To drive the socialist movement deep into workplaces across the country, DSA needs an ambitious approach to labor organizing that taps the potential of our 70k-strong membership. In this strategy guide, Collective Power Network presents our mass movement labor strategy for DSA.
It’s broadly accepted throughout DSA that our central aim is to develop into a mass working-class organization capable of waging class struggle on all fronts in society. The workplace forever remains a key frontline of struggle against the capitalist class. It follows then that DSA needs to adopt an approach to labor organizing that involves the majority of our existing membership, and that enables recruitment of more working class people to the movement for socialism.
DSA must tap the potential within our current membership, deepen our stake in class conflict, and invite mass participation. If DSA’s labor strategy does not include the participation of the majority of DSA members, how can we ever expect that strategy to scale as we gain membership? To get where we need to go, DSA must adopt a mass movement labor strategy.
Unions, like most institutions, are complex and imperfect. It has been suggested by some that unions are liberal reformist institutions that serve to stabilize capitalist crisis and obscure class identity by putting workers into collaboration with bosses via collective bargaining agreements. Their decline has occasionally been attributed to an internal lack of political principle.
However, this explanation glosses over structural-materialist considerations such as the consolidation of industry groups like the Business Roundtable, racial segregation within the workforce, neoliberal economic and trade policy, structural unemployment in global manufacturing, relative expansion of the unorganized service sector, and many other factors. Until structural conditions significantly change, workers will always be subject to the confines of capitalist employment relationships. But unions’ existence within these structural confines doesn’t automatically render them reformist or retrograde.
Although unions often demonstrate a tendency toward regressive business unionism, they also present expanded horizons of possibility for working people engaged in struggle. History indicates that the presence and growth of unions has a destabilizing effect on capital’s power, not a stabilizing one. An organization’s ability to advance the working class toward self-emancipation comes down to the collectivity and solidarity it’s able to foster among workers.
Prefigurative gestures that arise out of the dismissal of unions such as dual-unionism and minority-led vanguardism disregard the real source of power that workers have in the face of capitalist institutions: collectivity and solidarity. Few other institutions present the opportunity for workers of all backgrounds to engage in collective struggle for material gain, or to collectively define terms for member democracy. Contract victories raise workers’ expectations more than they encourage complacent collaboration with bosses.
Therefore, DSA members should make every attempt to participate in their unions where they have one. DSA chapters should offer support to local unions following the same principles we use when engaging with electoral campaigns or coalitional partners–with honest appraisals of power relations, the scale of our chosen conflicts, the maximum potential impact DSA can have on a conflict, organizational benefits for DSA, and the potential for advancing left-wing politics.
For Organizing Where We’re At
By and large, DSA members belong to the working class in the Marxist sense. Of the 70,000 members of DSA, most of us sell our labor-power in order to survive, work for a boss, and have the ability to wage struggle in the workplace. This is a crucial organizational asset that must be nurtured, not neglected. By organizing where we’re at, DSA members can develop a genuine stake in working-class struggle, because it means fighting with our livelihoods, careers, and social reputations on the line with no fall-back.
Regardless of differences among industries, professions, and job status, when we organize for self-determination and material gains in our workplaces, we inevitably come into conflict with the interests of the capitalist class. When DSA members collectively join in class struggle in a way that hits so close to home, we are better able to grasp the universality of the struggle against capital despite differences in form. Class struggle within our workplaces can be undertaken today, by members in the thousands. To this end, we must equip all our members with the skills, knowledge, and support to organize where they already are. This crucial task must be pursued with due urgency and zeal.
As a matter of course, it is unequivocally good to increase the type of workplace organizing that facilitates unionization. It’s additionally advantageous because members’ workplace-organizing efforts are not done in a vacuum with respect to the political priorities of DSA. Consistent, widespread workplace-organizing networks can be swiftly and strategically mobilized to support chapter and national priority campaigns as they evolve. When our membership maintains baseline levels of workplace organization, we’ll be better equipped to mount political interventions and seize opportunities as they arise. Organizing where we’re at is an approach that can accommodate the size of DSA right now, enhance our strategic capabilities, and scale up to mass organization.
