Our Path Forward After Bernie Must Include Rank-and-File Unionism and Class-Struggle Elections

Bernie Sanders lost in large part because we lacked the strong working-class and leftist institutions needed to defeat the establishment. Key to rebuilding those institutions is waging more class-struggle electoral campaigns and ramping up rank-and-file labor organizing.

Sen. Bernie Sanders greets supporters at his Super Tuesday night event on March 3, 2020 in Vermont. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

With the Bernie 2020 campaign behind us, socialists and progressives face a question of where to focus our energies in the coming years. As urgent fights against racist police violence, COVID-19–inspired austerity, the Right’s assault on immigrants, and the fossil fuel industry’s unrelenting march to climate catastrophe demonstrate, there is a desperate need for the Left to grapple with long-term questions about how to build a movement that can successfully challenge the ruling class and bring about a more just, free, and equal society.

After working on the Bernie 2020 campaign for ten months as a member of the National Organizing Team and reflecting on the outcome of the race and the broader state of the Left, I think two points have become clear. First, that Bernie lost in large part because we lacked the strong working-class institutions needed to go toe-to-toe against the establishment. Second, that we can build those institutions by waging class struggle elections and ramping up rank-and-file labor organizing.

Power Imbalance

A closer look at why Bernie lost helps shed some light on where we go from here. There are plenty of campaign autopsies out there, claiming that Bernie’s platform and message were either too radical or not radical enough; others argue that lack of accountability to or investment in paid field staff fundamentally held the campaign back from a potential victory.

On the first count, explanations that critique the campaign’s politics typically are looking through the overly narrow lens of electoral arithmetic, assuming that its sole purpose was to win a majority of votes in a single cycle rather than act as a vehicle for a political revolution that can enable and accelerate leftist politics for decades to come. Of course, we want to win elections, but to do that as a democratic socialist in the United States by definition means committing to a long-term strategy of reshaping political priorities and expanding the electorate to build a winning multiracial working-class coalition capable of overcoming powerful political and economic elites. To expect that effort to come to fruition in one or two elections was always an optimistic prospect. To think we can bypass it altogether and keep our radical politics is delusional.

On the second count, reports that emphasize strategic missteps regarding resource allocation between field organizing, distributed organizing, and paid communications are typically burdened with overstated conclusions. It’s generally understood that the isolated impact of even extremely effective field programs on final election results is in the low single digits, far less than Bernie’s margin of defeat in nearly every state we lost (Maine, Washington, and potentially Texas being the exceptions), meaning these are not really postmortems explaining why we lost, as much as focused analyses of how we could have narrowed our margin of defeat.

A more sober and holistic assessment of why Bernie failed to win the nomination reveals a significantly simpler and perhaps more obvious explanation: that the institutional forces of a largely unified Left (with some obvious exceptions) were not able to beat the institutional forces of a highly unified corporate center.

As soon as the Democratic Party establishment consolidated behind Joe Biden, Bernie’s chances of winning the nomination plummeted. Following the simultaneous endorsements of neoliberal darlings Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Beto O’Rourke, Biden won a majority of delegates on Super Tuesday and then went on to nearly sweep the March 10 and 17 states, expanding his margins along the way.

He accomplished this despite significant disadvantages when compared to the grassroots juggernaut that was Bernie 2020. For starters, our campaign raised more money than any other candidate, crushing previous records for small-dollar donations at every point in the race. We built an unprecedented volunteer-driven organizing program capable of contacting tens of millions of voters, utterly dwarfing the efforts of Biden and other rivals. And of course, we had the momentum that comes with (or that should have come with) winning the first three nominating contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, in part due to groundbreaking field and constituency organizing programs that brought out workers, students, and immigrants to vote and caucus for Bernie.

But it wasn’t enough. The Democratic primary electorate, after being relentlessly barraged for an entire year by a corporate media obsessed with the idea that Joe Biden was the best candidate to beat Trump (and that Bernie was too radical to do so), needed only this signal of apparent party unity to confirm their position: vote Biden.

One can of course reasonably argue that Bernie and campaign leadership could have made different strategic decisions to improve our chance of victory (especially when it came to how the campaign approached the South Carolina primary). But with Biden commanding double-digit leads in states like Oklahoma and Michigan where Bernie won in 2016 and made significant investments in 2020, it’s a stretch to claim that any given shift or tweak would have produced a different end result.

