The Rank-and-File Strategy and the Trade Union Bureaucracy

To understand the rank-and-file strategy for socialists in the labor movement, you have to understand the role and interests of the trade union bureaucracy.

Ford workers leaving the plant in 1978 after voting to strike. (Getty Images)

In the last few months there’s been a debate within Jacobin and elsewhere among socialists about how to rebuild the labor movement. Should socialists focus primarily on taking “rank-and-file” jobs to try to build a “militant minority” of workers on the shop floor, or is this perspective too narrow? The question has become increasingly urgent after the Democratic Socialists of America passed a resolution endorsing the rank-and-file strategy at their national convention in August.

Some, such as Luke Elliott-Negri, argue that socialists should see the rank-and-file strategy as one tactic among many equally essential choices the Left must make to rebuild the labor movement (and the socialist movement within it) today.

While many interesting things have been said in response to this argument, the debate so far walks around the central issue faced by those who argue against the rank-and-file strategy. Mainly, the role and interests of the trade union bureaucracy.

What Is the Rank-and-File Strategy?

Those who have made the argument for the rank-and-file strategy have focused on the fact that rebuilding a class-struggle oriented working class is going to require an emphasis on rebuilding worker power (in both organized and unorganized workplaces) from the ground up, rather than through existing union bureaucracies, which often rely on arcane labor law and routine bargaining as methods to extract concessions from the bosses and organize new workers.

For socialists, this means many different things. For some, it means getting jobs in strategic sectors like health care, education, and telecommunications, where strike activity has been on the rise. It could also mean focusing on where the concentration of capital has created chokepoints for the system, like the airline industry or logistics. Still, for others, it might mean a more locally focused approach: encouraging several comrades to apply to the same workplace, whether union or nonunion, in order to do common organizing work together on the shop floor.

Regardless of the various nuances to the rank-and-file strategy, I argue that the goals of the rank-and-file strategy (RFS) are twofold. The first is to rebuild the historical linkages between the labor movement and the socialist movement in the United States. The second is to increase the consciousness, combativity, and confidence of workers in their fight against the bosses, with the aim of working-class self-emancipation. Each aspect is desperately needed if we wish to become a truly formidable opponent to the capitalist class today.

The Rank-and-File Strategy’s Critics

Those who criticize the rank-and-file strategy, such as Luke Elliott-Negri, generally argue that the strategy is simply one tactic within a plethora of choices that socialists should consider in rebuilding the labor movement. Rather than focusing our efforts primarily on rebuilding working-class militancy among rank-and-file workers, our approach should include an effort to seek staff positions and elected offices within unions. According to Elliott-Negri, seeking these positions within the union apparatus would allow us the opportunity to build electoral coalitions which wage war against the capitalist class through a combination of public policy initiatives and workplace action.

Additionally, critics of the strategy, in the words of Elliott-Negri, argue that those who utilize the RFS have a “certain ambivalence” about taking power. He goes further by saying: “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 co-optation.”

While I can’t say I’ve ever heard a rank-and-file caucus argue that losing an election they ran in was actually for the best, it’s worth examining further why socialists who utilize the RFS strategy may seem from the outside to have a certain “ambivalence” when it comes to running for union leadership.

The Roots of the Trade Union Bureaucracy

Understanding the roots of the trade union bureaucracy, defined as those who occupy the layer of full-time, paid elected official and staff positions in the labor movement, requires a quick crash course in Marxism.

Marx identified two contradictory classes which capitalism has given rise to: the working class and the ruling class. Each class, with its own unique set of material interests, is diametrically opposed to the other, such that things which benefit the working class (wage increases, additional benefits, more time off) must come at the expense of ruling class profitability. These conflicting interests produce sometimes sharp struggles between the classes which erupt into strikes and heightened workplace organizing, on the one hand, or brutal repression, diminished working conditions, and austerity on the other.

This continual conflict within the capitalist system creates the conditions under which institutions are formed to represent the interests of each class. For capitalists, this means organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), or organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). For workers, this has meant the rise of trade unions, workers centers, and other forms of collective, working-class organizations.

Trade unions are one of the first lines of defense for the working class. They are collective organizations which bring workers together, making them one of the more diverse institutions that exist for working-class people to join. They seek to increase workers’ standard of living and are also vital training grounds for workers to develop confidence in their ability to fight the boss. For both these reasons, socialists must support trade unions as a critical organization to the redevelopment of working-class consciousness in the United States today.

