Socialists Need to Be Part of the Labor Movement

Politico recently attacked the Democratic Socialists of America for the high crime of looking to transform the labor movement. But for young socialists, there are few better ways of doing politics than getting a union job and working to push that union to the left.

Union activists and supporters rally against the Supreme Court's ruling in the Janus v. AFSCME case, in Foley Square in Lower Manhattan, June 27, 2018 in New York City. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

An August 14 article in Politico, based on an internal memo, details the plans of New York City DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) to “penetrate” some of the city’s major labor unions. Union leadership should be happy that so many young people want to help build and strengthen the labor movement, which needs all the help it can get. But not everyone feels this way. NYC Central Labor Council president Vinny Alvarez, for one, accused the DSA of sowing “seeds of disunity . . . with plans for infiltration and disruption.” And the Hotel Trades Council has sent spies to DSA Labor Branch meetings (a fact Politico does not report).

Old guard unease aside, taking union jobs, strategically helping to build the organizations, and, in the long run, shaping their political presence, is exactly what DSA should be doing.

There is no better way to fight capital — and, in the public sector, austerity — than by using our own power as workers: forming unions, making demands, and, most saliently, threatening to withdraw that labor and sometimes going on strike. This work goes on all the time, without socialists; we are far from the only (or even the best) people to do it. But we need to be involved.

Unions need members who want to dedicate their lives to organizing. Although union density has been declining for years, workers have shown, even recently, that when they organize, they often win. Having the right ideas isn’t necessarily an advantage in labor organizing — if it were, the industrialization efforts by far-left groups in the 1970s would have been more successful. And sometimes labor’s defeats are structural or strategic, and shouldn’t be blamed on an insufficiently radical rank and file or a conservative leadership. But radicals committed to organizing, supported by other activists thinking intelligently about the project, can do a lot of good — as socialists in West Virginia showed when they got involved in organizing teachers’ strikes throughout that state last year. Such successes improve workers’ lives and build workers’ institutions. Radicals can bring zeal, commitment, and unwillingness to accept the status quo; none of this guarantees success, but it can help.

As well, without unions informed by the Left, socialists will be limited in our capacity to advance a political agenda that serves the working class. The kind of change socialists are asking for, in the long run, will require the support of the institutions that represent working-class people at work. At present, New York City unions are often on the wrong side of crucial fights, taking positions that might help their members (or fill their coffers) in the short term but hurt the working class as a whole in the long term.

When DSA and its community allies kept Amazon’s headquarters out of New York City, for example, many unions were on the wrong side of that fight, supporting the retailer despite its virulently anti-union and anti-worker history. Politically, both unions and DSA would have emerged looking stronger, had the unions joined the rest of the left forces in opposing Amazon. Despite the short-term boost in construction jobs, it would have been in all unions’ long-term interests to oppose such an anti-union company, and to send the message that companies need to respect workers’ rights to do business here.

Another example is single-payer health care. Rightly a crucial policy demand for DSA on both the national and state levels, and crucial to the health and economic security of all middle and working-class people, it’s opposed by some unions for narrow monopolistic reasons (the need for health insurance, under present circumstances, gives workers an incentive to join unions). While many unions were part of the coalition that recently won stronger tenant protections in New York, one important player, SEIU 32BJ, opposed some parts of the package, looking at how the fate of landlords and developers could affect its members’ ability to win concessions, rather than at the SEIU members struggling to afford rent in New York City along with everyone else. Some unions are doing solid work on climate, but others are adamantly opposing environmental reforms, including the Green New Deal. More DSA influence within the unions — as part of the rank and file — could shape labor’s positions on all these crucial issues.

In electoral politics, DSA has much to gain from becoming a more active part of the labor movement, some of which has opposed socialist candidates. DSA has been able to win big despite union opposition, but now that the machine is waking up to its power, union support may become more crucial. Take Tiffany Cabán’s bid to become district attorney of Queens, for example. Cabán, the DSA candidate who campaigned on ending mass incarceration, lost to Queens borough president Melinda Katz by only fifty votes. Katz was endorsed by some of the city’s major unions. This means that I and a few friends personally could have ensured our candidate’s victory by canvassing a couple more times than we did (my bad — I’m serious); clearly unions, with far more resources and influence, could even more easily have made the difference. If those unions that endorsed Katz had backed Cabán instead, and mobilized on her behalf, she certainly would have won. The same will be true in many local races to come.

The strategy is a shrewd use of one of DSA’s biggest resources: young people who haven’t chosen their careers yet. DSA’s leaked memo discusses not only the political and strategic advantages and disadvantages of each union for DSA (for example, a particular union may already have DSA members, another might have a reform slate that could be strengthened), but also the pros and cons of the jobs in question for those who will be taking them (construction is dangerous but pays well; teaching is exhausting but social, with some room for creativity).

The strategic and political merits of this sort of industrialization — becoming part of the rank and file and organizing from within unions — is debated, but what’s often overlooked in these debates is that it gives left activists good, union jobs. Almost everyone needs to work, and the economic stability provided by a union job makes political involvement easier over the long term. While most jobs present an obstacle to left activism — there are only so many hours in a day, and a person may also want to have a lover, water their plants, raise kids, or sometimes go to the beach — for those participating in this strategy, the job is part of their political work. Some of the organizing even takes place on the job, with people they see every day, many of whom have not yet been radicalized. NYC DSA’s union strategy is a good political move, but it can also be a good life choice for those who get involved.