The more reasonable (and perhaps difficult) reality to face is that despite running a remarkably strong campaign, the institutional forces arrayed behind Bernie were not strong enough to overcome those united to defend the status quo. The power imbalance between the Left, backed by progressive social movement organizations and elements of organized labor, and the center, backed by corporate America and the Democratic Party establishment, was too great.

Stronger Institutions

How do we rectify this imbalance? How do we move beyond winning the battle of ideas to actually winning the power needed to implement those ideas and materially improve people’s lives? A big part of the answer is that we need stronger institutions on the Left: militant labor unions, robust membership organizations, and independent media outlets.

Workers must be at the heart of any political left formation because of their unique structural ability to impose economic costs on capitalists and disrupt society at large by collectively withdrawing their labor. This power to strike as part of a union can force significant short-term concessions while also reshaping the long-term political conditions that determine future struggles.

So it should come as no surprise that the Left’s historic decline and marginalization from the 1970s onward corresponded with a historic dismantling of much of the labor movement, resulting in our current situation where union density is at an all-time low of about 10 percent.

That fact alone significantly hurt Bernie’s chances. Among national unions, we won early and strong support from the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, the American Postal Workers Union, and National Nurses United. But despite being by far the most pro-worker candidate in the race and probably the most pro-union candidate to run for president since Eugene Debs a hundred years ago, these three unions virtually stood alone on the national stage behind the campaign.

If other national unions would have backed Bernie (and if union density were much higher and unions more powerful to begin with), it would have offered more material resources to the campaign, created direct inroads to the working class, and helped drive a legitimizing media narrative that Bernie was the clear and unequivocal choice of American workers. This in turn would have helped undercut the pernicious idea that Bernie was somehow unelectable against Trump in a general election, especially given the corporate media’s insistence that Trump won in 2016 because he captured the support of white working-class voters.

Bernie Sanders walks the picket line with striking United Auto Workers union members as they picket at the General Motors Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant on September 25, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. (Bill Pugliano / Getty Images)

More militant unions would have also helped Bernie, as attention-grabbing strikes made for popular demands like guaranteed health care, a living wage, and clean air and water would resonate with and amplify core parts of Bernie’s agenda like Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, and a Green New Deal. And with Bernie personally showing up to picket lines and the campaign using its infrastructure to send volunteers to support striking workers, the connection would be hard to miss.

We also need much stronger membership organizations dedicated to building a long-term working-class base of support and perhaps to act as a kind of party surrogate that can organize that base around a common platform and strategy. Organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Our Revolution, and the Sunrise Movement are already acting as essential vehicles for ordinary people to meaningfully engage in politics, learn concrete organizing skills, build sustaining relationships, and acquire valuable political education.

If such organizations had been larger and if there had been more of them in 2020, it would have meant more grassroots organizing power for Bernie’s campaign and, again, a legitimizing media narrative that working people and young people were rallying behind a single candidate.

But of course, favorable media narratives depend not just on objective political conditions, but on the incentives and biases of the media institutions forming those narratives. It’s hard to think of a clearer demonstration of the corporate media sacrificing all journalistic integrity upon the altar of ratings and institutional bias than their coverage of Bernie’s run(s) for president.

Their early treatment of Bernie was to largely ignore or marginalize the campaign altogether; when he won Iowa and New Hampshire, the victories were downplayed and trivialized; when he won Nevada by a landslide, their dismay and contempt came on full display; and once he lost South Carolina and Super Tuesday, they pronounced the campaign (not for the first time) dead, despite only a narrow delegate lead for Biden at the time.

While independent and explicitly left online media has grown substantially over the last decade, we clearly need much more of it in order to provide the critical narratives, thoughtful analyses, and fact-based reporting voters need to understand and make rational decisions about politics. The difference between the majority of Democratic primary voters getting their news from CNN, ABC, and MSNBC vs. Democracy Now!, the Intercept, and Jacobin during a presidential election is hard to overstate.

Leaving the issue of the media to the side — a topic that deserves and has received much of its own in-depth treatment — our question then becomes: How do we build the expanded and militant labor movement and grassroots membership organizations we need to bring about a Left with powerful and lasting institutions? Two of the most promising approaches are class-struggle elections and rank-and-file organizing.

