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. 

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What Is DSA? Training Call

March 03, 2017
· 44 rsvps

If you're a new DSAer, have been on a new member call, but still have questions about DSA's core values/strategy/core work and how to express these ideas in an accessible way to the media, as well as to friends, family and others who might be interested in joining DSA, this call is for you. 

We will talk through the basics of DSA's political orientation and strategy for moving toward democratic socialism, and also have call participants practice discussing these issues with each other. By the end of the call you should feel much more comfortable thinking about and expressing what DSA does and what makes our organization/strategy unique. 8 pm ET; 7 pm CT; 6 pm MT; 5 pm PT. 70 minutes.

Feminist Working Group

March 07, 2017
· 24 rsvps

People of all genders are welcome to join this call to discuss DSA's work on women's and LGBTQ issues, especially in light of the new political reality that we face after the elections.  9 pm ET; 8 pm CT; 7 pm MT; 6 pm PT.

LGBT Activism: A Brief History with Thoughts about the Future

April 01, 2017
· 11 rsvps

Historian John D'Emilio's presentation will do 3 things: Provide a brief explanation of how sexual and gender identities have emerged; provide an overview of the progression of LGBT activism since its origins in the 1950s, highlighting key moments of change; and, finally, suggest what issues, from a democratic socialist perspective, deserve prioritizing now. 1 pm ET; 12 pm CT; 11 am MT; 10 am PT.

  1. This webinar is free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have headphones (preferred) or speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Peg Strobel,
  5. If you have technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt,, 608-355-6568.

Film Discussion: Documentaries of People's History in Texas

April 02, 2017
· 21 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. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Rosa [Luxemburg]

May 31, 2017
· 35 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. 9 ET/8 CT/7 MT/6 PT.