Skip to main content

labor How We Move Forward Together: The Rank & File Project

By recruiting young radicals to the labor movement, the Rank & File Project hopes to build the base for a politics that can unify the working class around shared interests, & prioritize solidarity & workers’ rights within the workplace & outside it.

For the US Left, much of last year was marked by big shifts and big gatherings, taking stock and plotting paths. Convergence first conceived of this series before Hamas attacked Israel and Israel invaded Gaza, shattering lives and upending politics. But as the shadows of war and fascism deepen, so does our need for alignment, even as it becomes more difficult to buid.

To help envision how we move forward, we invited groups across the Left to contribute to this series in the spirit of building understanding across our movement ecosystems. Much of the work to block the MAGA Right over the next year will necessarily happen in electoral campaigns, but moving towards true multiracial democracy will take long-term work on many levels, from neighborhood to national, from community- and institution-building to winning races and ballot measures, as we contest for governing power.

We asked respondents to write about ways their strategy contributes to blocking MAGA in 2024, and how their short- and long-term plans inform each other; how their strategy contributes to building leaders, members, power and capacity; and how they fit into the movement ecosystem, and coordinate and collaborate with others in their niche. The order in which contributions appear reflects different organizations’ rhythms of work, rather than a political assessment by Convergence.

Most major advances toward a more equal and just society come about because organized working people use their power to disrupt capitalist profits. And we think that’s the only force that can ultimately end capitalist exploitation and establish a truly democratic society. For that reason, many on the Left see labor unions as essential to making radical change. But unions today are often top-down and undemocratic in structure, weak, defensive and even conservative in their politics. The labor movement lacks a coherent, organized left-wing leadership that could help re-found the movement on a democratic, class-struggle basis.

The Rank & File Project (RFP), founded in April 2023, proposes to strengthen the base for class-struggle unionism by recruiting young radicals to join the labor movement. We believe young, committed organizers can help workers build power by taking rank-and-file union jobs in strategic industries. RFP will support this by educating, training, and mentoring these new union members in building class struggle unions on the shop floor. We are training the next generation of life-long socialist union activists to be leaders in their own right, and to identify and develop new leaders in their workplaces.

What is a rank-and-file strategy?

As socialists, we believe our central focus–as part of a Rank-and-File Strategy (RFS)–should be on “identifying and developing a layer of rank and file, i.e., workplace-based, leadership that can organize in the workplace on a day-to-day basis. This day-to-day organizing plays a crucial role in creating workers’ sense of being part of something bigger—not just a union, but a working class—that is capable of fighting, winning, and ultimately ruling.” The Rank-and-File Strategy aims to close the gap between socialists and the rest of the working class, and that’s why we’ve built RFP to recruit young radicals to the labor movement as rank-and-file union members.

Nearly four out of five people ages 18-34 express approval of unions, the highest mark in a half-century. Most young leftists, however, are not sure how best to participate in radical politics, much less how they can build a fighting labor movement—or even the central importance of rebuilding a powerful labor movement to socialist politics.

An important component of our work is that we are recruiting into workplaces where there already are socialist rank-and-file workers and activists who are coordinating together. These are often sectors of the economy with racially and socioeconomically diverse workers, who, if they were to strike, would have significant leverage. At some point, we hope to have a large enough pool of experienced labor organizers to recruit radicals to strategic industries where we don’t already have a socialist presence among the rank and file. For example, we are already thinking about how we can build cohorts in some of the sites of struggle around climate change–such as local unionized electricity providers and corporations in the refinery sector.

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

Various resources, such as the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, a joint Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)/United Electrical Workers (UE) project created during the height of the pandemic, are available to support people interested in organizing unions at non-union workplaces. We agree that this is an essential task since the path to a powerful organized working class requires building new unions throughout the economy, especially at mass corporations like Starbucks and Amazon. However, there is no systematic effort (outside of some chapters in DSA) to help young people take up jobs in already-unionized strategic sectors with the intention of transforming unionized workplaces into class-struggle unions. The Rank & File Project seeks to fill this gap.

Class struggle unions mean workers lead

Author Joe Burns, in his new book “Class Struggle Unionism,” counterposes “class struggle unionism” to “business unionism” and its “progressive” counterpart, “labor liberalism.” While business unionism accepts capital’s right to manage and avoids confrontation, and labor liberalism uses symbolic protest and lobbying, both see the union members as bit players. Class-struggle unionism is about workers themselves taking the leading role in their own liberation. Burns argues that the Left should dedicate itself to “putting the labor movement on a class struggle basis.” Class struggle unionism understands that bosses and workers have mutually opposed interests.

