Strike Ready DSA: An Instrument of Solidarity
By Sean Orr
On August 22, Teamsters ratified their tentative agreement with UPS overwhelmingly– 86.3% yes with over 58% turnout. As their contract struggle recedes (but does not disappear), it is an ideal time to reflect on DSA’s solidarity campaign with these workers and what it has meant for our organization.
UPS Teamsters did not strike, but DSA’s Strike Ready campaign was a success. It strengthened our chapters and their relationships with the labor movement in preparation for upcoming labor struggles. Building support for UPS Teamsters was DSA’s largest national project since Bernie Sanders’s campaign in 2020. It involved chapters across the breadth of DSA in a new kind of political work, and, I would argue, changed much of DSA for the better.
What Strike Ready Looked Like
Launched by the National Labor Commission (NLC), Strike Ready had a single goal: to get DSA, on all levels, ready to provide solidarity to UPS Teamsters as their contract expired on August 1. As the campaign gained momentum, building solidarity with the Big Three auto workers was folded in. Combined, these two struggles raised the potential of over half a million workers on strike.
To join Strike Ready, chapters had to deliberate and approve a campaign resolution, which included benchmarks and a basic timeline. There was ownership from the beginning, and a level of intention involved that encourages active participation. At the heart of this democratic process was the designation of at least two Solidarity Captains. These comrades were charged with advancing the campaign on a daily basis and getting their chapter strike ready. At a time when the organization was gearing up for a national convention starting August 4, this was no small task. At the time of writing, there are 256 Solidarity Captains carrying out Strike Ready in their local areas. When we talk about cadre, we are talking about our Solidarity Captains. Their dedication, creativity, and energy made this campaign happen.
Our chapters first focused on internal organizing. A member pledge, signed by over 5,000 comrades, gave Solidarity Captains a tool for having a conversation with paper and lapsed members. Chapters are built through these types of organizing discussions, and Strike Ready enabled this to happen. Chapters also held fundraisers for the Labor Solidarity Fund, a NLC fund to support labor solidarity work by DSA chapters. If DSA was going to be ready to hit the picket lines, we would need financial resources to pull it off. Over $25,000 were raised by our chapters via a variety of creative public activities: picnics, film screenings and benefit concerts to name a few.
While chapters got Strike Ready, the NLC prepared the rest of DSA to support UPS Teamsters. The National Political Committee (NPC) unanimously endorsed Strike Ready as DSA’s national priority campaign. Comrades in multiple chapters helped the NLC get DSA members in elected office to sign on to a solidarity statement that included clear asks that yield measurable results: demonstrations of public support, holding constituent meetings, and so on. More than 90 DSA members in elected office signed on, including three members of Congress (Rashida Tlaib, Jamaal Bowman, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez).
Once DSA was internally organized, we turned outward. Solidarity Captains got in touch with rank-and-file Teamsters and their locals. They attended meetings and rallies organized by the locals. They joined rank-and-file militants at the gates of UPS hubs for parking lot meetings. Many of those same militants came to speak at DSA meetings about the contract. Quite a few joined DSA. Some chapters organized community canvasses alongside rank-and-file Teamsters to build public support for the UPS fight. We let the nature of our work surprise us. Around the country, rank-and-file Teamsters learned that socialists are on their side.
On July 5, talks between the Teamsters and UPS broke down. Over the next two weeks, union locals organized practice picket lines across the country. It was the largest demonstration of strike readiness by a workforce in recent memory. And in dozens of locations, DSA was there. In many cases we were not strangers to the militants leading the action on the ground; they were the ones who invited us. Solidarity Captains brought comrades, picket signs, and bull horns.
When a tentative agreement was announced on July 25, the same day that negotiations resumed, we–along with UPS rank-and-filers–were caught off guard. We were prepared for a strike. Socialists know that when workers are ready, strike action is always favored. Workers who are ready will win more through a strike, not just in terms of wages or benefits, but in terms of nerves of steel and self-awareness of our strength as workers.
Teamster negotiators made a decision to accept a deal. DSA’s role in that moment was not to pass judgment on that tentative agreement or to harp on the missed possibilities. We announced our solidarity with the rank-and-file as they determined whether this deal was acceptable or not. Solidarity Captains reached out to their friends at UPS and asked, “What do you and your coworkers think of the TA?” DSA comrades at UPS took to the task of building the rank-and-file movement through the TA and into the coming period.
