A Strategy to Build Labor Power

If we're going to revive the labor movement, we need a strategy that's rooted in socialist principles but flexible enough to adjust to changing conditions in the US workforce.

A worker at an aircraft plant, somewhere in the Midwest during World War II. Library of Congress

In August 2018, on the heels of nascent worker organizing, Bernie Sanders announced plans to tax businesses whose low wage employees rely on government programs. He singled out Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos as one of the worst offenders. Amazon shot back, calling Sanders’s statements “inaccurate and misleading.” By the time Sanders introduced the bill in September, it had quite a name: Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies Act — the Stop BEZOS Act.

Just a few weeks later, in October, Amazon announced plans to raise its minimum wage to $15 and to lobby for an increase to the federal minimum.

This was a truly striking series of exchanges. Bernie used the bully pulpit to attack a multibillion-dollar corporation over their wages, and after a meek defense, they caved and raised their wages. Some debated the extent of the raise, but it was nevertheless a notable, unexpected, and positive outcome.

More recently, as a second-time presidential candidate, Bernie’s campaign created a truly new labor movement tactic. From 2015 to 2019, Bernie has built a database with many millions of supporters. Presidential candidates typically use such lists to raise money, find volunteers, and ultimately turn out voters. But this year the campaign used their lists to turn out potential voters — to a picket line of striking workers. They have since used the lists to warn of ICE attacks on immigrants.

Bernie is using his national profile both to negotiate with megacorporations and to encourage solidarity with workers who are in motion, fighting their bosses with the most powerful weapon they have, the strike. He is fighting for and with workers — regardless of where they were born — and he has a massive base of support. We must grapple with the meaning of this phenomenon if we are to develop a fully twenty-first-century labor strategy.

At the same time, true worker self-organization — not as mediated by, for example, a national political figure — is also on the rise. The West Virginia strike in 2018 is perhaps the most inspiring in recent years, so inspiring that it sparked a strike wave among education workers. But the private sector Market Basket strikes in 2014 were also compelling, even if their goals and rhetoric were less politically crisp. Both were concrete examples of workers organizing themselves — and, importantly, winning.

The Left often looks to the 1930s as a model of worker militancy and organization. And, indeed, strikes organized by workers themselves and with support from organizations like the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the Communist Party, and others were central to producing the New Deal package of legislation, radically transforming life for millions of working people to this day.

But other elements of the 1930s were just as important in producing both the strike wave and the New Deal legislation that it, in turn, helped to generate. As Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, lifelong champions of ordinary people’s disruptive power, wrote in 1977, “Workers’ first large-scale expression of discontent was to occur not in the streets, but at the polls, in the dramatic electoral realignment of 1932 when masses of urban working-class voters turned against the Republican Party to vote for a president of ‘the forgotten man.’”

The 1932 presidential election had immediate consequences, with Franklin Delano Roosevelt swiftly moving a package of bills through Congress in the first months of his presidency. In June 1933, he signed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) into law. The bill was soon invalidated by the Supreme Court, but Section 7a of the act had reverberations. It reads, “Employees shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and shall be free from the interference, restraint, or coercion of employers of labor, or their agents.”

Though the provision had no real mechanisms for enforcement, it is hard to overstate the sea change that Section 7a represented. Through the 1930s, the United States labor movement was exceptional in at least two regards: it was more militant than its counterparts in other industrialized nations, and it also faced particularly extreme violence from employers. However toothless the language was, institutionally speaking, Section 7a suggested the beginning of a new order. Unions and workers heard the words “free from interference . . . or coercion of employers,” and the words mattered.

Some of the most important strikes of the decade happened in 1934, after the passage of the NIRA, but before the passage of the much more powerful — if, in some ways, pacifying — National Labor Relations Act in 1935: the Auto-Lite strike in Toledo, the Minneapolis Teamsters, and San Francisco longshore workers, among others. Much ink has been spilled over the “causes” of the 1930s labor upsurge. A simple and likely assessment is that worker self-organization — with support from left forces in the workplace and the existing trade unions, on the one hand, and elections and legislation, with both material and inspirational effects, on the other — were mutually reinforcing.