Against Prioritizing Entryism
Socialist activists are primarily encouraged to join the labor movement through entryist projects with the express goal of union realignment. Entryism requires high levels of social mobility and self-sacrifice, and may require great physical ability, special licensing, or even advanced degrees, e.g. in the case of teaching and nursing. Only a fraction of DSA’s membership is likely to meet these steep requirements, making entryist projects impracticable and inaccessible.
In an organization that agonizes over its lack of engagement and poor diversity, we should aim to be more accessible, not less. We support our comrades looking to become teachers and nurses because they see it as their preferred venue for organizing. There are times when entryist projects are valuable to our political goals, and we lose nothing by supporting them. However, DSA members should primarily be focused on organizing where we already work and building a common-sense organization that can be easily accessed by new members.
Entryism may even detract from our goals of growth and recruitment because, by its very nature, the strategy takes an inward view of DSA. Entryist projects are premised on internal organizing, because their goal is to coach existing members on how to change careers and organize within a new workforce. It’s absurd to suggest that it’s easier or faster for entryist cadre who are new to their field to recruit their coworkers to DSA rather than for us to struggle with, and recruit fellow workers in our communities in the here and now.
A mass working-class organization will not be built by seeding unions with a handful of radicals. This has not been the source of DSA’s explosive growth so far, and there’s little evidence to suggest it will be in the future. Instead we should dedicate ourselves to recruiting and training our fellow workers from all sectors and industries into DSA.
Against Socialist Exceptionalism
When socialists only engage with the labor movement on select terms under the assumption that their presence in the workplace is of decisive value, this centers the perspective, experience, agency, and comfort of socialist activists and relegates other workers to an objectified, passive role in the movement for socialism. This is frequently denied through claims that socialist entryists are merely seeking to identify organic leaders and lend them support in organizing. In practice however, the leadership identification process is not neutral or objective. We risk unconscious bias, preference, subjectivity, and condescension. Organizing is an agentive practice and should be done with self-awareness, openness of intent, and a lack of presumptions.
For Recruiting Workers to DSA
Even at 70,000 members, DSA has significant work to do before we can become a mass party of the working class. In 2019, the DSA National Convention enthusiastically adopted CPN’s DSA100k resolution. This resolution set an explicit goal for DSA to reach 100,000 members by January 2021 by prioritizing recruitment, membership retention, and leadership development.
As our organization grows, we need to be intentional in our recruitment efforts. This includes recruitment at the point of production by asking our coworkers to join DSA. One socialist in the workplace is limited, but a whole shopfloor of socialists is powerful, and opens the gates to DSA developing powerful shopfloor-level organization as its base unit.
In the same way that DSA’s electoral engagement aims to build a working-class majority for our ideas and our vision of a socialist future, we should be unapologetic in seeking to recruit workers to DSA. This means providing resources, training, and support to members looking to recruit in their workplace, and directly asking workers in strategic areas to join DSA in conjunction with the support we give them in organizing efforts. It means deepening our commitment to Spanish-language organizing, and explicitly seeking to recruit non-English native speakers into our ranks. As we laid out in one example, YDSA chapters have the potential to do targeted recruitment which simultaneously grows DSA and prepares us for larger struggles.
Over the years, we’ve seen explosive growth in DSA. This has been largely constituted by a relatively narrow sliver of workers who have self-organized into DSA after being inspired by the viability and/or necessity of socialist political platforms. Most of these members had almost no political organizing experience prior, yet thousands are now active in campaign work and have become skilled organizers. This is a testament to the importance of recruitment, training, and readily-available campaign work. When we do this in a targeted way in mission-critical worksites, our capacities multiply and our strategic position strengthens.
Against Substituting Agitation for Struggle
We will never gain credibility by leading our coworkers into losing battles, no matter how righteous they are. It’s often alleged that the primary barrier standing in the way of victory for the US left is an uneven development of working-class consciousness. Based on this assumption, agitation becomes prioritized over any other organizing goals. Organizing campaigns are chosen based on their agitational potential, but not their potential for material gain. But leading our coworkers into unpopular or infeasible campaigns for the sake of consciousness-raising, rebellion, or theoretical purity objectifies workers by treating their lives like political experiments. While it’s true that unionization is not always immediately feasible as an organizing goal, worker agitation is not an end unto itself. If anything, agitation with no plan for success is even more alienating.
