DSA is at a moment of great potential. Catalyzed by Bernie Sanders’ two presidential runs, the never-ending political crises of the Trump administration, and the ongoing social and economic crisis inaugurated by Covid-19, we find ourselves well-established as the largest left force in U.S. society since the Great Depression.
Our primary social base consists of the “downwardly mobile” — young workers and professionals whose economic prospects are permanently less than those of previous generations. The overwhelming majority of our members have some level of college education, but entered the workforce as the recipients of betrayed promises. The idea that hard work and an expensive education would lead to a good-paying job and a fulfilled life turned into vapor when confronted by our economic and social reality. This social stratum, as a result of the economic reality and their education levels, is the most likely to be presented with socialist ideas. It only makes sense that our renewed organization sprang out of this point of class compression.
That is our starting point, our current moment. Yet our next step — the establishment of a new political formation, a workers party, capable of fighting for and carrying out democratic socialism — must take us through a process of class formation.
We live in a country with over 180 million workers, yet no self-aware working class to speak of. Class consciousness is at a very low level, a product of the labor movement’s political pruning in the 1950’s and the decades of social atomization that occurred since then. In order for socialism to go from an idea to a reality, we need a fighting, self-aware working class.
DSA can play a key role in bringing that key condition (class formation) into existence. In doing so, we can transform ourselves into an organization of the entire working class, not just the most educated strata of it. Whether it is organizing the unorganized through EWOC, transforming our unions through the rank-and-file strategy, supporting a nationwide tenants movement, organizing solidarity for workers engaged in strike activity, or campaigning for our candidates for elected office, comrades are already engaged in the many efforts needed to get the working class into fighting shape.
Regardless of ongoing political questions and tactical maneuvers, our strategic task remains the same. When it comes to the terrain of the working class, we need to dig in, and dig deeper.
Class Struggle Happens Every Day
From Marx’s time up to today, socialists recognize that the class struggle between workers and the employers is the moving force of history. If we want to change the direction of society, then the class struggle is where that change will come from.
The workplace is where the main contradictions in our society stand in sharpest relief. It is where workers are exploited — and they know it. Even without class consciousness, workers will fight back in innumerable ways against their exploiter. They know that they are not treated like fellow human beings by their boss. No human deserves to be alienated from their labor, yet that is exactly what happens to every worker that goes to work in a capitalist-owned workplace. This is why no matter what we do as socialists, class struggle will always be taking place, in an organized manner or not.
If workers are already fighting back against capitalism, then our task as socialists is to recognize these individual battles for what they are and coalesce them into a collective struggle. Organization will always be the greatest weapon of working people.
People learn from experience. When workers learn that a personal injustice is commonly felt, and that working with other people on those common interests can win real change, class consciousness is built. Lessons cannot be generalized among workers unless it is coming from and embraced by workers themselves. If outsiders handing out newspapers at the plant gates worked, then we would have had socialism in this country decades ago. No. History shows that a successful movement for socialism happens when there is an organic unity between theory and practice. This means that the strategies and tactics for worker power are emerging from those who learned these ideas in the heat of struggle and are able to directly apply them back to the class struggle. The rank-and-file approach we have taken to the labor movement will yield the best results for DSA, and where we have done this our success is impossible to ignore.
Let us never assume that class struggle only happens when we participate in it. Workers are never dormant, sitting around like machines waiting for someone with the right ideas to come along and activate them. Workers are the protagonistic force in our society, and they act like it. Today there are living movements of workers, dynamic and inspiring yet ignored by the mainstream media and political experts. When we find working people in motion, let us recognize them for what they are and embrace them fully.
One of the most visible examples in recent memory is the effort underway to transform this country’s stagnant labor movement into a democratic and militant force. The most significant is undeniably the militant movement of rank-and-file Teamsters. Spreading for decades through the freight yards, warehouses and cross-docks that make up our logistics system, hundreds of thousands of Teamsters are the active protagonists in a movement with two simple goals: to remove class collaborators from union leadership, and to take the fight to our cruel employers. This movement, with the reform caucus Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) at its center, was the driving force behind the historic election of Sean O’Brien and the Teamsters United slate last year, and is currently organizing toward a strike at United Parcel Service (UPS) next summer. If successful, it will be one of the largest strikes in American history.
A similar movement is moving through the ranks of the United Autoworkers (UAW). For decades, the union’s leadership accepted concessionary contracts in their core industries, fully at the expense of the workers and only to the benefit of the employers. The union leadership got entrenched in networks of corruption, at the heights of a bureaucracy that protected them from the demands of their members. Workers are not so easily contained, however. A wave of strikes and contract rejections through the union’s manufacturing sector was the first proof that Auto Workers are in motion and ready for a new direction. The second proof was the stunning victory of rank-and-file dissident candidates in the union’s first democratic election for international union office. If the runoffs go as predicted, every candidate of the insurgent UAW Members United slate will win office and set the direction of the union in the fights ahead.
If organized labor’s leadership reflected the needs of the working class — if they were uncompromising in their class stand, responsive to the needs of their members, willing to be bold and innovative to meet the changing economic and political terrain — then we would be in a much better place than we are today. The struggle for union reform is a crucial one in the broader effort to build a fighting working class in this country, and it is not one that we as DSA can sit out. Trade unions are the largest mass organizations of workers in the country. To achieve democracy in this movement, where tens of millions of workers are already gathered, is of paramount importance to the broad awakening we need. Just like our comrade predecessors in the 1930’s did with the founding of the CIO, the efforts to renew today’s labor movement from the bottom-up is a historic turning point. We must be on the right side of it.