As we develop new left labor strategies for the twenty-first century, we would do well to stay open to the notion that the labor movement is deeply inflected by (and in some instances has the power to cause) shifts in the electoral and legislative terrain. Today, workers and allies like Bernie Sanders are fighting the bosses in ways both consistent with and innovating on the past. Meanwhile, the organized left is growing at a clip that we haven’t seen in at least seventy-five years. We need an open-minded approach to developing left labor strategy commensurate with the new moment and the new conjuncture.

There are a number of key tools in the left labor kit, which can be combined in various ways to build a twenty-first-century strategy.

Leftists can get jobs in workplaces covered by a collective bargaining agreement. From this position, they can help to cohere the “militant minority,” fight the boss as directly as possible, and turn that minority into a majority. This work is at the core of the much discussed “rank-and-file strategy.”

Leftists can take control of unions. For many reasons, groups of unionized workers — some of them of the Left — may want to take formal power within their organization. Perhaps the leadership has allowed the organization to weaken, or perhaps the organization is powerful, but its leadership has narrow politics.

Perhaps some of the leaders are good and others are not, and so workers may want to aim for some elected positions and not others. In any case, taking charge of powerful and well-funded union organizations is a key tool of the Left.

Leftists can work in union staff positions. Unions that are run by the Left need staffers who will help to design and execute their programs. Though it is possible for these hires to come from the membership of the union itself, it can also be important to keep a firm line between elected and hired positions. Left-led unions are likely to need workplace organizers, opposition researchers, political organizers, policy experts, communications staff, and more.

In addition, organizations like the Democratic Socialist of America (DSA) are likely to have union staff in their ranks who are not working for particularly progressive unions. Unions are one of the places young leftists have gone to seek work in the past decades, and not all of the organizations they work for are aligned with their politics.

People in such positions may be able to identify opportunities for pushing their union employers to the left, and even may be able to help build or support a cohort of leaders in the bargaining unit. There are also a substantial number of union locals in the United States with dwindling membership but substantial assets from bygone eras. Staffers of such locals might be able to play an outsize role in a radicalization process.

Leftists can salt among the unorganized. Barely 10 percent of US workers are represented by labor unions today, and the numbers are even bleaker in the private sector. Left organizations can identify strategic industries and corporations that are not unionized and help members to get jobs there. This is a difficult path for those individuals, far harder than salting a unionized shop, where pay and benefits are likely to be much higher.

Barry Eidlin argues, rightly in my view, that we cannot think of organizing the unorganized without also thinking of taking power in existing unions and using those resources to support new organizing. But this is not to say that we do not also need leftists on the shop floor in key unorganized industries and corporations now, finding existing leaders, mapping workplaces, and assessing weak points where collective action would be most effective.

DSA is perhaps the only organization on the US left right now that could imagine supporting its members to take on such work in a systematic way. The organization could even, for example, explore purchasing or renting homes near targeted facilities and providing free or subsidized rent for salts. I have very modestly supported DSA salts to buy a car that they share, but we can be much more thorough in our support of people willing to take on this grueling, vital work.

We should also be actively assessing the willingness of existing left-led unions — even ones where the target industry or company is not a perfect fit — in their willingness to support such efforts. That is, we don’t just need to wait until new activists who are targeting unions for takeover have success — there are already unions that have a vibrant, left-wing, democratic culture.

Leftists can build relationships with left-led unions. To the point above, some unions already experience the vibrant and militant internal life that is the goal for many on the Left to achieve when they get jobs on the shop floor of existing bargaining units. We could be building relationships with such unions to assess opportunities for collaboration — on new organizing, working-class legislative goals (like the new rent laws in New York), solidarity in the midst of pitched industrial battles, and much more.

Leftists can support or build workers centers. Workers centers are one of the more creative organizational forms generated in the recent decades of general labor movement decline. At their inception, they did not aim to negotiate collective bargaining agreements like traditional unions, but rather they organized low-wage workers to fight the boss, often using wage-and-hour violations as leverage.

