Reflections on the Rank and File Strategy

Socialists have a key role to play in building the labor movement — if they can avoid the pitfalls of sectarianism and union bureaucracy.

Workers from Vegas Auto Spa on strike on January 20, 2015 in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It has been nearly two decades since “The Rank and File Strategy” was written. Since that time, much has changed in the world and in the US labor movement.

We have seen the Great Recession, the eurozone crisis, resistance to the austerity these have brought on in Mediterranean Europe and elsewhere, and the Arab Spring and the disappointing retreats that often followed, to mention some of these changes. The US labor movement has continued to shrink, with most of its efforts to grow failing.

Partly in response to this failure, six unions, led by the SEIU, split from the AFL-CIO in 2005, creating the Change to Win Federation. Some unions fell into a virtual civil war. Public sector unions have seen an unprecedented attack not only on wages and conditions, but on the very right to bargain and, perhaps, exist. On the other hand, the role of immigrant workers has grown and with it new organizations and resistance. At the same time, moments of high-profile resistance, like the 2011 Wisconsin upsurge or the September 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike, display labor’s potential power.

The question naturally arises: How does all of this affect the idea of a rank- and-file approach to furthering effective class action? How do they impact the hopes for building a working class-based socialist movement in the United States? The fundamental dilemma that brought forth a rank-and-file approach to the work of socialists in the unions remains the same: the disconnect between revolutionary socialism and the vast majority of organized workers — and the means to end it.

No attempt will be made here to rewrite the original article, to update every trend, or to pick out all the big and little mistakes and poor formulations. For the most part, I believe, the historical analysis stands up to scrutiny.¹ In terms of the rank-and-file perspective itself, the basic choice between permeation of the labor bureaucracy and a rank-and-file approach remains unavoidable, as all the social realities and economic pressures that conservatize the upper layers of unions remain, and in many cases, are even stronger under today’s economic conditions.

On the other hand, the pressures on the mass of workers, organized and unorganized, are if anything even greater today than a decade ago. It is precisely the clash of these contradictory pressures that from time to time gives rise to rebellion in the ranks.

There are, to be sure, some hopeful signs. Efforts at mobilization and new tactics have been adopted at least partially by a few unions. Furthermore, rank-and-file rebellions have arisen in a number of unions, mostly at the local level, as old leaders prove unable or unwilling to enlist the members in resistance or even to resist at all.

More generally, there appears to be a new generation of local activists and leaders, in and out of office, who want to fight the intolerable conditions being imposed by employers both public and private. In this emerging layer there is a strong understanding of the importance of workplace organization as a power base for resistance and growth. It is in these developments, still very much minority trends to be sure, that socialists can find hope and a place to begin — again.

Old Strategies Confront Intensified Trends

It cannot be said that many of America’s labor leaders haven’t tried various things to halt or reverse declining union fortunes. As is their custom, however, most of these have been top-down efforts that bypass the membership or those they hope to organize.

The formation of Change to Win, for example, was supposed to put new life and energy into organizing; it didn’t. It was a nonstarter that led to more top-level internal conflict than new organizing.²

Indeed, the grand troika of “new”union tactics of the 1990s and 2000s — mergers, neutrality / card check, and “leverage” — have all failed to produce the expected or intended results.

Mergers, which accelerated in the 1990s and were supposed to produce the resources needed to organize, have failed to do so. Instead, they have produced a number of giant, multi-jurisdictional conglomerate unions that render union democracy even more difficult, without significant organizing breakthroughs or financial well-being.

As Steve Early reported in 2012, neutrality / card-check schemes, often known as “Bargaining to Organize,” have “stalled.” “In the last several years,” he writes, “few AFL-CIO or Change to Win affiliates have made any large-scale ‘Bargaining to Organize’ breakthroughs.”

Leverage, the application of outside, often indirect pressure of various kinds on the targeted company, while effective in some circumstances, has also failed to redress the deteriorating balance of class power. At best it is often an additional pressure during a hard-fought strike. At worst, it becomes a substitute for member mobilization and real direct action, as it is mostly deployed and administered by union professionals.

Below, I will address how a rank-and-file approach relates to the question of organizing. First, I will look briefly at two major trends confronting unions and their members as well as the unorganized majority.

In the wake of the failure to organize even enough new workers to prevent continued decline, union membership has fallen further, with the Great Recession wiping out such gains as were made in 2007 and 2008. Altogether, union membership shrank from 16.3 million, or 13.5 percent of eligible workers, in 2000 to 14.8 million, or 11.8 percent, in 2011.

Unlike in previous years when most losses were in the private sector, in 2011 it was the public sector unions that lost more than sixty thousand members, reflecting the first signs of the accelerated attack on public workers and their bargaining rights. The only bright spot in the 2011 figures was the unexpected gain of 110,000 union members in the private sector — almost all of them in health care. Along with hotels, this is one of the few areas of union growth and one in which rank and file-based mobilization tactics are frequently employed, albeit sometimes along with card check and leverage.

Employer Resistance

Two indicators of increased employer resistance to unions in the private sector were the rise in the ratio of 8a Unfair Labor Practices (ULPs) to NLRB elections filed by unions against employers and the increased use of permanent replacement workers in the face of strikes.

An 8a ULP indicates that the union sees an illegal practice by management, such as firing a union activist, during a representation election. The ratio of 8a ULPs to NLRB elections had been rising throughout most of the post–World War II period. But even as the number of NLRB election pursued by unions fell from 2000 to 2009, this ratio rose from 6.3 per election to 9.7.

The second indication of resistance to unions is the rise in the use of permanent replacement workers during strikes. Three surveys conducted from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s show that employers not only were willing to threaten the use of scabs more in 2003 than in 1996, but increased the ratio of the actual deployment of permanent replacements during strikes from one in eight to three in four.

In the public sector, the campaign to destroy or limit collective bargaining has mainly taken a legislative form. Yet there has been resistance in several states and it appears here, as elsewhere, that mass direct action is the key.

The point is that tactics like mergers, leverage, or Bargaining to Organize (or mere pressure politics) are not sufficient. They cannot be effective in and of themselves in the face of intensified employer efforts to extract a higher rate of surplus value in which opposition to new unionization and efforts to roll back unionism are key.

It isn’t simply a matter of the age- old hatred of unions American capital has harbored since the dawn of industrialization. Rather, it is the realization by capital and its political representatives that profitability has come to depend on increased wage compression and workplace intensification.

The increased rate of surplus value resulting from these helped create the period of growth, with its ups and downs, from 1982 through 2007. Any hopes of a general capitalist recovery since the crash of 2008 are, if anything, even more dependent on the ability to restrain wages and increase productivity through work intensification. Unions, even conservative ones, in this context, represent a real or potential barrier to the achievement of an increased rate of exploitation and hence a return to profitability.

This brings us to the matter of work reorganization and intensification.

Work Intensification and the Wage-Productivity Gap

The most visible statistical result of work reorganization and intensification is the wage-productivity gap that has characterized the last three decades.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, while productivity rose 37.8 percent from 1995 through 2011, median real wages rose only 9.6 percent. Those for a college graduate rose 12.6 percent and those for a high-school graduate a mere 6.2 percent.¹² It is obvious from these figures that the rate of surplus value must have increased significantly as the value of labor power decreased.

Despite continued sluggish growth, profits per unit of real gross value added rose by 14 percent from the beginning of 2010 through mid-2012, while unit labor costs rose less than 1 percent.¹³ In other words, wage restraint and work intensification were working for capital.

Much of this is the product of lean production methods, although it appears that US capital has gone beyond the softer sides of those production methods to cruder methods of control and compulsion.

These two grim trends, union decline and work intensification, are of course linked. Bargaining power over wages, benefits, and working conditions in a majority of unionized workplaces continued to diminish. One indicator of declining union power (or possibly the willingness to use it) was that bargained wage increases have fallen from more than 3 percent a year from 2002 to 2008 to 1.7 percent in the first half of 2012, despite rising productivity and profits.

Furthermore, the percentage of new contracts with no wage increase had risen to a third by 2012. Things are even worse in the area of benefits and pensions. Clearly, this contributed to the continued wage-productivity gap and profitability.

How does this relate to the rank-and-file strategy?

The Missing Tasks

The Rank-and-File Strategy ended with six tasks for socialist work in the unions. This list more or less stands as a general guide. However, in light of these accelerated trends, it now seems to me there are two glaring omissions: a socialist role in organizing the unorganized and the centrality of workplace organization in a socialist approach to union work.

But is there a particularly socialist approach to union or workplace organizing? I would answer yes.

We proceed from the proposition argued by Marx that consciousness grows from struggle and self-activity and that unions, despite their limitations, can be, as Engels put it, “schools of war” in which the workers prepare themselves for larger fights to come and become “fit for administrative and political work.”

This is only true, however, if unions are in fact willing and able to struggle effectively, to mobilize the workers to engage in that struggle, and for the members to have access to the union’s administration and politics (i.e., union democracy).

While more unions today employ mobilization tactics, there is still often a tendency to keep things under bureaucratic control. Since most organizing as it is currently done is administered by the international unions, bureaucratic business unionism, still the norm, is a barrier to effective struggle.

Of course, the socialist task is to organize against this and for basic changes in union leadership, policy, and structure. Within that longer-range task, however, are some specifics.

We have long known that unions are most likely to win representation when, as Kate Bronfenbrenner once put it, “they run aggressive and creative campaigns utilizing a rank-and-file, grassroots intensive strategy, building a union and acting like a union from the very beginning of the campaign.”

Campaigns like UNITE-HERE’s Hotel Workers Rising or those by the new National Union of Healthcare Workers and National Nurses United appear to have taken this advice more than most. Nevertheless, socialists with potential influence in organizing campaigns should fight for and help organize for this “rank-and-file, grassroots intensive” approach.

Another important path to increased organizing lies through the local union. Here, in what is likely to be a more democratic setting, stewards and members can be mobilized to organize workers in nearby and related industries or occupations and up and down the supply chain.

Some locals, like CWA Local 1037, a public sector union in New Jersey, use members and an extensive stewards organization to recruit new members. Another example, at least when it was under Teamsters for a Democratic Union leadership, was Teamsters Local 174.

In addition to involvement in more traditional organizing efforts, socialists can push for opening union membership beyond workplaces that win formal majority recognition, by whatever means. Prior to World War II, workers did not wait to win recognition before “acting like a union.” Indeed, the CIO union would not have triumphed in the 1930s if they had. Non-majority or “open-source” unionism could bring huge numbers into the labor movement. There are already a number of experiments with this approach.

None of these approaches are panaceas, but they do point to ways to increase union power, a key goal for socialists. What is needed and what we would work for is to turn these practical approaches into is a broad working-class movement, incorporating new and old unions, immigrant organizations, workers centers, and worker-resource projects, powerful enough to push the employers back and shift the center of class relations.

Power on the Job

The late historian Giovanni Arrighi observed that as industry became more capital intensive, craft workers and their unions tended to lose their “marketplace bargaining power,” but as the division of labor and dependence on vast amounts of capital grew, production became more vulnerable to strikes and the workers’ “workplace bargaining power” at the point of production increased.

Today, with endless outsourcing, subcontracting, privatizing, and so on, the picture is more complicated. Union organizing, for example, often requires both a marketplace and a workplace approach.

The strategy that led to the victory of Justice for Janitors in 1990, for example, relied on a marketplace approach to organize these contract workers. That is, they had to bring all the janitors in the Los Angeles area into the union in order to reduce competition among them.

In other cases, more than one layer of employers has to be fought. The Farm Labor Organizing Committee and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers had to fight and bargain with two sets of employers.

The question arises: Does this fragmentation of the workforce mean not only that marketplace approaches may be needed in some cases, but, more seriously, that the workplace power that characterized the era of industrial unionism has evaporated?

On the contrary: the whole structure of the contemporary production of goods and services, frequently linked by just-in-time or “logistics” systems, is highly vulnerable to strikes and other direct actions.

While some workers have more workplace bargaining power than others, many possess the ability to disrupt production to the degree to which they are well organized on the job. This, in turn, opens the possibility and opportunity for solidarity actions and for the extension of unionization along the supply chain.

If Marx and Engels thought of trade unions as “schools” of war or sites where workers become “fit for administrative and political work,” socialists today should understand that building workplace organization capable of disrupting the labor process is also a training ground for the wielding of greater, more extensive power down the (revolutionary) road. It is, to some degree, a transitional form of organization and power.

To oversimplify, today’s shop-steward organization may be tomorrow’s factory council — even if that is well down that road.

At the moment, workplace shop-stewards’ organization is the key to effective resistance and to the greater disruptions required to shift the balance of class forces. For socialists, then, building this kind of directly elected workplace organization is both a practical and an educational task. It is the most effective base from which to hold the official accountable to the members. It is the basis of rank-and-file power on the job and in the union, as well as a base from which to extend union organizing in which the stronger help the weaker achieve organization and gain power.

Rebellion in the Unions

“The Rank-and-File Strategy” put considerable emphasis on rank-and-file caucuses and movement within the unions. The unfortunate heading that read “The Roots of a New Rebellion” must have given the impression that I was predicting an imminent rerun of the 1970s upsurge. And certainly the talk of “neoliberalism’s crisis” was as premature then as more recent predictions of its demise have been during the current capitalist crisis, despite the bailouts and other state interventions.

What that section was meant to show was simply that rank-and-file rebellions are a more-or-less constant feature of the US labor movement — a consequence of bureaucratic business unionism.

Some of these movements succeed, many fail, while others eventually succumb to the pressures innate in the capital-labor relationship and its institutional superstructure. But most have the potential to help construct a new layer of experienced activists.

The 2000s, much like the 1990s, were not a decade of working-class upsurge. Yet, like the previous decade, they saw their share of rank and file-based union reform movements.