Class-Struggle Elections

Although the stage was set by the 2008 financial collapse and movements like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and Standing Rock, the Left’s rise out of decades of marginality can be clearly linked to Bernie’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns. Bernie’s runs for the presidency have reinvigorated class politics, fostered the resurgence of an explicitly socialist movement, and given concrete and visible expression to a popular but previously unrepresented worldview, one that embraces justice and solidarity and is openly disgusted with the greed and corruption of capitalism.

The bedrock of Bernie’s success is his consistent focus on core economic issues like health care, income inequality, and student debt. By hammering home a message that the economy has failed ordinary working people and lifting up popular and commonsense solutions in the form of universal social programs like Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, free college, and canceling student and medical debt, Bernie has dramatically raised the expectations of the electorate and thereby rapidly expanded what is politically possible.

A critical part of this approach is that Bernie names the enemy. He makes it clear that the reason we don’t have guaranteed universal health care is because the insurance and drug companies won’t let it happen. The reason we haven’t passed sweeping climate legislation is because the fossil fuel industry won’t permit it. The reason that three people control as much wealth as the bottom half of the US population while paying a pittance in taxes is because billionaires control the economy and the political process.

This point is so important because it leads people to understand an obvious truth that is almost universally obscured by establishment politicians: that we will never achieve the transformative reforms we desperately need without coming into direct conflict with the ruling class, which maintains and profits from the status quo. In other words, it clarifies the key class distinction between working people and economic elites.

But Bernie did not only name our class enemy. He also identified the agent of change: us, the multiracial, multigenerational working class that forms the vast majority of society and which has a collective stake in transforming the current system.

This emphasis on bottom-up grassroots organizing as the engine of social progress forms the crucial bridge between waging a class-struggle election like Bernie’s and forming and reinforcing durable political institutions like labor unions and membership organizations. Electoral campaigns that focus on issues with broad moral resonance (rather than specific personalities), that draw sharp class distinctions between working people and elites, and that organize themselves to maximize grassroots participation by knocking on doors, making calls, sending texts, or showing up to events will naturally lead supporters and volunteers to want to continue the struggle and seek out other avenues for political action, both during and after the campaign.

Left membership organizations and labor unions can provide this landing pad for newly politicized members of the working class, swelling their ranks and advancing their agendas by energetically supporting leftist candidates and, whenever possible, strategically running their own candidates.

Bernie provided a model for class-struggle elections, and we’ve already seen its success in numerous down-ballot races since 2016. In 2018, a wave of socialists were elected onto Chicago’s city council and radicals like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar were swept into Congress. In 2020, we’ve already seen leftist insurgents Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush defeat well-funded, establishment-backed incumbents, AOC and Rashida Tlaib crush their centrist opponents in landslide elections, and five DSA-backed democratic socialists in New York City get elected to the state legislature.

For better or for worse, elections are the time when the most people pay attention to politics. By running class-struggle campaigns, we can harness this heightened political interest and activity to not only win elections and put democratic socialists in power, but to bring working people into our movement and create strong left institutions with the power to broadly reshape the political landscape.

Rank-and-File Organizing

While there is now no denying the strategic utility of class-struggle elections, running campaigns and winning elected office in isolation will never allow us to fundamentally challenge capital, nor could we ever hope to win enough elections to even attempt to do so without an organized political base. The foundation of this base must be workers, because only workers, as a class have both the strategic leverage and material interest to upend our capitalist system in favor of a more just and egalitarian democratic socialism.

The history of labor’s decline over the last four decades is also the history of unions becoming more risk-averse, bureaucratized, and focused on staff-driven electoral advocacy rather than member-driven strikes and agitation. Both the historically low rate of union membership and disintegration of union militancy have led to a renewed interest in the rank-and-file strategy, which calls for socialists and other radicals to get jobs within strategic sectors of the economy where they can organize their coworkers to form militant, democratic unions.

At the heart of the rank-and-file strategy is the idea of creating a militant minority of dedicated worker-organizers who, by earning the trust and respect of their coworkers, are able to act as credible leaders in advocating for a more aggressive and bottom-up approach.