More recently, groups like the Retail Action Project, formed by and aligned with RWDSU (Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union), have contributed to more traditional union organizing drives. Left labor activists should map the workers centers in their region and assess ways to support the best of their work. In some cases, there may be good reason to create a workers center from scratch.

Leftists can support or build supplemental labor organizations. Labor Notes is a media outlet and organizing network for left trade unionists. It has done outstanding work at various turns, including providing support as the West Virginia–inspired strike wave unfolded. Association for Union Democracy has long counseled union members on how to win office in their unions. Such organizations have relatively few staff and punch well above their weight.

Left organizations with significant membership could well think of creative ways to support them, financially, practically, and otherwise. And there may be other “supplemental” organizational models that don’t exist, but that should — again, a left organization oriented to the labor movement would be well positioned to identify such gaps and help fill them.

Leftists can build social movement and community ties. The approach that the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) took in its 2012 strike — building alliances with community members and striking, in part, for their demands — is an essential tool for the left labor movement. Today this approach to contract negotiations is often called “Bargaining for the Common Good.”

Such systematic approaches to building community alliances are much easier when the Left is in full control of the union. However, even before the CORE caucus won office in CTU, they began building alliances with parents and students. It is never too early to start this work.

In the private sector, UNITE HERE began noticing that hotels were not hiring black workers at the same rate as in the past, so they negotiated for increased hires in this racial category. Fight for $15 dovetailed with the Black Lives Matter movement in recent years. The labor left, whether in formal power or member-leader roles, should seek to strengthen relationships between unions and social movements, and ideally position their organization to leverage their disruptive, economic power for broadly popular political ends.

This is especially important with respect to the looming environmental crisis — if we cannot pivot the bulk of the existing labor movement to a coordinated approach to transitioning to a sustainable economy, there will be no labor movement because there will be no humans to populate it.

Leftists can run campaigns and win elections. If it weren’t for Bernie Sanders bringing democratic socialism to the millions through a Democratic Party presidential primary, we would not have the current scale of organized left to even host the discussion we’re having right now about labor strategy. There are stakes to this debate in part because there is an organization with nearly sixty thousand members that could really take a crack at deep and serious involvement in the labor movement. At this level alone, elections matter and should be understood as an essential tactical element of left labor strategy.

Projects like Labor for Bernie suggest further possibilities — leverage high-profile elections to build connections with and among regular workers who have politics to the left of their unions. Such projects are another potential path to identifying and cohering shop floor leaders, even if they don’t fit the typical mold.

In the current moment, an array of new tactics at the intersection of labor and elections may well be possible. Just the other day, I offhandedly posted on Facebook, “The Sanders campaign announced that more of his donors work for Walmart than any other company. First of all, great that the campaign thinks to publicize stuff like this . . . If I were running the UFCW/RW and/or the Teamsters, I might ask the Sanders campaign to host a tele-town hall for Walmart workers to discuss the power of unions. I bet dollars to donuts they’d do it.” Within minutes, a union staffer in my social network put the idea in front of two Bernie staffers.

Those of us on the left of the labor movement are accustomed to thinking of electoral politics as something that, at best, takes time from core union work but that we do in order to move forward organizational goals. But if we seriously look at what has unfolded in the past two years — at the role Bernie, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and many local candidates have played in building our movement — we should be able to find ways for electoral work to enhance union work, and build the Left in the process.

There are very likely tools available to the labor left that are not in this list, though I have tried to capture what strike me as those that are key. Strategy is, in part, the blending and sequencing of such tools, given specific goals. And, there are levels of strategy. Democratic socialists seek to create a democratized, sustainable economy. At this level, building the labor movement is but a tactic, if an important one. But at another level, the Left must develop strategic approaches to the labor movement — the subject of this piece.

And at yet another level, there must be a strategy for a particular fight — say, the Communications Workers of America’s battle with Verizon — but that entire strategy is just one tactic in a single union’s arsenal. (This helps to explain how the “rank-and-file strategy” (RFS) can be understood as both strategy, as Eidlin and Kim Moody have argued, and tactic, as Andrew D and I have argued). Below, I put forward a strategic approach to the labor movement that presumes agreement with the broad goals of democratic socialists.

