For R12: The Student-Worker Movement Needs Class-Struggle Unionism

The key to winning democratic socialism is through mass action by the working class. Supporters of Resolution 12 argue that we can get there by supporting young socialists to build the student-worker movement and to take strategic organizing  jobs in the rank and file labor movement after graduation.


As democratic socialists we want to build a world where everyone is free of exploitation and oppression. The only way to overthrow capitalism is through mass collective action by working people. The working class is the only force in society that has the capacity to overturn capitalism — from its location at the center of capitalist production, and democratic potential as the vast majority of society — and an active interest in doing so, as a result of the routine exploitation and oppression we face in the workplace and beyond. As workers, the boss has every reason to underpay us, disrespect us, and rob us of our rights and dignity. Yet, without us, the owners would have nothing. 

At this year’s convention, delegates and our organization have an opportunity to recommit YDSA to the rank-and-file strategy (RFS), a comprehensive framework to rebuild a fighting labor movement, merge it with socialist politics, and lay the groundwork for a democratic socialist transformation of society. 

The Rank-and-File Strategy

The modern socialist movement in the United States is historically disconnected from the multiracial working class, the working class is disorganized, and is at a historically low level of class struggle. 

Young socialists should join the project of rebuilding working-class organization from the bottom-up by organizing as rank-and-file workers on the shop floor. The rank-and-file strategy is nothing less than a strategy to win socialism. The direct experiences with class struggle and collective action and organizing alongside socialists are what will open our coworkers up to socialist politics. 

One of our primary tasks is to integrate socialists into the working class and the labor movement. Young socialists should take jobs in strategic industries like education, healthcare, logistics, and others. It’s up to us to win the trust of our coworkers by being the most effective organizers on the job and in our unions.

Winning concrete victories through collective action with our coworkers on the shop-floor allows us to connect these struggles to the larger struggle against capitalism. Our role as socialists is to identify and expand the layer of rank and file leaders who can carry out the day-to-day fights on the shop floor, the militant minority. Through struggle, our coworkers will learn their own power, we will gain their confidence and win them over to our theory of change, and toward a vision for a democratic socialist transformation of society.

Young Socialists and the Labor Movement

YDSA should recommit itself to the rank-and-file Strategy. “Resolution 12: Recommitting to the Rank-and-File Strategy,” lays out such a vision for our organization and the student worker movement. YDSA’s Labor Committee (YLC), with the mandate of this resolution, could carry out political education on the rank-and-file strategy among our membership, providing us with the concrete vision and theory of change necessary to rebuild a militant labor movement, with a socialist theory of change.

R12 tasks YDSA to “survey national membership about their majors and post-graduation plans” to identify “members in nursing or education programs” or other channels to strategic areas in the labor movement. The construction of a pipeline of socialists into these strategic industries is a fundamental component of any strategy to rebuild the independent fighting capacity of workers. 

Rebuilding the larger labor movement is our primary objective, as that is the force capable of confronting capital at-large. Nonetheless, the student labor movement plays a particularly significant role in this struggle. Namely, the student-worker movement helps introduce masses of young people to class struggle and gives young socialist organizers the opportunity to cut their teeth in shop floor union organizing. 

A rank-and-file pipeline can strategically place socialist militants in the struggle to build a mass workers’ movement worthy of the name. In light of this, R12 calls on us to “continue the activity and work” of the YLC in aiding YDSA members in running labor organizing campaigns on our campuses. It will be the task of the YLC to support young socialist labor organizers through “mentorship programs,” “YDSA-wide political and strategic discussions” and “map[ping] labor work in YDSA,” tasks which YDSA has carried out in recent years. 

Building a Powerful Student-Worker Movement

The resolution also commits YDSA members to continue to build the student-worker movement on their campuses and through a national organization of student workers. Over the past few years, YDSA members have been at the core of a nascent undergraduate student worker movement on our campuses, and many are involved in new organizing drives at this current moment. These unions have come together into a national network called the Student Worker Alliance Network (SWAN), with the Student Worker Alliance (SWA) as its leadership body and organizing committee and SWAN as a wider network of student workers, organizers, and activists.

SWA voted to require their members (of SWA, not SWAN) to adhere to a program which is socialist in character. This is reflective of a “red unionist” tendency within SWA: the belief that unions should take up explicitly socialist politics or limit its members or leaders to self-selected leaders and activists who agree to an ideological program rather than the organic working-class leaders in the student-worker movement. 