For Fighting to Win
We support a labor strategy that empowers our members to engage in long-term organizing efforts at their workplaces with the primary intent to win material victories by leveraging majoritarian political power. If we intend on making DSA an organization of the working class, we have to build organizational credibility. The best way to do this is to win. To gain credibility for DSA as a vector for working class politics, we have to rebuild the labor movement from the ground up with sustainable, democratic structures that masses of workers can participate in and materially benefit from.
Functionally, this means running quality DSA campaigns in our workplaces. Quality campaigns are properly planned, resourced, and executed. This doesn’t mean that DSA should try to be a union. But DSA must aim to be a mass working class weapon against capital, and at times revolutionary work looks like bread-and-butter workplace organizing. DSA-supported unionization drives are impressive examples of our ability to enact working class politics. Other campaigns like the Restaurant Organizing Project are not premised on winning union recognition or collective bargaining agreements, but they still set out to win life-altering concessions from bosses through collective worker action.
For Honest Appraisals of Our Work
The work that we engage in is important, not only to our broader goal of winning socialism, but particularly because workers have real stakes in its success. We believe that DSA should foster a culture of open debate, constructive criticism, and a deep desire to win.
Honestly appraising our work from the moment we begin an organizing campaign is important. Knowing when to change course and when to push forward, as well as utilizing the wealth of history and information available to us, is key to effective and thoughtful organizing work. While political consciousness is important, it is unfair to the workers that we are organizing with if we knowingly enter into campaigns that are likely to end in defeat. Workplace organizing is very high stakes. Strategies and tactics that have been tried in the past, either successfully or unsuccessfully, must be looked at in relation to present conditions. What worked or did not work in the past may not necessarily define what’s best today.
Cherry-picking selective citations, failing to properly critique our sacred texts, and pursuing a self-serving historiography are not conducive to successful organizing. False narratives that exaggerate the success of our tactics, rely on great-man theories of history, or downplay historical contingencies and aberrations, can serve to dramatize and romanticize the movement for socialism in a way that’s marketable and attractive. But it serves little purpose in helping us learn how to win.
As socialists, we must engage in a “ruthless criticism of all that exists” and not fall victim to excessive partisanship or ideological sectarianism–particularly so with our own work. We support honest and critical appraisals of the organizing work that DSA participates in because we must constantly develop and sharpen our tools and strategies for building real power in the here and now. We believe that building the working class power necessary to win a socialist future is more important than ideological puritanism.
For Organizing the South
It is impossible to separate the conditions of the US working class today from the historical role the South has played in the development of domestic and international capitalism. Generations of enslaved Black workers in states like Virginia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana formed the agricultural backbone of globalizing capitalism in the 18th and 19th Centuries. White supremacy was contrived by capital early on to justify the seizure of indigenous lands for large-scale cultivation, perpetuate the barbaric slave-labor regime, and curtail the longterm development of collectivity and solidarity among Black, white, and immigrant workers.
Even as the sweeping history of Southern labor struggle includes many striking periods of successful resistance against seemingly impossible odds, Southern workers continue to face historic challenges and the legacy of institutional exploitation and dispossession on a daily basis. Slavery, Jim Crow, and more recently the plight of today’s undocumented workers all “weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” DSA must grapple with these conditions and make organizing the South a national priority.
Our failure to prioritize the South means that no matter how militant our teachers in Chicago become, the immiseration of our teachers in Louisiana will continue to mark the next wave of nationwide privatization assaults on public education. It means that no matter how organized our autoworkers in Detroit and Ohio become, they will forever be at risk of industry packing up and moving to Alabama or South Carolina. If DSA restricts our labor strategy to traditional urban centers where labor is currently the strongest, we risk repeating the dire mistakes of the 20th Century labor movement. Simply put, we cannot reverse the fortunes of organized labor in the US–much less win socialism–unless we help Southern workers build and institutionalize power.
