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On the Clock and Off

As leftists debate what their labor strategy should look like, many are turning to the rank-and-file strategy. A longtime union activist reflects on a lifetime of struggle in the rank and file.

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Latino union demonstrators
Cannery workers in Watsonville, California march on their knees from the plant gates to a Catholic church during their eighteen-month strike in the late 1980s., Peter Shapiro

Barry Eidlin’s essay on “rank-and-file strategy” tackles the question of left activism in the workplace and attempts to place it in the context of long-term revolutionary strategy. It should go without saying that any serious socialist movement needs to engage directly with workplace struggles, and not merely in a supportive capacity. The question is how, with what expectations, and with what strategic ends in mind.

I have some specific issues with Eidlin’s essay, but what is perhaps of more concern (to me, at least) is what it does not say. What follows is less a rebuttal than an attempt to fill in the blanks.

Eidlin’s rank-and-file strategy is counterposed to a pair of approaches he attributes to other tendencies on the Left. The first of these sees “workplace organizing as a venue for socialist cadre to engage in propagandizing for revolution.” The other involves attempts to “strengthen the left-labor link through alliances with the more progressive elements of the union bureaucracy.”

In the case of the first, he may be begging the question. Any organization that sent its cadre into a workplace merely to “propagandize for revolution” would not last long, and certainly would not pick up many recruits. People are not won over to socialism by having leaflets shoved under their noses. They learn from their own experience, on the job and outside of it, and from their struggle to make sense of it and see it in a larger context.

Political engagement in a workplace requires a serious involvement in the lives of one’s coworkers and their daily struggles. It also requires a commitment to the job itself. Any organizer who did not understand this would have to learn it in a hurry.

Eidlin is equally critical of those who seek alliances with progressive union officials while neglecting rank-and-file organizing. This could be more clearly framed: it’s a cardinal rule of coalition politics that if you expect to be taken seriously, you’d better bring something of your own to the table. You need to have some ideas that nobody else is raising, and you need an independent power base to make sure those ideas are heard. Otherwise, you probably aren’t contributing anything that could not be better provided by others. Your would-be coalition partners may suspect you of merely wanting to ride their coattails, and they wouldn’t be far from wrong. The problem Eidlin cites is not so much one of making alliances as of making them in a shallow and opportunistic way.

Some Practical Lessons

The alternative Eidlin suggests has actually been around for a while. I had my own experiences with it during my thirteen years with the League of Revolutionary Struggle. I remained active in union struggles after the LRS dissolved in 1990, and my time in the organization continues to influence my activism.

The LRS is often associated with the New Communist Movement of the 1970s and ’80s. The majority of its cadre were people of color, most of whom came from working-class backgrounds. Our labor work placed a priority on strengthening the presence of black, Latinx, and Asian workers in the labor movement. This could involve fighting for union representation for immigrant workers in a non-union workplace; it could involve building an effective black or Latino caucus in established unions like the United Auto Workers or UNITE HERE; it could involve winning labor support for community and electoral struggles.

Like many others, we also struggled to develop programmatic demands that effectively addressed the main strategic concerns of organized labor in the late ’70s and ’80s — deindustrialization, unemployment, aggressive union-busting, and the rise of a global labor market. There were no easy answers to these questions, and searching for them involved a great deal of trial and error — not only in summing up our own efforts, but in paying attention to what others were doing.

Other left groups during the 1970s and ’80s tended to focus their efforts on industries with a strategic role in the economy, where organized labor then had a strong presence. The LRS preferred to focus on industries with a high proportion of what we called “lower strata workers” — predominantly women and people of color, working lower-wage jobs with union representation that was weak or nonexistent. We organized “back of the house” hotel workers in several different cities, immigrant workers in garment sweatshops or small metal fabrication plants, and seasonal cannery workers who were under Teamster contracts but largely ignored by their union.

In other respects, however, we started out doing labor work the same way most organizations on the Left did. The standard procedure was to form a rank-and-file caucus to challenge the union leadership. The standard analysis was that most union leaders were bought-off bureaucrats who had to be removed from power. This approach was not confined to the New Communist Movement; its leading exponent was International Socialists (IS) and its successor organizations.

Teamsters for a Democratic Union, which IS was instrumental in launching, was considered a model of what a rank-and-file organization should look like. The underlying strategy (at least as IS formulated it) was  “socialism from below,” with the workplace as the key arena and the struggle for “fighting, democratic unions” as the key vehicle. The underlying assumption was that autonomous action by workers at the point of production was both a wellspring of democratic values and a critical component of revolutionary strategy.

