Articles Issue 6 Labor

A Tactical Argument on DSA’s Approach to Labor

An analysis of the political left’s relationship to labor unions, and the potential strategies to reforge links between DSA and workplace militants.

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Socialists and Labor in 2024

For decades, socialists in the US have debated how to re-forge the once organic link between the labor movement and left political organizations. This question has only become more pressing as socialist organizations have emerged from the political margins, and unions and their militant members have begun to re-emerge as an active, energetic force in US politics and popular consciousness. 

There are now real stakes involved in the decisions DSA members and chapters make. The presence of organized, militant blocs of DSA members has meaningfully contributed to at least a few of the unions who have put out the most forceful statements in solidarity with Palestine in recent weeks, and the absence of such a militant layer has been felt elsewhere. In East Bay DSA (EBDSA), rank-and-file reformers and elected leaders in unions like the Oakland Education Association (OEA) and UAW 2865 are both active in our chapter. Some union reformers look to their DSA comrades for support and advice in their efforts, while others prefer that DSA stay entirely out of any questions of union positions, strategy, and tactics, or any matters where there is strong or potential disagreement within the union. 

Since the purging of left and Communist elements from union leadership shortly after WWII, two dominant tactical approaches to socialist engagement in internal union matters (strategy, governance, and leadership) in the US have formed. The first has been the ham-handed, dogmatic approach typical of organizations like the World Socialist Web Site / Socialist Equality Party or Spartacist League on the one hand (“Spartacist approach” for shorthand). The second has been the “abstentionist” approach, which has historically been favored by groups like DSA and Solidarity, on the other. These two tactical approaches are so dominant that socialist individuals and groups tend to adopt one or the other by default, regardless of their own stated strategic orientation to labor, if they even purport to have a strategy.

The “Spartacist” approach usually involves:

  1. A rigid belief that labor union leaders are the primary obstacle to building militant working class organization.
  1. Little or no direction from, or engagement with, rank-and-file members of a union while developing the socialist organization’s intervention.
  1. Aggressive attempts to inject the sectarian materials and political line of the socialist organization into the workers’ struggle, rather than centering the demands and priorities of rank-and-file union members. 
  1. Frequent and repeated public attacks on union leadership. 

The shortcomings and limitations of the “Spartacist” approach are readily apparent and therefore don’t require lengthy treatment here, except to explicitly state that DSA should not adopt them.

The “abstentionist” approach to internal union debates has a few common arguments made in its favor: 

  1. It is inappropriate for any outside organization to weigh in on any union decision-making at all, or only in cases of extreme abuse of rank-and-file democracy or rights by union leadership and/or staff.
  1. The socialist organization in question cannot justify an intervention due to one or more of the following factors:
    1. Insufficient numbers of dual members inside the union
    2. Dual members are insufficiently organized
    3. Dual members are not unified in their opinion on what an intervention would look like, or if there should even be one
  1. Dual-members should form their own caucus and organize self-sufficiently, without any material support from their socialist political home. 

The abstentionist approach has tended historically to align, by default, with the interests of union elected leaders and staff because it limits the ability of socialist organizations to encourage or support rank-and-file rebellion against the bosses that has not been sanctioned by union leadership or staff. 

Control of union resources and communications tend to tip internal debates in favor of existing leadership and staff. Even decades of sustained, skillful rank-and-file reform efforts have resulted in, at best, uneven and temporary advances for union democracy and more militant/radical rank-and-file formations within unions.

This centralized control of resources and communications made “permeation” of unions tempting to the 1940s and 50s Communist Party USA’s leadership. This strategy entailed getting Party members into leadership or staff positions and forging relationships with other “progressive” union leaders and staff. However, “permeation” of unions from the top-down tended to tactically resolve into an agnostic or even antagonistic response to rank-and-file rebellion. This tendency was exacerbated by the Party’s own top-down undemocratic structure and geopolitical concerns—the interests of the US working class were sometimes subordinated to those of Soviet leaders in Moscow—and led to their isolation from the rank-and-file they had once forged incredible ties with. This isolation made Party members’ eventual expulsion, marginalization, and blacklisting all the easier for AFL & CIO anticommunist bureaucrats during the Red Scare.

Staff and leadership, especially in more bureaucratic unions, can experience shop floor rebellion (even against the boss) as either an inconvenience or even a potential direct threat to the perks of being off the shop floor. This means that orienting a socialist or communist organization’s labor strategy towards leadership elements in a union can lead even socialists to an antagonistic response towards militant rank-and-file organizing not sanctioned by leadership. 

In the more than half-century that they’ve been dominant among socialists, neither the “Spartacist,” nor the “abstentionist” approaches have been successful in rebuilding a militant union movement with ties to the organized left. The “permeation” approach has not been adopted in a systematic way by organized socialists since the 1950’s, and should not be adopted again. 