What Strike Ready means for DSA
For decades, different formations on the Left have tried to solve the same problem: how do we bridge the divide between the socialist movement and the labor movement?
Most of us know the history. For nearly a century, the socialist movement in the United States was indistinguishable from the labor movement. The Left and the unions belonged to the same mass movement of workers. They expressed a self-aware class that was conscious of its exploitation and wanted to do something about it.
Due to a number of factors, the workers’ movement was broken apart after the Second World War, although that was a time of relatively high union density compared to today. The Left collapsed as a mass political force and was mainly confined to academia.
When there was a mass resurgence of the Left as a result of the Vietnam War, groups like the International Socialists (IS) and the Revolutionary Union (RU) had their comrades “industrialize” by taking jobs in unionized workplaces across the country. Their biggest legacy is the movement for union democracy, embodied still in organizations like Labor Notes and Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). If there is a pulse in the labor movement today, it is because of the work done by these comrades.
Today’s DSA comes out of another resurgence of the Left: a conjuncture beginning with Occupy, carrying through Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, Donald Trump’s election, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s election, and reaching its peak in 2020 with the Bernie Sanders campaign, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the George Floyd uprising. DSA is now the largest socialist organization in the United States in a century.
At our 2019 convention, we adopted the rank-and-file strategy as our guide to the labor movement. Comrades were encouraged to get unionized jobs, learn from our coworkers, and build DSA among the working class. Quite a few got jobs at UPS and joined the ranks of a militant movement.
The following year, DSA launched a joint project with the United Electrical Workers (UE) to organize the unorganized, wherever they worked: the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC). We were beginning to do the work that the Left had dreamed about for decades. But we still had a long way to go.
Strike Ready is qualitatively different from past campaigns on the Left. We did not come to workers with a program. We did not come to tell them how to win their fight, although we never shied away from our enthusiasm for a strike. Our Solidarity Captains learned from the rank-and-file and provided support for their struggle. DSA was directed to expand the UPS workers’ struggle by amplifying their demands and building as large a movement around the Teamsters as possible. The Left has long tried to get workers to learn from it; this time, the Left wanted to learn from workers.
To put it bluntly: We did not try to have DSA direct the working-class struggle. We let the working class struggle direct DSA.
Strike Ready put our entire organization at the disposal of workers in struggle. Our chapters, national leadership structures, staff, and elected officials became an instrument for workers to expand their fight against the boss beyond their workplace. For Teamsters and auto workers, we are making solidarity real. We can canvass neighborhoods for them. We can organize solidarity events for them. We can bring community supporters to their actions. We can raise their demands by all means available to us. We can rally our elected officials to back them.
The Strike Ready campaign is led by the workers directly affected: UPS Teamsters in the first case, auto workers in the second. DSA counts among its ranks dozens of UPS Teamsters and UAW auto workers, and these comrades gave direction to Strike Ready. It is tricky, and it is messy, but there can be no other way if we are to do this right.
The Left in this country has long had a representation fetish. One group after another claimed the mantle of “vanguard” because, they figured, their ideas mattered more than their authority among working people. They see workers in a fight, and they go to them as the self-declared experts ready to lead the way to total victory.
We should not adopt approaches that have not and cannot work. Leadership is never proclaimed. It is always earned. And among our coworkers, nothing matters more than trust. Trust is earned by putting solidarity into practice, and that is what DSA has done with Strike Ready.
The Strike Ready campaign was a qualitative advance in bringing socialism and labor together, uniting the greatest number of comrades with the greatest number of workers possible, amid the largest labor fight of the year. Relationships have been formed that can be the foundation for even more solidarity.
Strike Ready opens the possibility for a two-pronged approach to joining the socialist movement and the working class. On one flank there is the rank-and-file strategy. Comrades with union jobs bring us into the ranks and build a left pole in the unions from the bottom up. It will make our unions stronger, more militant and more democratic. At another flank is the “DSA as an instrument” strategy. Our chapters are ready to support and expand any labor struggle that they can. We have the tools, the skill, and the dedication. Let each chapter of DSA serve as a House of Solidarity. There is no ambivalence when it comes to where we stand with workers in struggle. We will not tell them which direction to vote on the agreement they will have to work under, and we will not promise them a predetermined path to the promised land. But we will jump into the trench next to them and let them know, “You are not alone in this fight, and we will be here by your side until victory is won.”