Rebuilding a Class Movement

— Daniel Howard

In Solidarity
Essays on Working-Class Organization in the United States
By Kim Moody
Haymarket Books, 2014, 332 pages + notes and index, $22 paperback.

IN THE SUMMER of 2000, the Solidarity National Office mailed me a copy of Kim Moody’s new essay “The Rank-and-File Strategy: Building a Socialist Movement in the United States.” I sat for hours on my couch, reading and studying this pamphlet that would change my life.

Moody asked why socialists today are so isolated from workers’ struggle. Surveying the history of U.S. socialism and labor, he argued that socialists need to link up with struggles in the workplace — and that we need to take on union officials when they get in the way.

Our job is to meet workers where they’re at, help build organization and link up with other workers, and learn from each other the deeper lessons about capitalism and the need for something different.

When I read Moody’s pamphlet for the first time, I was finishing up my last year of college. I had joined 50 other students in an 11-day anti-sweatshop building occupation at our college, and I wanted to make the labor movement — and socialism — my life.

A year later, I took a job as a 411 telephone operator. Fifteen years later, I’ve changed jobs (a few times), but for me and many other socialists in the labor movement, the ideas in that pamphlet still guide our work.

Does the “rank-and-file strategy” hold up? Over the past 15 years, I’ve had more failures than successes — I’ve seen workers expelled from elected union office for taking on top union officials, dissidents split and switch sides, and organizing drives fall apart. I’ve wondered if the economy and employment has changed too much, if unions are just too far gone, or if we should do more “political” work in the unions.

It turns out Kim Moody has been asking many of the same questions. His new book In Solidarity includes both his 2000 essay and a new one, “Updating the Rank-and-File Strategy.”

His conclusion? Socialists still need to link up with workers who want to fight back, on the job, on bread-and-butter issues:

“(R)ank-and-file rebellions are a more-or-less constant feature of the US labor movement — a consequence of bureaucratic business unionism. Some of these movements succeed, many fail, while others eventually succumb to the pressures innate in the capital-labor relationship and its intuitional superstructure. But most have the potential to help construct a new layer of experienced activists.” (158)

And there are signs of hope — immigrant workers are on the move, union dissidents and radicals have transformed several local unions, and the number of activists showing up to the Labor Notes conference has doubled.

Three years ago in my union, one of the biggest healthcare locals in New York, members toppled top officials. We’ve gone on to train 500 new stewards, and those workplace leaders have stopped a safety-net hospital from closing, blocked private equity firms from taking over our hospitals, and put forward a credible strike threat covering more than 17,000 hospital workers.

I’m going to focus here on Moody’s essay on “Updating the Rank-and-File Strategy,” but he covers a lot of ground in this collection, with essays on Marxism and working class consciousness, the mass strike, new organizing strategies, hospital organizing, immigrant worker struggles, and more. Together, these make a must-read handbook for socialists who want to make a real difference in the world.

Moody’s earlier books include An Injury to All (1988), Workers in a Lean World (1997) and U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition (2007), all published by Verso. He was a founder of Labor Notes and as well as being a longtime labor journalist, participated as a telephone union activist in the militant activities of the early 1970s.

The earliest item in this collection is a seminal 1966 position paper, “Toward the Working Class: An SDS Convention Paper,” by Moody, Fred Eppsteiner and Mike Flug, submitted to the Students for a Democratic Society convention that year. [Due to typographical glitches, Flug’s name is somewhat butchered here and the first sentence reads “Why do sociologists” — where the text of course said “socialists” — “view the working class as a potentially revolutionary force?” (317)]

Have the Jobs Gone Away?

Kim Moody and other socialists formulated the rank-and-file strategy in the context of an upsurge in the early and middle 1970s. Activists from Moody’s organization, the International Socialists (IS), as well as other radical tendencies of the time, got hired into auto plants, steel mills, truck depots, and the telephone company.

IS members were inspired by the political vision of “socialism from below” as well as the rank-and-file militancy that was bubbling up in work places and communities. They linked up with wildcat strikers, Black and Latino militants and women workers fighting for jobs and respect.

