For R12: Which Way for the Student Worker Movement?

How to best relate to different sections of the labor movement has always been a critical question for socialists. Supporters of Resolution 12 argue that the unamended version of their resolution offers YDSA the best path forward in relation to the undergraduate student-worker movement. 


As socialists, we know that the working class is central in the fight to overturn capitalism and build socialism. Workers are at the center of our politics because only they have the combination of interest and capacity to fight the capitalist class and lead the movement against a system that prevents us all from being truly free.

But our generation of the Left has two big problems: socialists have been separated from the working class, and working-class organizations like labor unions have been decimated. As socialists, our answer to these problems is to rebuild the labor movement from the bottom-up, and merge that bottom-up movement with the politics of socialism.

At its convention this year, YDSA has the opportunity to recommit itself to a merger strategy that’s already bearing fruit. “Resolution 12: Recommitting YDSA to the Rank-and-File Strategy,” written by members of Bread & Roses’s youth section, will scale up YDSA’s labor work to meet the moment by building class-struggle unions on our campuses and channeling skilled organizers into key unions and industries.

The rank-and-file strategy is the idea that socialists should orient themselves to the layer of rank-and-file leaders in any workplace or industry, and build power and organization starting at the shop floor. In 2022-23, YDSA chapters used the rank-and-file strategy to organize undergraduate labor unions of thousands of workers and get big wins through militant, class-struggle tactics.

R12, written by organizers with on-the-ground experience in the student labor movement, extends YDSA’s rank-and-file strategy by building up our national labor infrastructure in the form of the Youth Labor Committee (YLC).

R12 also clarifies our approach to the student labor movement. The success of YDSA members in building student labor unions has led some in our organization to advocate a strategy of “red unionism,” or what Hal Draper called “leftist dual unionism,” limiting participation in a leadership body of the student-worker movement to those already politicized as socialists. By excluding non-socialists from leadership, supporters of red unionism hope to guarantee that unions will start off radical and stay that way. 

But merging the socialist movement with the working class isn’t so simple. Our alternative to red unionism is democratic, class-struggle unionism that seeks to organize all workers in a workplace, regardless of whether or not they agree with us about socialism.

Our resolution proposes a clear path forward for YDSA’s labor strategy. Two proposed amendments to the resolution, on the other hand, risk setting back our progress. One endorses red unionism, while the other seems to discourage socialists from doing any union work at all. This article, by a coauthor of R12, explains why YDSA convention delegates should reject both.

Building the Student Worker Alliance

In 2021-22 the YLC brought YDSA chapters engaged in labor campaigns together into a “labor campaign cohort” organized by veterans of successful campaigns at Kenyon College, Columbia University, and elsewhere. The cohort project was reinforced by the 2022 YDSA Convention’s decision to take up the rank-and-file strategy, with a new emphasis on moving beyond solidarity campaigns to directly organizing undergraduate workers into unions.

In fall 2022, undergraduate union organizers brought together by the YLC cohort began communicating independently of the cohort, and in winter launched a new organization, the Student Worker Alliance (SWA), to serve as a connecting structure, or proto-federation, of undergraduate student worker unions.

At this point, political differences in SWA began to emerge. At issue was the organization’s mission: would SWA try to unite undergraduate unions together on a class-struggle basis? Or would it seek to form unions on a “socialist” basis? In February, the group ratified a Principles and Commitments document that took the latter position, stating that “our labor movement must be explicitly socialist.”

In April, SWA was subdivided into two bodies, SWA and the Student Worker Alliance Network (SWAN). SWA became the organizing committee tasked with leading and developing SWAN, the latter a “project of SWA” structured as a “network” for union activists. To participate in SWA as a voting member, individuals must agree with the Principles and Commitments document. In other words, SWA is now restricted to socialists.

R12 criticizes this decision. Mandating political litmus tests for SWA revives an old, failed strategy for socialists in the labor movement: red unionism, which substitutes self-selected organizations of radicals for structure-based organizations of workers. 

R12 calls for YDSA to reject red unionism and instead recommit to the rank-and-file strategy. The resolution doesn’t prescribe policy to SWA, an organization independent from YDSA, but rather provides guidance to YDSA members building the student labor movement and its organizations, including SWA, as they work to carry out the rank-and-file strategy.

Amendment R12-2: Political tests for union leaders?

Two amendments to R12 have been proposed. Each significantly alters the base resolution, though in different ways. “Amendment R12-2”, authored by YDSA national co-chair Leena Yumeen, makes several major changes to the base resolution’s discussion of SWA/SWAN. The amendment removes our discussion of SWA’s use of the Principles and Commitments document as a political test for membership, as well as our critique of this policy as an example of red unionism, and rewrites each section with new language.

