield wildly undemocratic power over who their unions endorse for office, to either stand with or against their members.

The upcoming year offers a critical opportunity for putting all the aspects of our work into action. In July 2023, UPS Teamsters will be negotiating their contract. With a new leadership of the International that ran on a platform of a more confrontational approach with the bosses, there is an opportunity for a massive wave of labor militancy that impacts not just logistics workers but everyone who relies on the work that UPS Teamsters do in their day-to-day lives. Imagine the Labor Branch next summer bringing together UPS Teamsters, some of whom are DSA members who got their jobs through the Labor Branch Rank and File Jobs Pipeline Program, and many more who joined DSA because of our work supporting them, to engage in citywide strike preparation efforts. Imagine labor education connecting key contract issues, like the push for “flexible” work and scheduling that strips away benefits and makes workers’ lives less stable, to trends that hurt the whole working class. Imagine a project of DSA members and UPS Teamsters talking to working class Chicagoans all over the city about their fight and asking those folks to join us. Imagine getting commitments from our aldermanic candidates to put their position, platform, and offices to work in supporting workers on strike, and then using their offices as staging grounds, community spaces, and mutual aid distribution centers for workers and communities engaged in a pitched battle against one of the biggest employers in the country. Imagine talking to hundreds, even thousands of Chicago workers who support that strike afterward wanting to do the same thing in their own workplaces, and helping them build worker power and a union on their shop floor. If we spend this next year building the Branch we know we can have, that vision is one we can bring to worker struggles across the city and region for years to come, growing and growing, creating an organization that brings together working class people who are otherwise divided by race, age, industry, and the countless other ways the capitalist class tries to divide us, that can fight back and win. That is our vision, rooted in the Rank and File Strategy, one in which every DSA member can play an exciting and vital role. Together, we can build the Labor Branch, the mass socialist organization, and the organized working class we need in order to build the future we want.