Even among socialist groups that have encouraged members to get union jobs in strategic industries, join union reform caucuses, and engage in rank-and-file organizing in their unions and workplaces, there is a tendency to draw the line at materially intervening in internal union matters. They do not touch issues such as union democracy, contract ratifications, and campaign strategy, beyond showing up to union leadership-sanctioned picket lines and strike activities, fundraising for strike funds, and providing non-electoral, or “unofficial”, support to reform caucuses (e.g. DSA has raised funds for TDU’s educational arm). 

These tactical approaches show a clear tendency to avoid explicitly “taking sides” in internal matters, except perhaps the support for reform caucuses, which conveys support or preference for one faction over another. Rank-and-file unionists who are also members of socialist organizations can use those organizations as a space to confide in trusted comrades, seek strategic advice, get trained in general organizing skills, and receive moral support. However, they should not expect material support in internal debates or struggles.

But what if the group of workers who desire the intervention are, themselves, militant dual members of the union and socialist group in question? If a DSA chapter contains dozens of rank-and-file members of a union local, and those rank-and-file union members are the ones who would carry out the proposed intervention, are we still, strictly speaking, only capable of acting as an “outside organization?” Should we be considering questions of what interventions are appropriate and how best to carry them out, rather than whether such interventions are ever acceptable? 

These questions only gain urgency in groups beginning to gain a mass character, as I would argue is the case for DSA generally and EBDSA specifically. Interventions could range from making DSA platforms available to publicize wildcat actions, providing resources and advice to DSA members on how to pass pro-Palestine resolutions through their unions, or even directly condemning extreme anti-democratic actions, like many left labor intellectuals and journalists did when the SEIU international staged a forceful takeover of the UHW-West headquarters in Oakland in 2009

It’s important to keep in mind that many political questions that union militants must engage with don’t require direct confrontation with, or even criticism of, existing union leadership. This article focuses on situations where there may be the potential for disagreement with existing union leadership, because those situations are the most controversial within DSA and therefore require the most careful examination. 

What tactics may be appropriate for DSA to deploy when asked to intervene in “internal” union debates, in what manner, and under what circumstances? I draw heavily from my experience as co-chair of the EBDSA labor committee from July 2022 to present, as well as my own perspective and experience as a union staffer, union steward, and union member in trying to answer that question in our current political juncture.

The UC UAW Strike and East Bay DSA – A Series of Debates

In November 2022, the largest higher-education strike in American history was underway, involving roughly 50,000 academic workers. The strike involved members of 3 different UAW locals walking out across the entire statewide University of California (UC) system. Late that month, a half dozen dual East Bay DSA / UAW members signed on to a resolution authored by a former UAW member, and supported by several other EBDSA members (including myself). It called for the chapter to tweet in support of the UAW bargaining team putting a COLA (cost-of-living-adjustment) back on the bargaining table with the UC. The subsequent debate within the chapter is illustrative of the strategic and tactical questions facing DSA as our organization continues to build ties with rank-and-file labor militants across the country. 

The initial resolution passed the East Bay DSA steering committee (SC) 6-4 but concerns from some chapter members led to the content of the eventual tweet being changed from the exact language of the resolution, with the agreement of the resolution authors who were dual EBDSA/UAW members.

In December, a tentative agreement (TA) was reached with the UC by a slim UAW bargaining team majority. This TA, according to many EBDSA / UAW members, did not meet core demands of the contract campaign, such as removing fees for international students (NRST), sufficiently increasing childcare stipends, or successfully tying wages to the cost of living (COLA). 

A dozen EBDSA/UAW members signed on to a second resolution asking EBDSA to lend them logistical and financial support in educating coworkers about their right to vote no on the TA. Other DSA/UAW members publicly came out against the tentative agreement but did not sign on to the resolution, and a handful of others expressed opposition to EBDSA intervening in any way. Several declined to participate in the discussion, were not reached, or did not respond to outreach. It was clear by the time of the chapter SC vote that a majority of active, engaged dual members wanted material support from EBDSA for their organizing against the TA. 

The resolution called specifically for chapter funding for dual members to textbank other UAW members to vote no on the TA and to print materials explaining UAW members’ right to vote no on a TA. It also reaffirmed that EBDSA would support an extended strike. The resolution was voted down 7-6, but an amended version removing mention of textbanking and explicitly allowing for rank-and-filers to publish their opinions in Majority, the East Bay DSA chapter publication, passed. It appeared the abstentionist approach had largely carried the day.