The League never completely rejected this oppositional approach, but over time we grew increasingly conscious of its limitations. Too many of the rank-and-file caucuses that emerged in established unions were largely white. When unions suffered defeats, more was usually involved than a simple lack of tactical militancy. Many rank-and-filers had other concerns besides how their union was run, no less deserving of attention.

While Eidlin correctly states that “elected leaders and staff have a material interest in the survival of the union as an institution,” we came to understand that particular circumstances determine when that “material interest” is in contradiction to the interests of the workers and when it is not. We learned to work with union officials when we could, and struggle with them when we had to. In either case, we found that the stronger our rank-and-file base, the more leverage we brought to the table.

These lessons were the outgrowth of years of practical work in the labor movement, during which we did our best to build on our successes and learn from our mistakes. Looking back, I think it’s possible to isolate aspects of the “rank-and-file strategy” that help account for what we saw as its shortcomings in practice. What follows is my own attempt to sum them up.

Are Unions Reformist?

One problem is highlighted by Eidlin’s characterization of unions as “almost by definition reformist.” I think this glosses over the difference between a political organization and an economic one. “Reformism,” like revolution, concerns itself with the kind of society we want and how we hope to achieve it. A union’s mission is simply to protect the jobs and living standards of its members.

For Eidlin, this suggests that a union’s “very existence affirms and reinforces capitalist society.” I would argue that its “very existence” affirms the need of workers to defend themselves against capitalist attack

The confusion arises because in a political system that does not encourage class-based politics, unions often find themselves assuming the functions of a working-class political party. It is not a task for which they are particularly well-suited. A political organization is held together by a shared set of political principles. Union members need to have nothing more in common than their jobs.

This can complicate the task of pushing unions in a more progressive direction. Rank-and-file views run the gamut from revolutionary to reactionary, and  “militancy” is not a reliable way to distinguish them from one another. Right-wing union members can be just a militant as “advanced workers” when they see a threat to their livelihoods. Militancy is not the same as class consciousness.

In their effort to keep the ranks together, union officials impose a measure of discipline on their organizations that can be manifestly undemocratic, often heavy-handedly so. This is frequently attributed to bad leadership. But it also reflects a fundamental contradiction in the nature of unions: they are by necessity inclusive, representing their members with no regard to their politics or even their understanding of union principles. Yet representing them effectively requires a high level of internal cohesion and discipline.

Achieving the unity needed to stand up to employer attack is no mean feat; even those who question the direction the union is taking still have to think about holding the ranks together. That requires a strategic flexibility and sophistication that that calls for a “fighting, democratic union” only begin to address.

Not every tactical retreat is a sellout. It may be based on a realistic assessment of the balance of forces at a given time, what the members are capable of, how ready they are to unite around a given course of action. As for union democracy, it is not always easy to distinguish between honest debate and unprincipled factionalism. Some differences are real and need to be aired. Others boil down to whose ox is being gored, and which side you end up on is largely a tactical calculation. Power struggles within a union rarely afford the opportunity to be completely pure.

All too often, opposition candidates who challenge the incumbent leadership for failing to defend the members win office, only to repeat the failings of their predecessors. This is not necessarily because they are bad people. They may simply find themselves hamstrung by the same realities that constrained the people they replaced — or by the need to defend themselves against the continuing attacks of an old guard determined to regain power.

The classic example is Ron Carey, who successfully challenged the corrupt, autocratic, mobbed-up leadership of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in 1991. Carey’s victory, achieved with the active support of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, was characterized by TDU cofounder Dan La Botz as “one of the most important advances of the American labor movement in over fifty years.” But Carey resigned in disgrace after union funds were misappropriated to pay for his reelection campaign (a routine practice under the old regime), and his “moral and political failure,” in LaBotz’s words, had a “devastating impact” on the Teamsters and the union reform movement generally.

I raise this issue because, so often, those who have tried to put the “rank-and-file strategy” into practice have run afoul of it. Eidlin’s essay is mainly concerned with building a mass base within the labor movement for socialist activists. But implicit in his argument is an assumption that has influenced previous efforts in this direction: that there is an unavoidable contradiction between autonomous rank-and-file action and the interests of union officials, whose need to enforce the terms of a less than perfect collective bargaining agreement tends to place them at odds with dues-paying members who, quite rightly, want something better.

So much emphasis is placed on this contradiction that there is a real danger of exaggerating its importance. In the first place, it is not always unavoidable. In the second place, many advocates of the rank-and-file strategy tend to speak as if there were a simple solution (defeating the union bureaucrats) to a much more complex problem (analyzing the different social forces at work under US capitalism and effectively challenging the power relations between labor and capital).