A Political Home in the Heat of Struggle
As DSA becomes more intertwined with the daily class struggle — as we build the class in order to build a new party — we can fill a desperately-needed void in working people’s lives, one that has been missing for decades: a political home.
Even though most union leaders have no problem supporting Democrats (who give lip service to workers while putting in actual work for the employers) workers see the hypocrisy for what it is. When you consider many of the realities of working people’s relationship to politics — widespread abstention at the polls, an embrace of “anti-establishment” figures regardless of their political views, notions like “all politicians are corrupt” and “nothing ever changes no matter who is elected” — it is clear that there is widespread recognition among the class that politicians are not fighting for their interests. When the only choices are the party of the oppressive status quo (Democrats) or the party of white nationalism (Republicans), who can blame them?
While workers reject “mainstream” politics as alien to their interests, there is a total void when it comes to the possibility of true politics: the idea that we can change the world around us through collective action. Class fragmentation and social atomization are cruel weapons in capital’s assault on workers. Capital wants workers to relate to politics the same way that driftwood relates to the sea, tossed about on waves that cannot be understood let alone combatted. The aim is for workers to feel like they can never be the protagonists in determining society’s direction, only the unwilling recipients of decisions made elsewhere. The hopelessness this produces is endemic in our class. How do we bring hope back to the hearts of working people?
DSA can change things. We have achieved a level of scale and organization in which we are making actual gains for workers. Our candidates are winning office and serving as tribunes of the people, fighting for and advancing the interests of workers. When workers strike, our comrades show up and ask the strike committee, “How can we help? What do you need to win?” We put forward actual visions of concrete, achievable change like the Green New Deal or Medicare For All. DSA is the home of the left, and the left is growing and making an impact. We are an organization of nearly a hundred thousand people who believe in our hearts that we can have a better world, a democratic and socialist world, if we fight for it.
Now, we must aim to become the political home of workers.
Our embrace of the labor movement has already attracted workers to join our organization. Nabisco workers in Portland, health care workers in Chicago, UPS workers across the country and many more joined DSA because they saw in our organization a place to call home. This is a great start, and a testament to our ongoing effort to bring the left and the labor movement together.
But our growth among workers is sporadic, and unorganized on a national level. It happens because we do good work — but it could happen on an even greater scale if we develop the approach and structure necessary to bring more workers into our group.
As an organization, we should take seriously the development of a workplace-level branch of our organization. Just as our local chapters serve as a political home for socialists in a geographic area, industrial branches can meet the same purpose: a political home for socialists in a particular workplace, company or economic sector.
DSA members already work together on job sites — some as a result of good luck, others as part of a conscious effort to get rank-and-file union jobs. Comrades working in union shops participate fully in the life of their unions, and in the fights to enforce their contracts and win greater gains from the employers. As they should. When industrial branches are established in union shops or industries, the continuation of this important work should be a main focus. But if we limit our activity as DSA members on the job to simply supporting the best tendencies in our union, what differentiates us as an organization from a reform caucus? We do not want to replace or compete with the pre-existing organizations of rank-and-filers. We want those organizations to flourish, and we want to support them.
There is a lot of overlap between being an active trade unionist and being an active socialist, but the two are not the same. The focus of our industrial branches should be to bring something new to the workplace, something that only socialists can contribute: a political space.
DSA demands (like universal healthcare, a green economy, and an end to boss domination) are popular, especially among young workers. There are many workers that, if introduced to DSA’s program and campaigns, would support us. But if they cannot attend a chapter meeting — let alone the dizzying schedule of committee and working group meetings that make up our vibrant organization — where, then, is their point of entry? An industrial branch can serve that need — a space where DSA members on the job can connect their coworkers to DSA’s local campaigns, can debate and discuss the work of our organization, and promote our own ideas and initiatives as workers in the organization. Just as local chapters and working groups serve as a political home in the neighborhoods, industrial branches can offer the same on the job.
Industrial branches can also be living spaces of the alternative, of something better and more vibrant than the atomized life we are offered by today’s capitalist society. In Belgium, for example, our comrades in the Belgian Workers Party (PTB) are organized into workplace and neighborhood branches that serve the same purpose. They are a space where members can talk about the PTB’s political campaigns, canvass for their candidates and debate their party proposals; but the branches are also the hosts of soccer tournaments, concerts, movie nights, and bicycle tours of their cities. Our socialist values are human values, of solidarity, respect and mutual flourishing versus the greed, domination and destruction promoted by the capitalists. Our organizing should bring our values into reality, and in doing so we can help our coworkers realize that they have been socialists this whole time.
In Chicago, our chapter’s Labor Branch developed “worker committees” to begin the work of organizing on the job. Comrades in the committees are active in their unions and are engaged with the concepts laid out above, struggling to determine what works and what does not in the effort to build a political home for our coworkers. These efforts cannot be done artificially, or decreed from above. The organic development of working class politics must start on the shop floor, where it belongs.
By committing to this work, by digging in and digging deeper into the working class and its organized movements, we will not only make real contributions to the efforts to build a fighting workers movement in this country, but we will make the best building blocks for a new party, and a new society, that we could ever ask for. The opportunities are there for the taking, comrades. Let us recognize them, advance, and change the terrain of struggle in our favor.