Socialist politics go nowhere without a deep base in the labor movement, but we need a different kind of labor movement from the one we have now. DSAers are discussing how we can help build a labor movement that is all about class struggle. A movement where workers are collectively standing up for themselves and learning about power and how to confront it is the best incubator for new socialists.
As Kim Moody wrote in The Rank-and-File Strategy in 2000, what’s lacking in the United States is “a sea of class-conscious workers for socialist ideas and organizations to swim in.” Our job is to help foment class struggle, to create that sea.
That can happen when workers fight management on wage cuts, speed-up, harassment, discrimination, and even the union’s right to exist. But to do those fights well, union members often must take over and transform their unions. That’s because many unions today aren’t so good at fighting. Since the Supreme Court’s Janus decision, leaders have shown little understanding of what it will take to right a foundering ship.
One of the most visible examples of this strategy is Teamsters for a Democratic Union, founded in 1976. TDU runs candidates for union office, and they’re credible because TDU puts its energy into fighting against concessionary contracts, supervisor harassment, and pension robbery.
Likewise, the Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators (CORE) in the Chicago Teachers Union started out in 2010 by doing the work the local should have been doing—fighting school closings. That work propelled CORE into office, where the new leaders set about organizing members in every school to speak up on the job. That led to the local’s winning its famous 2012 strike, which inspired teachers across the country to form caucuses in their own locals and to found a national grouping, UCORE, that crucially aided the teacher strikes in West Virginia and Arizona this year.
To build this fight-from-below, some DSAers are getting jobs in multiracial workplaces that show potential for ferment. These include teaching, healthcare, and logistics.
Of course, union jobs are a small minority of all jobs. But a union provides a structure for fighting back that just isn’t there in a non-union workplace. We’re better able to organize the majority who need a union when we transform existing unions into ones capable of taking on that task. Unions led by reformers have often made organizing the unorganized one of their top priorities. The New York State Nurses Association, for example, grew from 37,000 to 42,000 members after a reform slate took office and started taking organizing seriously. Chicago teachers are now welcoming formerly non-union charter teachers into their local.
Consider the advantages of a union job that matches your talents, and of choosing one together with fellow DSAers: The pay is decent, and the work itself may be fulfilling, too. All your political work isn’t shunted off to nights and weekends; you can be talking with your co-workers every day. There’s no mismatch between your political life and what you do to keep body and soul together.
Still another advantage is that your work will be grounded in the everyday reality of your fellow non-socialist Americans. As Moody wrote, “The left with its highly theorized, often moralistic politics, and the worker activists with an un-theorized pragmatic outlook are often like trains passing in the night.” Getting a job in the working class means not getting passed by. It means putting your work in the heart of class struggle.