We can draw lessons and inspiration from the recent wave of teacher strikes. In the so-called red state revolts, militant minorities within the rank and file were able to galvanize and mobilize their fellow teachers to strike en masse, despite opposition from their unions. In Los Angeles and Chicago, well-organized militant minorities were able to take control of their union leadership outright, allowing them to make full use of the union’s resources to organize highly sophisticated and remarkably successful strikes.

Unions led by their rank and file can also be a potent social force for racial equality. While US labor history provides plenty of examples of unions upholding segregation and racism, it also provides inspiring examples of solidarity and cooperation across race. We can see this among the black and white New Orleans waterfront workers who united for a general strike back in 1892, among the CIO union members who helped win groundbreaking civil rights protections in the 1940s, and among the bus drivers, dock workers, and teachers who in recent months have stood in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement by refusing to transport arrested protesters, organizing strikes and work stoppages, and waging campaigns to end discriminatory school policing.

Today’s labor movement may be at a historic low, but its potential to deal powerful blows against systemic racism is significant. Black workers are the most likely racial demographic to belong to a union. Public-sector workers, who enjoy a 33 percent union density rate nationally (compared to 6 percent in the private sector), are in a unique position to cut ties with reactionary police unions, thereby making departments more vulnerable to defunding demands.

And perhaps most fundamentally, labor unions that are built up and controlled by rank-and-file workers can provide organic social structures that position workers of all different races as members of the same collective project, working together toward common goals to protect and advance common interests. This process of collaboration reliably erodes racism and generates solidarity among the working class.

Creating more militant, democratic unions who are willing to strike has the potential to create cascading benefits for the labor movement and the Left.

First, it will enable more workers to win better concrete material conditions for themselves in the form of better wages, better health benefits, improved worker safety, and more. Second, the experience of striking to achieve those wins will build workers’ confidence that they are capable of collective action, allowing them to imagine future strikes and future wins. Third, strikes led by a militant minority that sees their broader utility in class formation will have demands crafted to strengthen not only striking workers, but the working class as a whole, incorporating community concerns that build solidarity between workers and an increased sense of class consciousness among them.

Fourth, successful strikes in one industry or location can inspire strikes in other industries and locations, spreading our movement. Fifth, the more strikes and militant labor activity become culturally commonplace among workers, the more they will be able to widen their targets and demands to the scope of statewide and national politics, allowing nurses to strike for Medicare for All or teachers to strike for fully funded public schools, paid for by taxing the rich.

As these benefits accumulate and mutually reinforce each other, unions can regain relevance with workers, making it easier to grow their membership and expand into unorganized areas of labor. And with a far larger and more militant labor movement on the scene, routinely making headlines with mass strikes demanding radical reforms, the political landscape could be fundamentally altered, pushing public opinion and elected officials to the left, and dramatically widening the space that class-struggle campaigns and membership organizations would have to operate within.

Feedback Loop

Class-struggle elections and rank-and-file organizing will help build left institutions that will allow the working class to win and wield power. But strong left institutions will also expand the opportunities for class-struggle elections and rank-and-file organizing by providing durable sources of material resources, committed and experienced organizers, and an essential link between socialists and ordinary working people.

This positive feedback loop has the potential to continue, if not accelerate, the Left’s recent resurgence in US politics, reshaping not only the contours of political debate, but the concrete realities of who wields power and how resources are distributed.

We can see these feedback effects in the teacher strikes of 2018, led in large part by militant educators inspired by Bernie’s 2016 run for president. We can see it in the explosion of new DSA members following the 2016 campaign, DSA’s major national campaign for Bernie in 2020, and now another surge of new membership. We can see it in the Emergency Organizing Workplace Committee, founded by Bernie staff, surrogates, and high-level supporters, which is now assisting frontline workers to organize their workplaces, demanding and winning key rights and protections during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With both acute and chronic crises in public health, the economy, the carceral state, political democracy, and the climate amplifying the suffering of millions of people at home and billions abroad, the moral stakes of this moment could not be clearer. The Left cannot afford to retreat back into marginality, nor can we afford to ignore the lessons of our recent and more distant past. Now is the time to lean into the strategies we know have the power to transform political conditions, both to avoid the potentially catastrophic harms of this moment and to move beyond its extreme precarity to a world where all people can live with dignity, security, and freedom.