First and foremost, this means supporting DSA’s Southern chapters in their efforts to form and grow labor branches and committees that engage in solidarity work, workplace organizing, and unionization drives. We should also encourage the formation of regional-level organization that can link labor work across chapters, coordinate the provision of resources and skills-training to fledgling organizing committees and smaller chapters, create regional power-maps and strategy, and develop political-education programming foregrounding the powerful but suppressed history of Southern labor and social movements.
Despite the grave challenges facing Southern workers today, they’ve waged some of the most militant battles against capitalism in recent memory. In defiance of steep legal impediments and a hostile political and cultural climate, unions have often stepped forward as critical allies in these battles.
One of the most significant union election victories in US history took place in North Carolina in 2008, when slaughterhouse workers employed by Smithfield Farms organized with United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Facing immigration raids from ICE, terror from privatized police, and an unrelenting union-busting campaign from management, Smithfield workers won their union and ultimately negotiated working conditions that are still unheard of for most Southern workers.
This incredible working-class victory in the face of capital’s barbarism offers valuable historical lessons that DSA must internalize. While we should learn from recent failed attempts by unions to expand into the South, such as the UAW campaign in Tennessee and the Machinists campaign in South Carolina, victories like that of the Smithfield workers represent key waypoints on the path to a vitalized and growing Southern workers movement in the 21st Century.
Against the Worker-“Bureaucrat” Binary
Some DSA members currently participate in the labor movement as union staffers or in positions of union leadership, and many more will do so in the future. These members have generally come into these positions from complex political and personal considerations which differ from person to person. Such nuances are often flattened however, in order to portray an oppositional relationship between the irreproachable rank-and-file worker struggling on the shop-floor, and the corrupt “union bureaucrat” who double-crosses workers from behind his “mahogany desk.” While this reductive narrative serves to motivate some workers toward prefigurative, anti-establishment gestures, it does little to help workers confront or strategically orient toward the monumental complexities inherent in the US labor movement.
Labor leaders and staffers can make positive contributions to the labor movement through organizing, strategic research and other initiatives. At the local level, they can help strengthen the labor movement by conducting organizer training and by building structures and protocols that contribute to rank-and-file democracy. They also can give insight into institutional policies, culture, and programs being run within their respective unions.
However, there are usually limitations to what union officials can accomplish. If local leadership is undemocratic, staffers will have a difficult time encouraging rank-and-file democracy. If an International Union runs top down organizing drives, staff organizers and local leaders are limited in what they can do about it. If union leadership decides not to support a DSA-endorsed candidate, a staffer cannot advocate for the candidate while they are working. In general, a staffer is limited as an employee of the union. Elected leaders are limited to the authority that their union bylaws grant them. Each person decides how to respond to these difficult contradictions. For many staffers and officers, the good they can accomplish outweighs the relative restraints on their position. Others move on, looking for different avenues to contribute to left politics.
Even though staff work is not a priority for DSA, the positive contributions of staff and officers should be valued and their positions should be carefully analyzed for potential strategic advantages. As comrades and fellow workers existing within the limitations of capitalist society, they should be supported in dealing with the contradictions they face in their positions.
For a Democratic and Responsive DSLC
The weakness of the Democratic Socialist Labor Commission (DSLC) is the weakness of DSA. There have been some positive developments in the DSLC since the election of the new Steering Committee–ambitious campaigns that have real legs, membership meetings for the first time, and an upgrade from an email listserv to a Slack channel. However there are still many obstacles that must be openly addressed and overcome.
The DSLC currently operates without bylaws and does not regularly convene business meetings or facilitate open strategy discussions with its membership. Crucially, the DSLC has no systematic data collection protocols to identify where DSA members work–greatly impeding us from assessing our strength and developing a truly national labor strategy for DSA. If we don’t know where our members work, we can’t organize campaigns or union drives. These are basic housekeeping efforts that the DSLC must adopt.