The mid-1970s turned out to be the tail end of the last major rank-and-file upsurge in U.S. labor history. Socialists correctly predicted that “the employers’ offensive” would get worse — but many socialists were surprised by the near-collapse of top union resistance in the 1980s. Four decades later, work, the working class, and our unions are very different — and in worse shape.

But all the jobs did not go to China. The real story is a lot more complicated than popular perceptions. In the 1980s, employers embraced “lean production” methods to increase their control over work and boost profits. They subcontracted out work. They re-designed work processes to squeeze every second out of workers. And they broke up the assembly line into “production chains,” sometimes spread over many hundreds of miles and across national boundaries, and held together by a “just-in-time” logistics system.

Moody first explored lean production in Workers in a Lean World, and revisits may of those themes in an essay here on “Contextualizing Organized Labor in Expansion and Crisis.”

Employer power is up, but resistance didn’t go away:

“Does this fragmentation of the workforce mean not only that marketplace approaches may be needed in some cases, but more seriously, that the workplace power that characterized the era of industrial unionism has evaporated? On the contrary, the whole structure of contemporary production of goods and services, frequently linked by just-in-time or ‘logistics systems,’ is highly vulnerable to strikes and other direct actions.” (156-7)

Aren’t Today’s Unions Too Far Gone?

U.S. union membership shrank from 16.3 million in 2000, the year The Rank-and-File Strategy was published, to 14.8 million in 2011. (152). The rank-and-file strategy doesn’t claim that today’s unions will or can become revolutionary organizations.

We work in these unions because they are by far the largest and most diverse organizations of the U.S. working class — and because when resistance breaks out, it often first surfaces in the union: “The 2000s, much like the 1990s, were not a decade of working-class upsurge. Yet, like the previous decade, they saw their share of rank and file-based union reform movements.” (158)

Especially at the local union level, where unions tend to be more democratic, socialists have opportunities to link up with activists, stewards, and local unions officers who want to fight back. Faced with going extinct, even some top-level union officials are adopting more aggressive tactics:

“More generally, there appears to be a new generation of local activists and leaders, in and out of office, who want to fight the intolerable conditions being imposed by employers both public and private.” (150)

Immigrant workers — both inside and outside of unions — have led mass strikes and forced the AFL-CIO to reverse their support for exclusionary immigration policies.

The first wave of the 1930s upsurge passed through old AFL unions before new organizations were built. We don’t know if today’s existing unions can be revived, or if they will just be a stepping stone to new unions or organizations. But the fight against employers is happening right now in these unions, and that’s where we need to be:

“If Marx and Engels thought of trade unions as ‘schools’ of war or sites where workers become ‘fit for administrative and political work,’ socialists today should understand that building workplace organization capable of disrupting the labor process is also a training ground for the wielding of greater, more extensive power down the (revolutionary) road. It is, to some degree, a transitional form of organization and power. To oversimplify, today’s shop steward organization may be tomorrow’s factory council — even if that is well down that road. At the moment, workplace shop stewards’ organization is the key to effective resistance and to greater disruptions required to shift the balance of class forces.” (157)

What About Organizing the Unorganized?

Over the past year, I’ve been inspired by the strikes — and victories — of fast food workers. But SEIU, which is leading many of these efforts, is allergic to letting workers run their own organizations.

Moody says that new organizing was one of the “missing tasks” he left out of the original pamphlet, and his new collection includes two chapters on employer anti-union tactics and new organizing. Top-down efforts to stop the decline of union membership have largely failed:

“The formation of Change to Win, for example, was supposed to put new life and energy into organizing; it didn’t. It was a nonstarter that led to more top-level internal conflict than new organizing. Indeed, the grand troika of ‘new’ uinon tactics of the 1990s and 2000s — mergers, neutrality/card check, and ‘leverage’ — have all failed to produce the expected or intended results. (151)

“What’s needed is an approach based on worker self-organization — not just because we are ideologically committed to it, but because it works. Moody cites research from Kate Bronfenbrenner that shows that unions that run intensive grassroots organizing campaigns are more likely to win new members.” (155)

We’ll see if fast food workers take more of the struggle in their own hands. Socialists need to figure out how we can help support them.