The Labor Power Strategy

The Democratic Socialists of America has exploded since 2015 and is now in a position to implement a serious left labor strategy. The debate that has unfolded in Jacobin and internal DSA organs has centered around the “rank-and-file strategy,” developed, implemented, and articulated by former members of Solidarity/IS, many of whom are now DSA members. The debate has been so focused in large part because there is not a clear second (or third) approach.

Many people, me included, have written sympathetic criticisms of the RFS, but the debate continues to hinge around what the RFS is and isn’t, rather than the merits of the RFS versus other distinct left labor strategies.

I suspect that the apparent absence of any other clearly articulated left labor strategy is at least partly the product of organizational history. Socialists and others have been salting work places and working for labor unions since the beginning of capitalism, but in the United States’ neoliberal era, the International Socialist Organizaion (ISO) and Solidarity survived longer and did some good work, while the various New Communist Movement (NCM) organizations dissolved sooner. The ISO and Solidarity, then, continued for much longer than the NCM to put forward a clear vision of a left labor movement.

Peter Shapiro, part of the NCM via the League of Revolutionary Struggle, recently weighed in on the RFS debate, but the piece was again a response to the RFS. It did not, strictly speaking, pose a distinct strategic vision, though it displayed a greater tactical openness than is typical of the RFS. Similarly, Bob Master of CWA recently put forward a range of sharp ideas about how the left should approach organized labor, some of which correspond to the RFS approach, and some of which do not.

Below I articulate the Labor Power Strategy is an attempt to put forward a distinct approach to left labor work, in order to sharpen the debate.

In a recent correspondence about the RFS, Paul Saba — another NCM partisan — wrote, “Theory usually lags behind practice — we continue to think about new things in the language of old things. Grasping what is new and emerging in any particular conjuncture is hard enough. Even harder is figuring out how to articulate that newness theoretically.”

The RFS itself has evolved in many ways: some one-time shop floor salts have become staffers; RFS advocates now push for socialist involvement in the Sanders campaign and other “class-struggle electoral campaigns,” despite the fact that work within the Democratic Party was previously off the table for Solidarity and ISO. And the industries and sectors that today’s RFS advocates argue for, like the logistics sector, health care, and nursing, are different from those of yore in heavy industry like steel.

Jane Slaughter has, in my view, made the most convincing case that these other shifts can be contained within the framework of the RFS. Maybe. But this also appears to be a moment when we are continuing “to think about new things in the language of the old.”

For example, it is not enough to say that it’s okay but not ideal for socialists to get union staff jobs. We must assess in a more profound way the best examples of socialist staff work, as well as the worst. In that process, we might find a crisper way to articulate the conditions under which taking staff positions contributes to the working-class struggle more profoundly than other possible directions.

In short, the RFS prioritizes certain of the nine tactics articulated above to the exclusion of some of the others. By contrast, the Labor Power Strategy proposes to begin with an inductive assessment of a given terrain, without assuming that the only (or even primary) left labor approach is taking jobs in existing bargaining units.

Organizational Plans, Not Grand Plans

“The Left” of course can’t really have a strategy; organizations have strategies. In this sense, I agree wholeheartedly with Eidlin’s recent suggestion that any left labor strategy should start by surveying DSA’s members: “What kinds of jobs do people do? What industries are they in? Who are the organic leaders at their workplace? Who is a union member? What unions are they in? Who could be plugged into existing union reform efforts where they work? Who might be available to get a job in a workplace where union reform efforts might be possible? Who works in a workplace that could be organized? The answers can help chapters set strategic priorities.”

This is, in some sense, the only place to start developing organizational strategy, and it will bear fruit so long as we stay open to what such surveying may produce. Left organizations should not, for example, prioritize their members getting union staff positions.

But if hundreds of members already have them, we should reckon with how to leverage that, beyond just suggesting that they quit and join a bargaining unit — which will probably only be the best suggestion in some cases. Any left labor plan must be grounded in the location, thinking, needs, and desires of the actual members — even if it ultimately pushes some of them to shift in various ways. And if we know the “best” tactics in advance, we may miss places where we can deepen our power in the labor movement.