In February 2023, another resolution was put forward on this question, this time for a chapter general meeting, stating that East Bay DSA’s position was to never intervene in “internal union democracy”. This “abstentionist” resolution did allow EBDSA to endorse wildcat strikes, but attempted to settle the question of whether the kind of interventions requested by dual EBDSA / UAW members should ever be seriously entertained by the chapter again. The resolution called for chapter members to form broad reform caucuses within their own unions, but outlined no concrete steps the chapter would take to support DSA members who wished to pursue such a project. 

This provoked a response in the form of an alternative resolution from EBDSA members who wanted to maintain tactical flexibility in questions of whether and how to get involved in issues such as contract and strike campaigns, support for reform caucuses, union democracy, etc. 

Clear lines were drawn – should nearly any request for EBDSA support for dual member organizing on “internal” questions be rejected out of hand, or should the chapter Steering Committee be generally allowed to exercise judgment, with some clear guidelines from the chapter (“tactical flexibility”)?

During debate at the general membership meeting on these dueling resolutions, it appeared that some of the comrades supporting the “abstentionist” resolution were concerned that left unchecked, EBDSA would be headed towards the “Spartacist” approach, with DSA members   shoving DSA literature into the hands of a chagrined worker on a picket line. Proponents of the “tactical flexibility” approach, on the other hand, had in mind instances like the hostile takeover of the militant UHW-W by SEIU in Oakland in 2009 as the sort of situation we would want DSA to be able to forcefully and clearly intervene in.

The “tactical flexibility” resolution carried the day in a close vote (67-50). The split reflected to some degree a debate between the two largest organized tendencies in the chapter. Current and former Bread & Roses members (some of whom are now in Socialist Majority) took the lead on the “abstention” resolution, and Communist Caucus members rallied behind the “tactical flexibility” resolution. 

The Stakes of the Debate

Art by Izzy M (paraphrasing Lenin)

To re-forge the once organic link between the political left and workplace militants, there is widespread agreement that DSA must offer those militants a reason to engage. Many rank-and-file union organizers are already attending a plethora of meetings for their workplace organizing, so DSA needs to offer concrete, material benefits to reach a layer of workplace militants who aren’t already diehard socialists or political junkies, and convince them to join.

Our current approach to labor is lacking in this regard, though the 2023 national DSA convention’s explicit commitment to the rank-and-file strategy, union democracy, and the development of local Emergency Workplace Organizing Committees (EWOCs) all offer promising opportunities and a clear rebuke of both the Spartacist and permeationist approaches to unions. 

Currently, our answer to workplace militants for what DSA can offer them usually consists of:

  1. DSA membership turnout at sanctioned union events – picket lines, rallies, etc. 
  2. Fundraising for (authorized) strike funds
  3. Training on general organizing skills  – one-on-one’s, making a campaign plan, etc.
  4. Socialist political education
  5. A space to meet, connect, and network with other union militants in your industry (but not to use chapter resources to carry out any course of action collectively decided upon within that space that could run afoul of union leadership)
  6. Support through EWOC (or a DSA affiliated local EWOC) for an organizing drive in a non-union workplace

These kinds of tactics have predominated among different strategic orientations in DSA – both proponents of prioritizing relationships with union elected leaders and staff (neo-permeationism) and those who support the rank-and-file strategy as articulated (differently) by socialist writer Kim Moody and DSA’s National Labor Commission.

While the above is an admirable list of tactics, they are most helpful in straightforward, “legal” contests directly between the union and bosses. 

In moments of calm, these tactics could add up to a coherent approach to building a militant layer within unions, especially when they are explicitly pursued with that aim in mind and consistently privilege the interests and priorities of the rank-and-file over staff and leadership. 

But, when there is concrete and specific disagreement between the rank-and-file and union leadership on how to take on the boss, these tactics can’t amount to much in terms of meaningful support for rank-and-file reformers, who may be forced to resort to illegal or unprotected activity. These are also the exact times that support for organized rank-and-file dissidents will be most controversial and potentially most impactful.

What do we, as DSA, offer these militants that they can’t get elsewhere, especially in moments of rupture and open conflict with the boss, like major strikes? When the chips are down and they need to take illegal action against the boss–something union leadership can’t legally support–meaningful interventions by DSA could serve as opportunities to earn the trust of union militants. By acting in a manner which empowers grassroots militancy, DSA can prove itself as a viable political home for these organizers. 

Most unions (and even some union reform caucuses) have substantially more financial resources than most DSA chapters, and other organizations like Labor Notes and EWOC have more robust, consistent, and resourced workplace organizer trainings than DSA. Our current set of practices doesn’t leave much reason for workplace militants to join DSA en masse, or to become more than paper members. Our existing work has brought in some union militants, but the flow of existing workplace organizers into DSA is a trickle rather than a steady stream. 