Should Socialists Run for Union Office?

As unions decline, it’s actually becoming a tad easier for reformers to win office — it’s what one of my friends calls “lemon unionism.” But if given lemons, should we take the opportunity to make lemonade?

In my short time in the labor movement, I’ve worked with several groups of dissidents elected to local union office. One group got driven out of office on made-up charges from International Union officials. Another, including several socialists, came under heavy fire from the same International Union, and ended up making their own peace with the union officialdom — and abandoning their reform program.

It’s so easy for local union officers to give in to the pressures from employers and a bureaucratic collective bargaining system. But it’s not inevitable.

In my current union, we’ve found that building a different kind of union is very hard, but possible. As Moody says, the secret is “training new grassroots leaders to broaden the base, building effective stewards organizations, creating broader forms of member mobilization and involvement, and not buying into ‘experts’ and lawyers who are likely to push you back into “the well-worn grooves of business unionism.” (159)

The choice is not just between a “service model” and the “organizing model.” Too often, the “organizing model” means that members become tools of the leaders, turning out for events, and turning our militancy off and on at the command of campaign leaders:

“Bureaucratic business unionism has always practiced both. The ultimate ‘organizing model’ union, the SEIU, continues to provide services from above, recently carrying this practice one remove further from the membership by initiating a grievance servicing call center.” (219)

The rank-and-file strategy gives us a third model — one based on the real self-organization of workers.

What Does it Mean Today?

Does the rank-and-file strategy ignore all the other movements that can help workers develop militancy and radical consciousness? Should socialists in the labor movement do more explicitly political propaganda?

In an older essay included in this volume, Moody and Sheila Cohen look at the nature of working-class consciousness, or what they also call the “common sense” of the working class. Most working people do not positively endorse the ideology of our bosses. Instead, after years of defeat, most working people passively accept these ideas:

“Yet the impermanence, the instability, in many ways the fragility of this acceptance is also indicated when we probe more deeply into the precise nature of ‘actually existing’ working-class consciousness. Here we discover, rather than coherent and explicit assent to a consistent set of ideas and ‘values,’ a more complex mix: one characterized less by undifferentiated ideological domination than by inconsistency, contradiction, and lack of information.” (29)

When workers fight back — and have some success — they may start looking for new ways of thinking:

“The point here, then, is not that workers need to be ‘incited’ to resist capital by a corps of eager socialists. Rather, what is required of socialists is a commitment to focusing on and developing the implications of existing, contradictory, conflictual worker consciousness.” (41)

We call this approach the transitional method — meeting workers and their struggles where they are, but helping them make those struggles successful by realizing the root of the problem in capitalist control over everything.

Of course working-class consciousness and struggle can develop from many sources — just look at the recent struggles of immigrant workers and Black Lives Matter — surely two of the most important working class struggles of the last 10 years.

In my union, I’m happy to report that our new officers have rented buses to help members link up with Black Lives Matter. And that’s also why I’m a part of a socialist organization that brings together activists from many different movements.

Socialists in and around Solidarity (and the groups that came before us, and other groups too), have tried to put the rank-and-file strategy into practice. We can be proud of what we’ve accomplished — especially building and supporting Labor Notes. At the end of his new essay, Moody says that the Labor Notes network is looking more and more like the best of the Trade Union Educational League of the 1920s.

Still, many of the socialist workplace activists who founded Solidarity have retired, and we haven’t replaced them. Ten years ago, I was part of a network of young socialists helping each other get rank-and-file jobs. In a tough job market, many of the young radicals in our network couldn’t find work, and drifted away.

Two people who did get jobs — one as a warehouse worker, the other as a nurse — are still at it 10 years later. Both are now rank-and-file leaders in their local unions, helping rebuild and transform those unions at the grassroots.

Work sucks and it is getting worse. Worker resistance is on a modest upswing. The disconnect between socialists and worker activists is still too wide. As Moody said in the original pamphlet, we don’t have a road map, but the rank-and-file strategy gives us a compass for figuring out how to cross that gap.

January-February 2016, ATC 180