Ideally the DSLC should use collected data and information to track our capacity. We should be able to map which members are running campaigns at work. We should constantly seek opportunities to connect workplace organizing campaigns to other DSA initiatives to maximize our leverage and strategic positioning. Through this process, we can also pursue fine-grained member support and leadership development
With more on-the-ground info, we can see which members can take on more responsibility, which ones need more mentorship, etc.. This way our growth is systematic, intentional, and grounded in real working class struggle. Instead of passively benefitting from the residual energy and membership bumps following big electoral wins, DSA needs a strong DSLC that can drive recruitment and campaign development through intentional organizing.
For Integrating Labor Work into Every DSA Priority
Labor organizing is not a secondary goal of DSA. Instead, it has to be seen as an essential part of all the work we do. When we run candidates in elections, getting unions to support our candidates can often be what it takes to win. Whether we are fighting for Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, or to Abolish ICE and Defund Police, expanding these demands to the workplace will be the key to winning. Extending our labor organizing beyond the workplace and into the organization and priorities of DSA will facilitate a more powerful socialist movement and labor movement.
If DSA is committed to organizing where it is at, then we should want our members to agitate in their workplaces and unions for the priorities of DSA. This necessarily means more organizational support for members looking to organize their workplace, as well as helping unionized members push their union to endorse Medicare for All, or join in coalition with DSA to Defund Police. Demcoratic unions are an important part of militant action. DSA as a working-class organization is one of the few places left in American politics that can serve as training grounds for workplace organizing. Emphasizing the way that our members can both be instrumental to winning changes, such as a Green New Deal, inside their workplace as well as outside is part of the same mission to develop working-class people as the agents of change that we believe in.
We believe that DSA has the potential to be a mass organization of workers who collectively teach, learn, and help one another organize for socialism at every level of our society. That organization must start in the workplace. By striving to make DSA not only bigger, but more in touch with the various industries that our members work in, we will meet the broad working class where they are and not limit our horizons to the small fraction of US workers who already belong to a union.
With each new member that DSA gains, we have an opportunity to deepen DSA’s presence within communities, workplaces, and industries. We support and prioritize building functional labor formations in every chapter that can work with members to organize and take action at work. Just as we support building DSA into a mass organization, we support building the US labor movement into a mass movement.
Union membership must not be regarded as the privilege of an ever-diminishing few. By building the capacity of DSA to better engage with the working class as it currently exists, rather than as we want it to be, we will better prepare our members for all the work that we do. By adopting a mass movement labor strategy, we can invite organized and unorganized workers alike to recognize DSA as a legitimate resource and ally in the most urgent and necessary struggles of our time.
Addendum: Action Points
- Engage in labor solidarity work in chapters and at the national level
- Support organizing efforts undertaken by national unions
- Attempt to get representation on local Central Labor Councils as DSA
- Develop a robust system to train members to organize their workplace
- Support local labor formations in mapping their membership
- Develop labor pods by industry
- Track where members are at in organizing their workplace
- Develop deliverable metrics to chart-out strategy and measure progress
- Create a reserve of experienced DSA labor organizers to support new chapter-level labor formations, as well as workplace organizing with the intent of unionizing
- No longer create pamphlets like “Why Socialists Should Become Teachers”
- Create material and goals on recruiting from specific industries
- Support important contemporary campaigns such as Amazonians United
- Democratize the DSLC
- Pass DSLC bylaws
- Expand democratic decision-making in DSLC
- Create criteria for campaign approval in the DSLC: clear metrics of success
- Subsume labor projects such as EWOC, Restaurant Organizing Project, and Healthcare Collective under the auspices of a democratized DSLC
- Prioritize Southern labor organizing as an historic strategic objective
- Establish regional organizations to coordinate activity and share skills and resources
- Develop Spanish-language material
- Task the DSLC with helping to set up labor formations in every local, with special attention given to Southern chapters
- Task all DSA campaigns to have a specific labor-organizing component
- Map the DSA members who are union staffers
- Experiment with the creation of DSA workplace branches and units
Like what you’re reading? Find out more about Collective Power Network by checking out our Who We Are page.
If you believe you share CPN’s vision for DSA and want to help bring these ideas to your chapter and DSA nationally, consider joining us. Fill out our interest form here and an organizer will be in touch with you soon.