Rediscovering Socialist Unionism

By Elaine Bernard

With all that is being written in the mainstream press about the 2016 election season, an important aspect of the massive turnout and public support for Bernie Sanders seems to have gone unnoticed.  Among the thousands of unionists drawn to the Sanders campaign, there’s new interest in talking about democratic socialism.  For some, it’s an exciting new inquiry—what does it mean to be a socialist and a trade unionist?  For others, with sad memories of U.S. labor’s cold-war red-baiting, it’s an opening to reexamine our union history and reclaim the broader, transformational agenda that socialists have fought for both in their unions and in society at large.

Simply put, to be a socialist is to be for democracy, but a radical democracy that seeks to eliminate racism, sexism, and the multiple forms of chauvinism and oppression that undermine solidarity and compassionate human relations. To be a socialist is to join the struggle on the side of equity-seeking groups against the oppressive poisons that divide us and choke off the creation of a truly democratic and just society.

For socialists, democracy isn’t just about the right to vote for representatives every two or four years.  Democracy is about the right to participate in decisions that affect us every day, and many of these decisions are made at work. That’s why socialists support building powerful organizations of producers of goods, services, and care giving—unions—that act in solidarity with customers, clients, and patients.  The world of work is an important terrain where workers can challenge the power of capital and the role of markets in controlling our lives.

Socialists work to build unions that are democratic and to create a community of interest with each other and the community.  Socialists also seek to expand the mission of unions, so that they are not just representing their current members.  Unions must champion the solidarity philosophy of “an injury to one is an injury to all” and promote a unionism that supports and gives aid to those who are struggling for worker rights and human rights wherever they are organizing or under threat. 

Socialists advocate a union practice that reaches well beyond workplace relations and joins with people struggling in the wider community.  In recent years, this type of unionism is sometimes referred to as “social unionism.”  This term stands in sharp contrast to a narrower union perspective that deals only with wages and benefits and ignores the many other problems facing working people. 

For socialists, bringing democracy into the economic sphere is a priority.  Economic inequality condemns millions to poverty and starvation while a tiny minority dictates how the productive capacity of society will be used.  Socialists, however, are interested in more than just an equitable distribution of the wealth produced by all of us.  For socialists, the narrow focus on the redistribution of goods after production ignores the waste, destruction, and harm done in the profit-driven production process.  Under capitalism, profits, not human needs, drive production and the economy and even cloak the human decision-makers with an aura of deniability (the boss has no choice, the market dictates!).

Distribution decisions are important and worth fighting for.  But until human needs, environmental justice, and sustainable development eclipse profits, we will not have a truly just and democratic society.  Socialists join the fight for economic justice and equality at every opportunity, in every venue, and recognize that we will never be a democratic and just society until human priorities drive the economy.

DSA member Elaine Bernard is the executive director of the Labor & Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. 

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

Film Discussion: The Price We Pay

January 30, 2017
· 46 rsvps
The Price We Pay blows the lid off the dirty world of corporate malfeasance — the dark history and dire present-day reality of big-business tax avoidance, tax havens - and what we need to do to stop this.  DSA member Bill Barclay, who has a cameo role in the film, will facilitate the discussion. Watch the film prior to the discussion.

Full film available on Vimeo.

How to Plug in New Members

February 01, 2017
· 15 rsvps

Is your DSA chapter growing quickly and you're trying desperately to find ways to plug new members into your chapter's work? Never fear! On this conference call an experienced DSA organizer will go over the basics of new member outreach and developing a plan for plugging new members into your chapter's work. Most of the call will be devoted to troubleshooting specific issues you're facing, so please brainstorm some issues beforehand that you want to bring up on the call.  8 PM ET; 7 PM CT; 7 PM MT; 7 PM PT.

Film Discussion: Salt of the Earth

February 05, 2017
· 10 rsvps

Join DSA members Shelby Murphy and Deborah Rosenfelt in discussing Salt of the Earth, a captivating film made in 1954 by blacklisted writers and actors about a strike at a New Mexico zinc mine. Well before the resurgence of feminism in the 1960s, these filmmakers were exploring gender inequality and solidarity. Available on Netflix.

Shelby Murphy is a Latina from Texas and former Young Democratic Socialists co-chair. Professor Emerita of Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland, Deborah Rosenfelt researched the making of the film and its aftermath for the reissued screenplay. Here is her blogpost about the film.


Film Discussion: Documentaries of People's History in Texas

April 02, 2017
· 4 rsvps

Join DSA members Glenn Scott and Richard Croxdale to discuss videos produced by People’s History in Texas (PHIT), a project that brings to life the stories of ordinary people in significant socio-political movements in Texas. They will discuss The Rag, their newest documentary, which tells the story of an influential underground paper based in Austin, Texas, from 1966-77. Click here to view Part I (the early years as an all-volunteer paper covering the student, anti-Vietnam and Civil Rights movements), Part II (the impact of Women’s Liberation on the paper) and Part III (building community: covering local politics, nukes, co-ops, feminist institutions). But also check out the video on the Stand-Ins about a group of university students who led a movement to desegregate Austin’s movie theaters in 1961.

Film Discussion: Rosa [Luxemburg]

May 31, 2017
· 9 rsvps

Join DSA member Jason Schulman to discuss the film Rosa, directed by feminist filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta. View it here at no cost before the discussion. Marxist theorist and economist Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) played a key role in German socialist politics. Jason edited Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy and has a chapter in Rosa Remix.

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 4 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion.