The Rank-and-File Tactic

The rank-and-file strategy is crucial to building a powerful labor movement. But it should be seen as just one part of a broader socialist approach to labor and politics — a tactic rather than a strategy.

Hundreds of Verizon workers strike outside of the telecommunications company's Brooklyn offices on April 13, 2016 in New York City. Spencer Platt / Getty

In recent years, with the twenty-first century left on the move, the “rank-and-file strategy” (RFS) has developed renewed currency.

Momentum, the first formal internal group (now defunct) vying for national seats in the newly expanded Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in 2016, put it at the top of their list of approaches to DSA work, and Jacobin has dedicated a significant amount of real estate to RFS, including a recent piece by Barry Eidlin.

The dual insights that the Left has played an important role in labor upsurges throughout US history and that a surging labor movement will be essential to any attempt to democratize society and the economy fully are at the core of the RFS approach. In practice, Eidlin writes, RFS advocates argue that “socialists should make a concerted effort to find jobs in sectors deemed strategically important for building working-class power.” RFS partisans believe in the central importance of developing a so-called “militant minority” on the shop floor, to fight the boss as directly as possible. This, in turn, is central to developing the working-class consciousness necessary to build socialism.

The RFS approach typically entails working in actually existing bargaining units, thereby making actually existing unions more militant and powerful. In his 2000 pamphlet, Kim Moody calls this “focusing on the unions,” and it is at the heart of projects like Labor Notes (LN), which reports primarily on the struggles of workers in existing unions and runs conferences and trainings that bring together hundreds of rank-and-file leaders. (With union density at 10.5 percent in 2018 and just 6.4 percent in the private sector, LN appears to be doing more reporting on new and non-traditional organizing.)

In practice, the RFS approach has sometimes led to taking formal trade union power or attempting to, as with Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). But there is also a certain ambivalence in the tradition between staying on the shop floor and taking power in the trade union representing that shop floor. The ambivalence is encoded in the name itself — by definition, elected leaders are no longer the “rank and file,” even if they come from it. Though many RFS practitioners seek to take formal union power, I have also heard caucuses that lose union elections claim that the loss was for the best, because winning office can create a short path to cooptation.

As it has been practiced, then, the rank-and-file approach to union politics is much more a tactic of socialist strategy than it is socialist strategy itself: get jobs in particular industries; build a militant minority by fighting the boss directly; in the process, fight with the union leadership, and perhaps take over the union to then wage democratic, militant struggle focused on further empowering the rank and file.

This tactic is vital to building a powerful labor movement and a left capable of fully democratizing the economy. But a tactic is not a strategy. Strategies draw together many tactics, suggesting useful sequences, identifying situations when some tactics are preferable to others. Strategies are not hard-and-fast plans; they are adaptable to changing circumstances, as all plans must be.

Even within the specific strategic question of how the Left should orient to the labor movement, there are a host of tactical maneuvers that left organizations and individuals do and should make but that don’t fit the RFS paradigm. In the 1980s, for example, Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 217 hired a young John Wilhelm to work as a staff organizer. Wilhelm, who later became the national president of a newly merged union, UNITE HERE, had ties to some young Marxists at nearby Yale, who he brought into union activity.

Before long, Wilhelm built a committee of workers and took over Local 217. From there, his team dragged in the federal government to oust a corrupt international union leadership and took control of HERE central operations. And from that perch, the young radicals proceeded to take control of HERE locals all over North America.

The leftists who took over the organization now known as UNITE HERE and who have dedicated tens of millions of dollars in service industry workers dues money to successful new organizing and strategic corporate campaigns over the years have a complicated legacy that includes substantial accusations of cultishness, an assessment of which is beyond the scope of this article. (An important aspect of the cultishness arose in southern California, where the union adopted some of the bizarre practices of the United Farm Workers that developed as Cesar Chavez embraced Synanon, and soon spread to the rest of the union.) Notwithstanding criticisms, the HERE model shows that there are many entry points to building left power in the labor movement, including an individual taking a staff position and bringing in her friends.

Such a project, to be clear, is fully compatible with an RFS approach — even, or especially, within the very same union. Bottom-up agitation and top-down campaigning are at least potentially mutually enhancing. Indeed, the path that Wilhelm and his team took, with its top-down corporate campaign focus, would have benefited from a dose of the rank-and-file approach. But this is precisely the point: RFS is a tactic to be blended with others, not a freestanding strategy.

Leftists have also been entrepreneurs of new labor organizations, playing an especially important role in the construction of so-called workers centers over the past several decades. While many have noted the limitations of this organizational model, workers centers have developed a host of tactics, some of which have been mimicked by existing trade unions. (RWDSU created the Retail Action Project, for example, which, as Peter Ikler has documented, has led creative and successful organizing efforts in Manhattan retail.) And the centers have also won fights with the boss while building power and consciousness among their members. (Moody makes a nod to workers centers, though again, in practice, they are far from central to the RFS approach.)

RFS, then, is just one tactical approach to the labor movement, albeit an important one. But at another level, the Left’s approach to the labor movement is itself just one tactic in a broader socialist strategy.

Kim Moody gives a nod, for example, to the importance of electoral work. His pamphlet points to the importance of “alternative class-based politics,” mentioning the now-defunct Labor Party as one possible vehicle for this work. More recent RFS supporters advocate a “dirty break” approach to the Democratic Party — work within it for now, but not forever.

Socialist approaches to electoral strategy — and to the intersection of electoral and labor movement work — are one key place where the rank-and-file strategy breaks down, as strategy. The partisans who built the contemporary RFS approach also had a very particular analysis of the US electoral terrain, one that is largely absent from their writing on the RFS itself. Moody views operating within the Democratic Party as a non-starter, a perspective that is likely reflected in the tradition’s ambivalence about taking electoral power inside of trade unions.

In this sense, Moody, is part of a long tradition on the US labor left that is in some ways common to traditions as different as the IWW and Samuel Gompers’s AFL: a focus on the shop floor and an avoidance of the endlessly perplexing question of how to build political power on the exceptional US terrain. Today’s proponents move the dial on this question, as they grapple with tactical approaches to the US two-party system — typically with the aim of splitting the Democratic Party coalition.

As I have argued elsewhere, however, such analyses of US politics and the US party system would benefit from a dose of agnosticism. In any case, more recent RFS proponents, this author included, are only beginning to extract the RFS from its roots in very specific organization and adapt it theoretically and practically to the new terrain.

An understanding of actually existing left unions is helpful here. The Communications Workers of America is a case worth understanding in this regard. In an era when private sector strikes declined precipitously, and those that did happen were lockouts and/or mostly unsuccessful, CWA has waged war with large telecommunications companies, striking nine times in thirty-five years.

The 2016 Verizon strike was an inspiration to many on the Left, including me. My union local chapter organized weekly pickets of a nearby Verizon store, and the effort energized our own internal work. But CWA is not a “pure and simple” trade union, and neither does it fetishize the kind of militancy of which it has been a shining example in the neoliberal era.

In New York and nationally, CWA has played a central role in building the Working Families Party, an independent organization with a left electoral strategy that is grounded in the material and electoral-legal realities of the US political system. CWA was also one of the only international unions to endorse Bernie Sanders in his 2016 bid for the Democratic nomination for president and by far the largest (CWA represents 700,000 workers, and the next largest Bernie endorser, the American Postal Workers Union, represents some 250,000).

And, not for nothing, the same union that inspired the Left with the 2016 Verizon strike and that inspired left electoralists by taking a risk and backing Bernie, then proceeded to go to war against Donald Trump — and, by consequence, for Hillary Clinton — in the 2016 general election, sending staff, members, and resources to swing states.

CWA also has a robust political education program, “Runaway Inequality,” in which members grapple with the dynamics of the whole economic system of which their employers are just one part. The union engages and fights racism within its ranks as well. This work is resonant with RFS calls for developing worker consciousness, but is developed and executed by elected leaders and staff with formal power in the union — in conjunction, of course, with massive strikes against the boss carried out by rank-and-file workers.

Again, RFS is a tactic that focuses on one important role the Left can and should play in the labor movement. But in order to make explicit and hence improve left labor strategy, we must also grapple directly with the fact that leftist staffers play an important role in building movement power.

The work of leftists in unions like CWA and UNITE HERE suggests that RFS is a very particular approach to socialist trade unionism, a tactic more than a strategy. But new developments in left electoralism have only deepened the need to understand RFS as a tactic within a broader left strategy.

The Bernie Sanders presidential campaign pushed much of the Left to rethink its approach to electoral politics. Bernie was a lifelong independent, winning every single race for elected office — from mayor to US senator — without the support of either major party. But in his bid for president, Bernie opted to run on the Democratic Party line. The results were astounding, leading to the explosion of socialist politics in the US and the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America.

DSA has proceeded to participate in and in some cases lead a host of exciting electoral victories: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Julia Salazar, the recent socialist wave on the Chicago City Council, and many more. These victories are happening dominantly, though not exclusively, on the Democratic Party ballot line.

The Left is only just now coming to grips with the fact that the two major US parties are as much state-regulated electoral systems as they are party organizations, owing to the development of public primary races in the late nineteenth and twentieth century. Party primaries wrested control of candidate selection from party machines, who could once pick their candidates in a smoke-filled backroom.

In most cases today, Democratic Party organizations as organizations have no capacity to select “their” candidates that DSA or WFP do not also have. The exceptions, like superdelegates for presidential elections (not governed by state law in the same way), prove the rule: in almost all cases, party bosses are prevented from having unique control over the candidate selection process. The capacities that DP leaders do have (fundraising networks, for example) do not come from their formal role in a party organization.

Seth Ackerman’s “Blueprint for a New Party has been essential in pushing forward the implications of this understanding for the Left. This party system, relatively unique to the US, explains why organizations like the WFP and DSA are able to elect independent candidates on the Democratic Party line, often in opposition to formal Democratic Party leadership.

Even if one is wary of excessive focus on presidential politics, projects like Labor for Bernie demonstrate the potential for electoral work to feed left union activism and not just the other way around. We typically imagine a subset of the most engaged union activists also taking on electoral work as an unfortunate but important discipline that takes away from their time for core union activity. But it is also possible that electoral work can connect left union members who have not found a home in their organization, or even that it can be the initial point of contact for union activity. If handled well by already activated leaders and activists, those members drawn into union work through Bernie or local left candidates can also be cultivated as shop floor militants.

In order to develop a fully integrated socialist strategy, the Left must grapple seriously with new developments, like Bernie’s national status and the rapid growth of DSA through use of the Democratic Party ballot line, as well as cases of left labor activity in organizations like UNITE HERE and CWA, which do not map perfectly onto the rank-and-file strategy approach to socialist unionism. These cases and new developments highlight the limitations of the RFS framework for a broad socialist strategy.

Today, the terrain is shifting. Possibilities are opening. We must draw on the theoretical and practical tools handed to us by generations past. Rank-and-file strategy advocates have built institutions — most notably Labor Notes and TDU — that have carried on important work in the neoliberal era and are still vital to the Left today.

But we must also adapt the theories and the practices that we’ve been handed, as we attempt to grapple with new terrain in new moments. This creative thinking is central to developing grounded strategy, and it may involve abandoning or altering dearly held ideological commitments in the face of new lessons. This doesn’t mean abandoning the rank-and-file approach, though it does mean putting it in proper context.

As we develop new plans and analyses, we should see the rank-and-file strategy for what it is: a vital tactic in what must be a much broader strategy to democratize our society and our economy ever more fully.