Setting Priorities and Staying Open to Opportunities

If half of strategy is developing a plan that sequences and prioritizes tactics, the other half is staying open as the terrain shifts, based in part on what works and doesn’t work but also on unpredictable external forces. If there were an obvious path from here — a planet on the brink of environmental collapse and concentration camps developing at the US–Mexico border — to a democratized, environmentally sustainable economy, we’d be there.

We need strategy, yes. But not grand strategy that cuts across all place and time: it is great if DSA can help members to get rank-and-file jobs in a systematic way, but greater still if DSA can do this while staying open to providing systematic support for other possible programs. Especially in moments like the one we’re in — when curmudgeonly socialists from Vermont are creating new labor movement tactics on the fly — this second element of strategy is key.

In his recent piece, Eidlin argues that we can’t “do everything.” On the one hand, sure. But on the other, we do need to do everything, or at least everything on the list above and probably a few more things.

For the first time in a few generations, there is at least one left organization capable of taking both my advice and Eidlin’s: do everything, yes, but given the needs of the moment — which are truly dire, especially on the environmental front — and the constraints of the organization, set priorities.

If we over-prioritize one tool, we may miss opportunities staring us in the face. But if we take full account of what we are doing and what we could do, and we build a plan that doesn’t fully de-prioritize any of the tools at our disposal, we cannot help but be stronger as a result.

Bottom-up and Top-down

Confronting the boss on the shop floor — and winning — is foundational to building a powerful and engaged labor movement. This is why the Left has historically salted both unionized workplaces and non-union workplaces: to build power from the ground on up. But it is equally important that workers with a fighting spirit and socialist politics are in executive positions in our existing labor unions.

The labor power strategy understands both of these approaches — bottom-up power and top-down strategic coordination — as essential to building the labor movement we need. Left organizations will sometimes build caucuses that take power, and will sometimes build relationships with those unions where left leaders are already in power. And sometimes, a different approach may be in order.

As I have argued elsewhere, UNITE HERE is a case worthy of our study: left staffers more so than workers took control of the union, and have led a war on corporate hotel chains for the past several decades. The model is imperfect — and would have benefited from a more member-centric analysis — but there are lessons we can draw from it and opportunities we are likely to miss if we simply understand it as a “bad” case.

Jane McAlevey made a related point on a recent Dig podcast episode, when she articulated the common approach for both rank and file and staff organizers: “To me, it doesn’t matter whether I’m inside the workplace or coming from outside the workplace [as a staff organizer], I have a set of principles and a set of methods that the workers themselves need to learn.”

Shop floor fights and the caucuses they sometimes lead to are important, but they are not the only tool at our disposal. Understanding them as such may blind us to new organizing opportunities.

Organizing the Organized and Unorganized

The Labor Power Strategy takes as a starting premise that the left should work within existing bargaining units, but also that it is rarely too early to do new organizing — at least not for an organization like DSA, with nearly sixty thousand members.

RFS advocates are quick to note that new organizing is very hard and requires incredible resources, and they are right. They typically argue, however, that we must then wait to do new organizing, presumably until DSA has taken formal power in one or more unions.

Yet opportunities for new organizing abound, and history suggests that we do not need perfectly reformed unions before engaging in new organizing. The Congress of Industrial Organizations began as the Committee for Industrial Organization, as a project of the AFL. Even “backward” federations have resources and a left flank.

To use a more recent example, SEIU — not exactly a bastion of union democracy — has poured millions of dollars into the Fight for $15, essentially because some leaders in the former ACORN network pitched them on the project. This is not to say that the Fight for $15 is a perfect model of new organizing, but rather that actually existing unions are willing to spend millions of dollars on new organizing, if they hear a pitch they like.

That new organizing is hard is all the more reason why it is vital that DSA think creatively about how to support those members who might be willing to work in environments that are not as welcoming as those that have an existing collective bargaining agreement, however imperfect. The labor movement has historically grown in huge surges, not necessarily as a result of the will of the Left or of labor leaders (though in part because of it).