Opening the decade was the reform movement in Teamsters Local 705 in Chicago, followed by Local 743 in the Windy City twelve years later. Similar movements won in Teamsters Locals 804, 805, and 814 in the New York area. The Teamsters for a Democratic Union helped many of these Teamster reform efforts, so that today the reformers claim about thirty local unions.

CWA Locals 1400 in New England and 1101 in New York saw successful rebellions. Early in the decade, rank-and-file Los Angeles teachers took over their gigantic local. A mass movement of Chicago teachers did the same in their 26,000-member local more than a decade later. Nurses in the New York State Nurses Association brought in a new leadership, as did blue-collar workers at the University of California in AFSCME Local 3299 and longshore workers in ILA Local 1410 in Mobile, Alabama.

Even in the heart of conglomerate unionism, the SEIU, several locals saw successful reform movements. Many of these local unions cover thousands of members, and there have certainly been many more such rebellions across the country in recent years.

At the same time, at least two grassroots cross-union organizations have recently taken shape: Community and Postal Workers United and Railroad Workers United, both trying to build rank-and-file solidarity between workers in different locals and even different unions, offering one way to overcome the fragmentation mentioned above.

In 2012, Labor Notes ran an unusually frank discussion by several union reformers about the pressures and difficulties of trying to run a local union differently. Whether they were Teamsters, university workers, or longshore workers, the concerns were the same: training new grassroots leaders to broaden the base, building effective stewards organizations, creating broader forms of member mobilization and involvement, and not buying into “experts” and lawyers who are likely to push you back into “the well-worn grooves of business unionism.”

This sort of open discussion of real problems is one way socialists, who can offer an analysis of union bureaucracy and the importance of union democracy, can contribute to the growth of rank-and-file movements.

There has been a change in the locus of rank-and-file rebellions in many unions since the 1970s. Less common these days are national rank-and-file organizations like the UAW’s United National Caucus, Miners for Democracy, and Steelworkers Fight Back in the 1970s. This is partly due to the merger movement mentioned above, which has created conglomerate unions like the SEIU, Steelworkers, Teamsters, and UFCW, with their multiple, often unrelated jurisdictions. The breakup of national or master contracts and pattern bargaining, which once provided a focus for organization, has also made connections between geographically dispersed groups even in the same industry more difficult.

This is not to say that it is impossible. TDU, which established a base in several Teamster jurisdictions early in its history, has been able to maintain a presence across the International Union. The Longshore Workers Committee has built a national network in the ILA.

Attempting to take power at the national level, however, presents a new level of problems beyond even what the local leaders discussed in Labor Notes. While not all unions or union officials are the same, the higher one moves in a union, the greater the pressure to preserve the institution, reduce risky activities, and develop stable relationships with major employers mounts. Constant conflict, be it with employers or union opponents, becomes an annoyance.

The pressure to professionalize and institutionalize conflict and retain office at all costs becomes hard to resist. The only counter to this tendency is a powerful rank and file-based organization or movement based in strong workplace organization that can fight to keep the leadership on track. That is one reason why militant locals based on workplace power are important.

More generally, if the Labor Notes conferences of 2010 and 2012 are any indication, there appears to be a new generation of local leaders and activists taking shape. Attendance soared to 1,500 at the 2012 conference, an increase of 50 percent or more over most earlier conferences. The mood and language were also more radical. This is a heartening sign. The growth of local movements also presents an opening for spreading the ideas of a rank-and-file approach to building a different unionism based on workplace power, union democracy, and a willingness to take direct action when called for.

In “The Rank and File Strategy” I wrote about the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL) as an early effort to build a rank-and-file movement across the entire labor movement that could fight for industrial unionism, union democracy, and independent political action. It was an organization that you joined simply by subscribing to its newspaper, the Labor Herald.

Labor Notes is not a membership organization, but it has become an educational center through its publications, schools, and conferences. Its conferences provide a place to initiate or strengthen organization.

The idea here is not that the Labor Notes staff can organize a contemporary TUEL, but that those who look to Labor Notes can see themselves as the core of a future working-class movement. In this context, Labor Notes provides a focus and a resource for a broader class consciousness in a manner similar to TUEL at its best.

Changing our unions and building consciousness are not just jobs for this or that caucus, committee, or campaign in this or that union, but for a broad movement of tens of thousands pulling in the same direction.

Socialists willing to act in a nonsectarian fashion and put the broad movement before their own organizational interests have an important role to play in building this movement, providing they avoid the twin pitfalls of “party” control and permeation at the top. While new problems must be addressed and new tasks assumed, the central perspective of “The Rank- and-File Strategy” still offers a way in which to close the gap between socialist politics and working-class self-activity.