A union contract is nothing more than a reflection of the balance of power between workers and management at the time it was signed. When I was a shop steward, I used to tell people for whom I was filing grievances that, while I’d give it my best shot, I couldn’t promise anything. The union, I’d say, can’t guarantee that justice will always prevail in the workplace. All it gives us is a fighting chance.

Occasionally someone would respond by demanding to know what they were paying their dues for. It’s a backward sentiment, but it’s interesting how often left labor activists have sounded a similar note. In the early 1930s, William Z. Foster, the Communist Party leader and legendary labor organizer, was moved to complain: “Some of our comrades seem to think union bureaucrats have nothing to do with their time but sit around plotting how to sell out strikes.” His observation still rings true today, because an insistence on the primacy of struggles at the point of production tends to promote unrealistic expectations of how much such struggles can accomplish. When those expectations aren’t met, it’s all too easy to blame it on “union misleadership.”

The Limits of “Rank-And-File Opposition”

None of this is meant to suggest that union misleadership is not real, or that situations do not arise where spontaneous action from below is needed to reform a union that is badly led or has lost its way. A case in point: the nationwide strike of postal workers in 1970, which established the workers’ right to collective bargaining and empowered their unions to do more than beg favors from an unresponsive Congress. The strike was illegal; it was initiated by local activists with no encouragement from union leadership. I have these wildcat strikers to thank for the wages and benefits I enjoyed during my thirty-year postal career. Today, they are regarded as heroes by my union.

But union leaders can also be held back by their members. Any union negotiator who has had to bargain over health benefits at contract time has seen plenty of evidence that our system of private health insurance has become unsustainable. What it takes just to maintain existing benefits in a time of exploding costs is an onerous and growing burden for every union.

Recognizing this, many unions have passed resolutions in favor of single-payer. But few unions have shown a readiness to commit the necessary resources and political capital to fight for it. Union members rely on their health benefits more than ever today, and they expect their leaders to protect them. To suggest that it may no longer be possible is to invite charges that those leaders have lost their ability to lead.

The best unions embrace a vision of class solidarity and do what they can to carry it out, recognizing that “an injury to one is an injury to all” and that unions do a better job of defending their members when they support each other’s struggles. They also recognize that the labor movement as a whole becomes stronger when unorganized workers are brought into the fold. But a union that can’t protect its own members is not going to be able to do much of anything else. In a pinch, any larger or more ambitious agenda is apt to wind up on the back burner, or perhaps be opposed outright.

We got an ugly taste of this recently. The United Mine Workers is generally considered a progressive voice in the labor movement. Its members in the Appalachian coalfields have firsthand experience with the rapaciousness of the fossil fuel industry and its devastating impact on the environment. The UMW strike against Pittston Coal in 1989 recalled the glory days of the Civil Rights Movement, with its widespread use of mass civil disobedience (including a three-day plant takeover) and the quasi-religious way in which the union framed the struggle.

Yet here was Cecil Roberts, leader of the Pittston strike, now head of the AFL-CIO Energy Committee, weighing in recently on the Green New Deal: “We will not accept proposals that could cause immediate harm to millions of our members and their families. We will not stand by and allow threats to our members’ jobs and their families’ standard of living go unanswered.”

For those of us who understand the climate crisis is an existential threat to future generations and believe the labor movement’s embrace of the Green New Deal is critically important, Roberts’s statement is truly discouraging. It is all the more so because it comes from a union official whose track record is arguably more progressive than many of his peers’. But it misses the point to dismiss Roberts as a sellout, and it may be asking too much to expect the UMW or its members to lead the charge against fossil fuels at this time. The union is fighting for its life, and many of its members face conditions that are nothing short of desperate.

This is a contradiction that can’t be explained by invoking the conflict between union officials and the rank and file. A better explanation can be found in Lenin’s What Is To Be Done, a document that still bears a thoughtful reading even if you don’t like the way things turned out in Russia or accept Lenin’s model of a tightly disciplined vanguard party.

Lenin deals with certain issues which the rank-and-file strategy only begins to address. Most particularly, his analysis provides a way to confront head-on the problem of a working class divided along lines of race and gender, something that is absolutely critical to building a strong socialist movement in this country. Eidlin is clearly aware of this, but he confines his comments on it to a few brief sentences near the end of his essay. I want to explore it in greater depth.

Is the “Point of Production” Where the Action Is?