Still, while trade unions are a means to fight against some of the most egregious excesses of capital, they are also institutions which arise out of (and therefore partially reflect) some of the major contradictions of the economic system. Thus, while workers have a mutual interest in coming together across lines of class, industry, and contracts, unions still rely on these dividing lines as ways to maintain legitimacy as institutions in the eyes of the employer.

Put simply: while unions are institutions meant to represent the interests of the working class, they do so within the general confines of capitalism, rather than seeking to dismantle it. Unions seek only to negotiate the terms of exploitation, not end them.

These basic realities create the conditions upon which contradictory interests between the trade union bureaucracy and the working class can arise. While unions seek to represent the working class, they are set up to function as mediators of conflict between labor and capital. This is the first way in which the trade union bureaucracies’ interests come to differ from the working class, since it is the bureaucracy that generally comes to assume control over that mediation process.

The general outlook of the officials is rooted in negotiations and compromise, as leaders continually tell their members that contracts are all about “give and take.” The working class, on the other hand, has an implicit interest in overturning the system of exploitation and building a society free from the capitalist class.

The rise of trade unions as an institution under capitalism also creates the need for an apparatus of paid staff and leadership whose daily functions are to maintain the organization’s existence. This, in itself, is not something which we as socialists should oppose. Unions need a layer of paid officials and organizers to sustain themselves. Maintaining unions requires more consistency than a mere volunteer group of organized workers with their own full-time jobs could provide.

Still, officials’ interests can become distinct from the working class. By virtue of deriving their wages from the dues of the membership, rather than directly through the boss’s paycheck, their own material interests become deeply connected to the preservation of the union.

This pressure creates a conservatizing effect on all paid officials within the trade union bureaucracy.

Anything which could potentially risk the financial health of the organization (such as an illegal wildcat strike) is generally avoided. The bureaucracy also no longer directly suffers from the same ups and downs of capitalist production. If the management of a plant that the union represents decides to close that plant, it doesn’t mean the union officials themselves lose their jobs.

Additionally, paid officials often have working conditions which are significantly different from those they represent. Going from the shop floor to an elected leadership position may mean going from a grueling assembly line to an office setting with a relative degree of autonomy and control over their work. It also often means deriving a salary which is significantly higher than the one they enjoyed as a member, some which easily push well into six figures.

Union staff are perhaps one step further separated from the interests of the rank and file compared to paid elected officials within a union. Rather than being held accountable to the membership, like the elected officials, staff are accountable directly to the elected (and sometimes unelected) officials of the bureaucracy.

In sum, from the point of view of the trade union bureaucracy, workplace action and rank-and file-activity come to appear as a disruption in the regular bargaining process rather than the primary means through which workers can leverage power and control.

These factors together combine to mean that there are two important ways in which the trade union bureaucracy’s interests become differentiated from the working class. The first is in the bureaucracy’s role in negotiating the relationship between labor and capital. The second is the bureaucracy’s own material interests — how they come to occupy a distinct social strata which sets them apart from the interests of the working class generally.

Revisiting the Importance of the Rank-and-File Strategy

Rank-and-file activity on the shop floor is the only thing that has the potential to act as a check on the distinct interests of the trade union bureaucracy.

However, the maintenance of rank-and-file activity depends significantly on the depth and breadth of the activist layer of trade union members that is willing to stay active during times where struggle may not be the order of the day. This layer is generally referred to by those on the Left as the “militant minority.”

The structural limitations put on workers under capitalism makes it all but impossible for most workers at most times to be directly engaged in militant, disruptive, workplace action. It is not that workers are apathetic or indifferent to fighting the bosses, but that significant energy under capitalism must be devoted to the daily struggle for existence.

When the militant minority within a union is not strong enough, it creates the conditions where even progressive and left bureaucracies must substitute themselves in some ways for the inactivity of the membership. This reliance on staff to develop the union’s strategy, messaging, and activity both has the effect of subordinating the membership to the staff and setting limits on the horizons of rank-and-file members. Staff come to see themselves as knowing what’s best for the workers, and workers begin to see the staff as the only people with the authority to call for and take action.

Thus, while unions like UNITE HERE and CWA do often engage workers in militant activity, such as strikes, each action is often largely curated and developed by those within the bureaucracy, rather than workers themselves (even against the political instincts of leftist staff members who might be interested in doing it another way).

This staff-driven model of activating workers can win significant victories in terms of wages, benefits, and efforts to unionize new workers, but it does so by plainly setting the boundaries under which workers can participate.