While we want to see the number of union members grow, we can’t ignore the massive task of transforming unions into powerful, democratic working-class movements through organizing among the rank and file. Increasing union density cannot accomplish this on its own, there must be an intentional push towards increased militancy in these growing unions.

Some DSA chapters have done an excellent job recruiting socialists to rank-and-file organizing. But, DSA’s audience for this recruitment remains somewhat limited. There are many young people who are not yet organized in DSA or its youth section, the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA), but who are interested in this kind of organizing. Young people on the political left, who remain unorganized, represent a large portion of young workers. RFP has observed this ourselves—many of our applicants do not subscribe to any specific political tendency, and are new to organizing and the labor movement, but are aligned in their commitment to struggling against capitalism’s injustices, and in recognizing the labor movement as a crucial terrain on which to do this.

We have coordinated with others doing important work in the labor movement like the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC), Labor Notes activists, and as mentioned above, DSA–sharing insights and resources about best practices for recruitment, training materials, and collaborating on different events. This past summer, RFP organizers worked with YDSA to put on Red Hot Summer (RHS), a labor education and training program for young socialists where we designed and led the program’s session on the Rank-and-File Strategy. Hasan Piker streamed the opening event of Red Hot Summer, resulting in over 25,000 young people hearing about RFP!

We’ve been targeting community college campuses–specifically those with a higher density of working-class students of color–and attended many social justice events where we were invited to present RFP. As we expected, the young radicals we’ve met, such as former salts, student-worker organizers, and leaders in new-organizing campaigns, see the value of taking long-term rank-and-file union jobs.

Class struggle can replace division with solidarity

As we fight our boss and successfully win common good reforms in our workplaces and unions, we learn to work with people we don’t agree with on major issues. More broadly, class struggle builds solidarity among coworkers who have been intentionally divided by the capitalist class along lines of race, gender, religion, and more. We learn the power of collective action and democratic decision-making when we organize on the shop floor.

The Rank & File Project hopes to contribute to bringing the working class together around shared interests, and building a base that sees solidarity and workers’ rights as a priority in political fights both in the workplace and outside it. This is always a core component of a class-struggle approach, but it seems all the more critical as the working class seems more and more polarized, with inconceivable outcomes, such as the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, or the attack on women’s reproductive rights, and so much more.

Our recruitment is heavily oriented towards young working-class people of color, because as they develop into powerful shop floor leaders connected to a strong socialist movement, who better to lead us in “uprisings” for equity, justice, and the overall betterment of the entire working class? We seek to provide the resources and training for a diverse group of working-class people who can build a base reflecting the needs and politics of the whole working class: Perfunctory leadership quotas and symbolic support for racial justice efforts can sometimes be taken as a step forward, but are far from enough to create the change we want to see in the world.

In our plan for the next 10 –15 years, we hope we will have helped grow a new young socialist cadre layer in the labor movement. We expect this to, in turn, support a stronger working-class base in DSA and other movement organizations. We also believe that in a longer arc, through our support for class struggle unions rooted in the communities they serve and work in, we will see more unions and workers prepared to turn to a new working-class independent party. Building such a party rooted in bottom-up class struggle is essential to the fight against the far Right, since center-left neoliberalism and the absence of left-wing alternatives have contributed to the rise of the far Right and abstentionism among masses of workers. Finally, we want to explore restarting a center for working-class political education and news/media modeled in part after the 20th century’s Trade Union Educational League (TUEL).

In 2023 we started our first chapters in New York City/North New Jersey, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Los Angeles. We have been experimenting with recruitment tactics, developing educational materials, building a mentorship pool, and forming the foundation for a project that will hopefully outlast us. We have built wonderful relationships with passionate socialists across the US who are ready and eager to start their own local RFP chapters and Rank & File Schools. We expect to grow the baseline we’ve set by recruiting about 60 young people over this next year to become rank-and-file union members in our three locations, and we also expect to expand the industries we are recruiting into.

In the long term, we hope to keep expanding to more locales, organize many more cohorts each year, and continue refining our approaches and our recruitment and educational materials with the help of our volunteers and donors. Unions can take many years and many attempts to be reformed, and we don’t expect any of them to change overnight, but this project is hopefully giving rise to a whole crop of leaders like Shawn Fain, the militant United Auto Workers President who not only helped lead the union in a massive victory at all three big automakers after a six-week strike, but also sported a t-shirt saying “Eat the Rich.”

* * * 

Abdullah F is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and Students for Justice in Palestine. 

Cyn Huang is a Steering Committee Member of the Rank & File Project based in Berkeley, California. Formerly they have served as a National Co-Chair of the Young Democratic Socialists of America and a Head Steward in UAW 2865z.

Marsha Niemeijer is a NYC-based labor educator and has been involved in the US labor movement for the past 25 years as a militant labor activist and socialist.