Much of Lenin’s argument is a refutation of the notion that struggles at the point of production (at least in a nonrevolutionary situation) can be anything other than defensive in nature. An effective revolutionary movement can’t be confined to such struggles or accord them a priori some kind of special status. Exploitation and oppression pervade every aspect of life under capitalism. People experience it both on and off the job, and while the workplace may be “the most direct and obvious site” of struggle against the capitalist class, it is not the only one by a long shot.

Consider the way class formation has developed in this country. Almost from the outset, capital accumulation in the United States was inextricably bound up with the slave trade, the annexation of northern Mexico, the plunder of indigenous lands, the brutal exploitation of Chinese labor in building the transcontinental railroad, and the manipulation of immigration laws to serve capital’s agenda.

Outrage over these injustices, and a determination to resist them, has been a driving force behind revolutionary movements in this country. Where people get into trouble is when they speak about racism and national oppression as simply “dividing the working class,” rather than understanding the struggle against them as revolutionary in its own right.

Lenin argued that if the working class is to lead a social revolution, it has to be prepared to challenge injustice wherever it occurs and stand up for all who are victimized by it. Organizing at the workplace, however critical it may be, must concern itself with more than workplace issues.

This point is all the more germane now because so much of the recent upsurge of strike activity has involved public employees whose grievances, directed at the capitalist state rather than a private employer, are inherently political in nature. The large majority of workers who have gone on strike in the last twelve months are either teachers or health care workers, and while the struggle to make ends meet was certainly a factor in their militancy, their grievances go beyond questions of pay, workload, and the rate of exploitation they experience on the job.

Jacobin recently published an excellent analysis of the Oakland teachers’ strike by Eric Blanc. Among his conclusions: “Because [the] battle against privatization and underfunding cannot be won in Oakland alone, the next phase of the struggle also has to be part of a massive statewide movement — notably, to pass a statewide charter moratorium and to approve a 2020 ballot initiative to end . . .  commercial tax loopholes.” Widespread community support for the strike, Blanc observes, reflected its larger goal of “sav[ing] Oakland from billionaire gentrifiers and privatizers intent on pushing both teachers and working-class families of color out of the city.”

The increasingly militant unionism in recent years on the part of teachers and nurses is remarkable in part because it involves “professional” jobs that have become increasingly proletarianized and subject to powerful market forces, in the form of private insurance and corporate hospital and charter school chains. At the heart of their struggle is an imperative to resist the growing privatization of public resources.

For these workers, a job was supposed to represent more than a paycheck; it is a public service,  compromised to a disastrous degree by budget cuts and corporate profiteering. Every rally for single-payer is apt to feature a nurse speaking from personal experience about the deteriorating quality of patient care or the horrific consequences when people lack timely access to treatment. As for teachers, Eric Blanc notes that UTLA members in Los Angeles who had misgivings about the way their strike was settled complained that “my students deserve more.”

Certainly, the deteriorating conditions under which nurses and teachers must work is a powerful incentive to struggle. Certainly, it reflects the intensified exploitation that results from the falling rate of profit under contemporary capitalism. But far more is involved than that. These struggles matter because they go beyond the workplace; they succeed when they mobilize larger constituencies in defense of the right to health care and public education.

Who Are the “Militant Minority”?

Central to Barry Eidlin’s analysis is the concept of the “militant minority,” a notion that has been around even longer than the rank-and-file strategy (more than a century, actually.) Eidlin defines it as “a layer of . . .  workplace-based leadership . . .  composed of respected, trusted, and militant shop floor leaders” who can energize their fellow workers and together, with conscious socialists, lay the groundwork for a class-conscious labor movement. What needs further discussion, I think, is who these people are and how their leadership potential is to be realized. Otherwise, “militant minority” remains an abstraction, and not a terribly helpful one at that.

In my experience, the “union reform” movements that matter are not so much those that demand a tougher stand at the bargaining table; they are movements by groups of workers, be they women, immigrants, or people of color, whom unions are supposed to represent but in fact have marginalized, denying them a voice and failing to take up their particular issues. And they are strongest when they are an integral part of larger community struggles. This is what accounts for the staying power of two unions made up predominantly of Mexican immigrants — PCUN, the Pacific Northwest farmworkers union, and Teamsters Local 890 in California’s Salinas Valley. Both continued to thrive even when conditions for struggle at the point of production were highly unfavorable.

Indeed, the most significant workplace struggles, in my lifetime at least, have involved people of color whose activism flowed from conditions far more fundamental to their lives than a rising rate of exploitation on the job. You could write a compelling account of the US labor movement over the past fifty years that focused almost exclusively on such struggles, beginning with the Memphis sanitation workers strike in 1968 and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit a few years later, through the battles of immigrant workers at Smithfield and in the Justice for Janitors campaigns of the 1990s, right up to today’s teachers’ strikes in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Oakland, with their strong connection to the demands of the black and Latinx community for education rights.