Workers in staff-driven unions are often treated as faucets which can be turned “on” when required against the bosses and “off” again, when they are considered going “too far.” One example of this is from the SEIU “Justice for Janitors” campaign, where the union staff engaged workers in very militant tactics, including workplace actions and civil disobedience, in a successful effort to win union recognition. However, when the disproportionately Latino membership carried that energy into voting out nearly the entire union leadership, their citywide local in Los Angeles found itself thrown into a trusteeship, with the international union leadership stepping in to undemocratically take over the local union.

Revitalizing Labor and the Left

Our strategy as socialists in the labor movement must flow from our goal: an economy democratically controlled by workers. To get there, workers will have to engage in perhaps unprecedented levels of workplace militancy.

This means that socialists must always be thinking about the next practical step to increase the consciousness, confidence, and combativity of the working class at any given moment. Therefore, a strategy which focuses on the organization and activity of the rank and file is crucial.

Luke Elliott-Negri is wrong when he argues that those who utilize the rank-and-file strategy have a “certain ambivalence” about taking elected leadership in a union. Instead, advocates of the strategy prioritize the development of combatant, class-conscious workers. We carefully analyze each potential step that could be taken toward that goal and act accordingly. Thus, taking elected office in a union becomes one tactic which is subordinated to the aim of pushing the working class further toward its own ability to democratically control society.

Far from remaining ambivalent, in situations where rank-and-file strategists believe that taking elected office could substantially increase the confidence, consciousness, and combativity of the membership, it is often useful to seize the opportunity. Election campaigns for rank-and-file reform slates running for elected office within unions can sometimes be successfully used to organize and energize wide layers of workers around contract campaigns, workplace action, and other union activity.

When this possibility exists, it is incumbent on socialists to take it. Rank-and-file militants who find themselves in office where their vision for transforming the local is buttressed by a wide layer of organized rank-and-file members have a unique opportunity to rejuvenate their union and push the organization beyond its current limitations.

Socialists and rank-and-file activists who find themselves in elected positions must do everything in their control to develop mechanisms for member democracy and power — not just as a means of further activating the rank and file but also to counter the various pressures that they will inevitably experience from above. After all, many of the trade union bureaucrats of today began their careers as genuine advocates of the rank-and-file strategy.

While some may have succumbed to the worst aspects of corruption and bribery, many others simply lasted as leaders through significant periods of member inactivity and demoralization, which made it easier to adapt to typical “business unionism” over time.

For this reason, rank-and-file caucuses, or groups internal to unions advocating for a democratic, militant approach to their union, which remain independent of the official union leadership are just as crucial after a rank-and-file reform slate takes office as before they get there.

While building a rank-and-file slate to take office may be useful, it is simply one tactic within many which could be available to rank-and-file strategists. Some situations may cause rank-and-file activists to seek temporary alliances with the current leadership, while others may require you to maintain opposition.

While it may be relatively easy in your local to defeat the trade union bureaucracy in an election, taking elected office could still present more problems than solutions. If the rank and file is not already organized enough or activated by your campaign for leadership, you may simply find yourself at the helm of a trade union without any capacity to implement many of the democratic reforms you wish to introduce.

In this case, you take on many of the pressures and risks of leadership with few potential rewards. Even worse, the possibility of becoming discredited by virtue of not being able to turn things around is one which cannot be taken lightly.

A Turn Toward Collective, Disruptive Workplace Action

Contrary to what some socialists have argued, the rank-and-file strategy is indeed a strategy, rather than a tactic within an array of other equally essential choices. It is a strategy not only aimed at rejuvenating the labor movement, but also repositioning the socialist movement to become more intimately connected to the working class (and its interests) as a whole. Those who argue against it do so to the detriment of both these necessary tasks.

The trade union bureaucracy’s reliance on mediation, arbitration, and above all, their decades-long alliance with the Democratic Party have made unions successively less effective in fighting the boss. Their reliance on legality has made the ability to organize new workers into the labor movement on a mass scale virtually impossible. The trade union bureaucracy of today is no more capable of organizing new workers than the AFL of the 1930s. As Barry Eidlin argues, even Bernie Sanders’s excellent policy proposals around his Workplace Democracy Plan will take “mass mobilizations that shift the balance of power. They [the policies] will not themselves cause that shift.”

Only through a turn toward collective, disruptive workplace action can we build new, militant unions and rebuild working-class power in the United States.