A “yes” vote for R12 at this year’s YDSA Convention would be a positive affirmation that YDSA wants to help build and organize within the national student-worker organization, SWAN. The convention would recognize that the leadership group, SWA, should be a body open to any student-worker leader. 

The role of a socialist organization should be to train organizers on how to develop strategic labor campaigns. Our labor work should encourage leaders to take on campaigns which can help build the activity and organization for an organizing committee to be built. Some YDSA members have run issue-based petitions, like Raise the Wage. YDSA’s role is to help socialists build organizing committees alongside their co-workers, and to bring together socialists within the student-worker movement to analyze our collective conditions and intervene in building and strengthening the movement. SWAN is the organization that can support organizing committees and unions to learn from one another and ultimately act as the nucleus of a new, independent national student-worker union.

Socialist organization or mass organization?

Our shared purpose as student workers organizing within SWAN should be to learn from one another and teach one another how to build democratic, rank-and-file-led unions that can transform our and our coworkers’ lives at work, school, and beyond. Organizing committees, pre-recognition unions, and legally certified unions can come together to ask specific questions about our worksite and internal union organizing. Members of SWAN can propose ideas for specific workshops on different topics, and we can share lessons learned from our experiences and struggles.

Where institutional turnover of student workers at universities and colleges presents a challenge for our workplace organizing, this fact also presents a challenge for the continued growth and development of a national organization of student workers. If we are to grow our movement, on the shop floor, in our unions, and in our national organization, then we must take efforts to recruit our coworkers, activists, and worker leaders into higher levels of participation in the work. We bring our coworkers into activity one step at a time, closer and closer to the core, thereby ensuring that our unions are democratic, high participation organizations. We recruit our coworkers to our shop committees, to union leadership, and to participate in our national organization.

If there are barriers to participation in the leadership body of our national organization of student workers, we risk reproducing an organization of self-selecting activists who already agree with our socialist politics. If we are to develop the political consciousness of more of our coworkers and recruit them to our socialist political organization, there must be an open, permissive ability to step up into leadership in our shared struggle and national movement.

SWAN has the potential to become a mass organization of student workers. For both SWAN and YDSA to grow and strengthen requires a degree of independence between the two. This proto mass student-worker organization should move on the basis of a class-struggle program which is not ideologically socialist, and does not require adherence to a set of ideological principles in order to participate. 

YDSA members should organize within this mass, independent national organization of student workers to encourage its growth, build student-worker struggles around the country, develop relationships with leaders, activists, and organizers in SWAN and win student workers over to our vision of class struggle unionism. 

Demonstrating ourselves as some of the strongest and most committed organizers for the student-worker movement, empowering the leadership of our coworkers, and developing close relationships with worker-leaders around the country will be the basis upon which we can recruit members and leaders of the student-worker movement to socialist politics and YDSA. 

To win socialism requires winning masses of people to a vision of class struggle unionism and socialist politics. Paradoxically, the red unionist approach proposes this is best done by preventing workers who are not explicitly socialist (meaning, the vast majority of working people) from being leaders in the national network of student unions. Rather than winning ordinary people over to a positive vision of socialism, SWA’s current organizational model institutionalizes the leadership as a small group of socialists who are already union leaders, rather than orienting toward SWAN as something that should include masses of rank-and-file leaders, many of whom are not socialist.

A class-struggle union can articulate a positive, concrete vision for changes at work that would be transformative to the lives of us and our coworkers, a program. It is through the contestation between the working class and the capitalist class that we might struggle on our demands and win concessions from the boss. This experience is a school of socialism, and the limitations of the labor movement show us that we need a political expression of the working class: an independent workers party. As Marxists, our response to red unionism is that the rank-and-file strategy exists to rebuild working class organization, and our party-building work allows our labor movement to grow and merge with the socialist movement.

Building a mass, rank-and-file-led labor movement capable of taking on capitalism won’t be easy, but it’s the only option we have to confront the economic and social system that rules our daily lives. Vote for R12 unamended at convention to grow a movement of young socialists who are ready to rebuild the independent fighting capacity of the working class to win a democratic socialist world free from economic exploitation and social oppression.