When Eidlin speaks of “rebuilding the link between labor and the Left,” he may be looking in the wrong places. These struggles address capitalism’s fundamental inhumanity in a way that calls for a “fighting democratic union” do not — not simply because they reflect people’s lived experience, but because racism and national oppression have been critical to the development of US capitalism from its very beginnings.

A  failure to fully appreciate this point can compromise one’s best efforts at day-to-day organizing. I claim no expertise here, but the people I know who are good organizers do not go looking for “advanced workers.” They check their assumptions about people at the door. They treat everyone equally, recognizing that all of us have our strengths and weaknesses and that a crisis situation has the potential to transform almost anyone into a leader. They see their job as giving people the tools they need to become more active and figuring out what conditions in their lives are holding them back.

Most importantly, they pay attention to those aspects of people’s experience that most deeply affect their understanding of the world, the strategies they have developed to cope with it, and how those strategies impact their activism. These might seemingly have little to do with “shop floor leadership,” but they can make all the difference.

Here, the successful eighteen-month frozen food strike in Watsonville, California may be instructive, which the League of Revolutionary Struggle was deeply involved in. The rank-and-file leaders who emerged in the course of the strike were mostly Mexican immigrant women. Hardly any had prior union experience; they were products of a culture in which even militant unions were largely a male domain. There was a TDU chapter in Watsonville that waged several important campaigns prior to the strike, but for the most part, these women did not rush to join it.

Because of this, some strike supporters on the Left viewed them skeptically. A common assumption was that, since they were not part of  TDU, they must be trying to conciliate with the union, whose officers were thoroughly discredited. But the women’s way of dealing with union incompetence was not through an established opposition caucus but with their own, largely informal organization that emerged in the course of the strike. It derived its power from a strong network of mutual trust and support, and a common experience not only inside the plant but outside of it, where racism and sexism were something the women had to confront daily. Many were devout Catholics whose commitment to see the strike through to the end came from a belief that the privations of the struggle were God’s way of testing their faith. A “militant minority” emerged that confounded many people’s expectations about such things happen.

The Meaning of Solidarity

It is true that the workplace is often where people experience exploitation most directly. But what happens there is not necessarily what spurs people to question the capitalist system. Indeed, workplace struggles are susceptible to the same kind of narrow “silo mentality” much lamented by left activists. The particularities of a workplace issue or a set of contract demands, the tactical questions that arise in a strike, are not always easy to convey to outsiders. By the same token, people involved in a workplace fight are far more likely to see how it connects with something larger if they’ve already experienced a connection in their lives outside of work.

And making connections is what it’s all about. A good organizer does not simply exhort people to fight harder (or, in the unfortunate phrase of Fred Thompson, Cesar Chavez’s mentor, “get behind people and push”). What is needed in any mass struggle, at the workplace or anywhere else, is first of all an understanding that it is part of something larger. This is what “propagandizing for revolution” is supposed to do.

The second connection, arguably more difficult to achieve, is a strategic perspective that strengthens the hand of people in struggle by identifying potential allies and having an effective and reliable basis for making alliances. An effective united front, vital to the success of any ongoing mass movement, requires an understanding of the forces you hope to align with, a respect for their interests, and a readiness to recognize when their interests converge with yours and when they don’t. And when contradictions do arise, to be able to respond without either caving in (to keep peace in the family) or simply writing people off (because they came to the struggle by a different path and may see the ultimate destination differently).

“Solidarity” means more than workers sticking together. It means being ready to look beyond one’s own agenda and embrace the struggles of others whose agenda may be different but whose enemy is the same: the monopoly capitalist class. In the LRS, we used to say that revolution in the United States would require a “strategic alliance of the working class and oppressed nationalities.” I still think this formulation is sound. But I would hope that even those who disagree would understand the necessity for workplace struggles to draw strength from battles fought in other arenas, and be prepared to forge serious and enduring alliances with other social forces resisting capitalist injustice.

“I sing the song of the class struggle on the boss’s time,” wrote the poet George Bratt some years ago. It’s a lovely sentiment with a valuable political perspective behind it. But I hope we don’t stop singing when we’re off the clock. That’s where some of the best verses get written.

Peter Shapiro is a retired letter carrier and longtime labor journalist. His union paper was repeatedly honored during his tenure as editor, and he has published in Labor Notes, Labor Studies Journal, Unity, and the Nation. He is the author of Song of the Stubborn One Thousand: The Watsonville Canning Strike, 1985–87 (Haymarket Books, 2016).