The insufficiency of our current approaches to re-forging the link between socialism and workplace struggle is further demonstrated by the lack of DSA membership density in workplaces outside of education, tech, nonprofits, union staff, and government. Within those industries our members skew towards being younger and childless, and those industries’ workforces tend to be more educated, professionalized, and/or affluent than the working class as a whole. 

These fractions of the working class – young, childless professionals – tend to have the time, resources, and inclination to take on a set of obligations that offer few apparent or immediate material benefits, unlike the fractions of the working class less well represented in DSA – such as parents, or logistics, service, and healthcare workers. Pulling from more affluent and “time-rich” segments of the working class will also continue to exacerbate the overrepresentation of white people in DSA and the underrepresentation of people of color. 

There’s no simple fix to these problems, but it is clear that union membership is more diverse along educational, racial, religious, and generational lines than DSA, and so efforts to make DSA an invaluable space to a broader swath of union militants could help make DSA more representative of the working class. 

It’s possible to genuinely believe that DSA’s current tactics and approach on labor in general, or on internal union organizing specifically, are sufficient. One could argue that we have the correct tactics but need to execute them more effectively, that rising interest in socialism and workplace organizing will increase the efficacy of our current tactics, or that the costs of intervening in any internal union matter – in any way – outweigh any possible benefits. But if our current tactics are insufficient for building the fighting organizations the working class needs to win socialism, then experimentation and new practices are necessary.

A New Tactical Approach?

“To attempt to answer yes or no to the question whether any particular means of struggle should be used, without making a detailed examination of the concrete situation of the given movement at the given stage of its development, means completely to abandon the Marxist position.” – V.I. Lenin

For DSA members who think a new approach to DSA’s engagement with rank-and-file union militants is warranted,  EBDSA’s December ‘22 Steering Committee resolution and February ‘23 “tactical flexibility” resolution and their surrounding debates lay out the beginnings of such an approach – one that should continue to be refined and debated.

A new tactically flexible and more experimental approach to labor could put DSA’s organizational capacity and resources in the hands of our organized dual members. Such an approach could include:

  1. Refraining from DSA itself being the voice of disagreement with union leadership, and encouraging our members to keep their “fire” trained on the bosses to the maximum extent possible. 
  2. Training DSA members on how to organize to make their unions more democratic, and how to form effective reform caucuses. 
  3. Turnout, financial, and other explicit support for wildcat strikes and other rank-and-file activities not sanctioned by union elected officers or staff.
  4. Drafting template resolutions and other materials for rank-and-filers to adapt to their own purposes on political issues or reform struggles, like EBDSA has done with Bay Area Labor for Palestine.
  5. Putting out statements from rank-and-file dual DSA / union members on DSA social media and publications.
  6. Providing funding to print or produce materials for organized dual members
  7. Paying for text- and phonebanking services for these dual members to reach their co-workers whose contact info they’ve collected through member-to-member organizing. 

It will not always be appropriate for DSA to materially support the internal organizing of our members within their own unions. Support of the sort laid out above should be most seriously considered when as many of the following conditions are met as possible: 

  1. There is a well-organized and politically developed rank-and-file faction, ideally including DSA members, who are striving to win victories with implications for the broader working class and are requesting support from DSA;
  2. Those workers will take the responsibility of leading and directing the work themselves, in their own name, and in their capacity as union members
  3. Union leadership is hamstrung by labor law, or union leadership’s opposition, inaction, or clear misjudgment has become an obstacle to their members winning stronger victories over the bosses;
  4. The organizing goals of the rank-and-filers are in line with DSA’s principles, priorities, and program;

Supporting rank-and-file struggles often does not require any explicit or public critique of union leadership to be made. In cases where rank and file fights against the boss lead to public disagreement with union leadership, DSA itself should be able to avoid being the face or voice of disagreement. If DSA ever undertakes such action in its own name we must be clear in our public-facing rhetoric on the rationale for our course of action and the connection between DSA and the rank-and-file of the union.

DSA must chart a new course that offers more robust support for our members and workplace militants in their internal union organizing. One such new approach, detailed above, could allow us the tactical flexibility to provide our members with resources to educate their fellow union members about what it would mean for them personally, and for the working class more broadly, if they were organized to build their unions into fighting, democratic vehicles for class struggle. Weighing in on questions that touch on internal union democracy should never be taken lightly, but even expressing openness to the possibility puts DSA in a stronger position than foreclosing it. Comrades who agree that our current approach is insufficient but disagree with the tactical approach sketched out above should put forward arguments to experiment with an alternative set of tactics.

Edit: We are including a link where you can discuss this piece with other DSA members!

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