Where possible, we should want leftists on the shop floor of non-union companies, experimenting, fighting, winning, and losing, not unlike Communist Party efforts in the 1920s that help to lay the groundwork for the wildly more successful 1930s upsurge.

Labor and Elections

At its core, a fighting labor movement must take on the boss directly, winning fights both big and small that transform life for workers. This should not be in dispute, and it is why socialists have traditionally salted both union and non-union shops — to build that most fundamental power.

Yet, for example, Kshama Sawant’s election to Seattle City Council in 2013 made clear that socialist electoral politics could be integral to producing labor outcomes: her victory was central — as was the work of SEIU Local 775 and other unions in Washington — to driving home the first $15 minimum wage victory in a major US city.

Bernie’s first run for the Democratic nomination radically altered the sense of the politically possible, and this time he is engaging the labor movement in even more creative ways, creating new tactics, as discussed above. This time, there is a real chance that Bernie could win.

And putting Bernie in the White House would radically alter the terrain for working people. The campaign itself is already generating new labor movement tactics. A Bernie victory is, of course, no substitute for the painstaking day-to-day work of organizing for power on the job and fighting the petty despotism of the boss — but it sure would help.

One of the biggest changes that happened for the labor movement in the 1930s is that government agencies gradually stopped murdering strikers and their families, and allowing corporations to murder them. Section 7a of the NIRA was an important step in this direction, but there was more to come. The National Guard was created in the nineteenth century quite literally to murder striking workers. But in early 1937, Michigan governor Frank Murphy deployed them not to put down striking workers, but to give workers an even footing with General Motors. The result was UAW recognition. In 1944, the National Guard entered the headquarters of Montgomery Ward in the midst of a labor dispute and physically removed its chairman and CEO, Sewell Avery.

State power matters for the labor movement. With Bernie at the helm of the state’s vast executive capacities, Bezos and his ilk might just get the Sewell treatment — and inspire some worker self-organization in the process.

A Distinct Strategy

In my view, the labor power approach is distinct from what is traditionally called the rank-and-file strategy: wielding formal power is not a primary goal of the RFS (for example, Jane Slaughter says quite directly that the RFS is “not a strategy for taking over unions”), and although some RFS advocates are union staffers, there is ambivalence about that role — leading to an under-theorization of the role of socialist union staffers.

The RFS tradition, in my view, does not address in a substantial way building relationships with left-led unions, or, perhaps more important, the impossible dilemmas that left-led unions face.

Though this is a case where practice is somewhat ahead of theory, as DSA engages its relationship with CWA, including the Association of Flight Attendants and its leftist president Sara Nelson, but also many other corners of the organization. CWA has the democratic and militant internal life that RFS supporters champion, and yet must daily reckon with powerful players and an economic system that force them to make tough choices that do not always look perfect or pretty from the outside.

Finally, many in the RFS tradition have traditionally been hostile to any work within the Democratic Party, though today its proponents typically advocate a “dirty break” approach to using the Democratic ballot line — the RFS analysis of the relationship between elections and the labor movement is under rapid change and development.

In any case, I don’t think it benefits anyone to get too hung up on labels. If some people feel that all the tools on the list above, plus a few I’ve missed, and an ethos of staying open to the shifting terrain can all fit under the term “rank-and-file strategy,” great. Given that clear alternatives to the rank-and-file strategy have largely been under-articulated, I think there is utility in developing a framework in which to express the tactical flexibility that is more integral to the analyses of some former NCMers, and that is also unfolding unevenly within the RFS tradition itself.

But whether we call our work in the labor movement the labor power strategy, the rank-and-file strategy, or something else, the point is still to take an accounting of possible forms of power that can win a democratized, sustainable economy, and then use them to generate organizational strategies.

This is, of course, already happening on the ground. NYC DSA’s Labor Branch, for example, is relatively far down an RFS-inspired approach. We should all be watching and learning from their work — its successes and its limitations. The proof of any left approach to the labor movement will, after all, be in the organizing.

Share this article


Luke Elliott-Negri is active in the labor movement and is a PhD student in sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Filed Under