The amendment correctly identifies a risk in the student labor movement: top-down unions like the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) and United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) organizing workers into low-participation, staff-driven organizations, bargaining weak contracts, and discouraging strikes. We agree completely that business unionism is a threat – but the tactics of red unionism aren’t suitable to fight it.

Red unionism in this context means ensuring that socialists are at the head of the undergraduate labor movement via a political test. But how is a policy that limits participation in leadership to a small subset of worker activists — a policy that selects for ideological agreement, not demonstrated leadership ability— supposed to encourage high-participation, rank-and-file unionism?

The criterion for leadership in a union isn’t that you have all the right ideas. It’s that you can lead your coworkers to take on the boss. While it is very often the case that the best organic leaders in a workplace may have an affinity for socialist politics, their leadership is more often the cause of their political development, not the other way around.

Those organic leaders don’t put political conditions on their solidarity. Instead, they meet coworkers where they’re at, identifying their issues and building the organization and power needed to win on those issues. Beating the boss takes supermajority support, and we don’t get to pick and choose our coworkers.

So is there a special role for self-identified socialists in the student labor movement? Yes! The amendment authors put it well:

SWA’s second impact, beyond intervening in the spread of business unionism within the undergraduate labor movement, has been to advocate for those class-struggle unions to take on fights that extend beyond the shop floor. By committing to anti-imperialist, anti-sexist, and anti-racist principles, lead organizers of SWA have appealed to a base of undergraduate student workers who have been radicalized by the aforementioned issues outside of their workplaces and see labor organizing as a tool to be leveraged to win mass change on campuses. [Emphasis added]

We agree. Socialists have a special role in the movement because we have a special commitment and conviction that often makes us the most dedicated organizers, and because our ideas illuminate the dimensions of class struggle beyond the workplace, extending to the whole working class and capitalist society in general.

In the student labor movement, whether in our unions or in organizations of workers and unions like SWA, it’s our task to push for a class-struggle orientation — that is, one that leads the union to fight on a class-wide basis, not just for sectional gains for some workers over others. 

Practically, this means leading our unions to take up fights that spill out beyond the workplace into the university and community: struggles over tuition and debt, getting cops off campus, decarbonizing and divesting from fossil fuels, standing in solidarity with Palestine, and guaranteeing student rights to reproductive healthcare.

But this raises a question. Once they’re on the shop floor, how can socialists work together to have the greatest effect? The obvious answer is to form a group with some kind of shared platform — in other words, a self-selected organization, however formal or informal, with a political test for membership. 

This type of organization of socialists, once formed, is self-evidently not the same thing as a labor union, though every member might also be part of a labor union, or even the same union.

It’s also different from union reform caucuses and industry networks like those facilitated by Labor Notes. These groups, such as the United Caucuses of Rank and File Educators (UCORE), are independent organizations of rank-and-file workers dedicated to democratic reform in their unions. They include socialists but only as part of the broader “militant minority” in a given union or industry.

By contrast, organizations of socialists in a given workplace or industry, like the national network of DSA Teamsters at UPS, are more selective and may require membership in a socialist organization, like DSA.

Similarly, a YDSA chapter organizing student workers can make a special committee or informal structure to coordinate YDSA salts in different campus workplaces, and eventually (depending on conditions) an open caucus within the union. YDSA members organizing within SWA/SWAN could even form a socialist caucus for rank-and-file student workers organizing within SWAN who are also members of YDSA.

The authors of R12-2 seem to believe that SWA should be an organization of socialists for the whole student worker movement. But setting up SWA in this way means constructing, in effect, a parallel socialist organization with an ambiguous relationship to YDSA and the YLC. We, on the other hand, believe that YDSA can and should be the political home of young socialists involved with the student labor movement — indeed, it already is.

We don’t need SWA to organize the work of socialists in the student labor movement, because YDSA can already play that role. Instead, what we need is precisely “an organization of unions aiming to consolidate a class-struggle unionist approach” for the student labor movement, as SWA leaders themselves put it in the April resolution.

Amendment 12-1: Socialism without “political stances?”

Amendment R12-1”, authored by Andrew Basta, is in some ways the inverse of the second. Rather than endorse active participation to build SWA/SWAN, it rejects it entirely. And rather than endorse setting up a parallel organization of socialists in the form of SWA, it insists on the priority of building YDSA, even to the apparent detriment of union work.

The amendment strikes the final clause of the original resolution, which recommends that YDSA members work to build SWA and “reorient it into a body with open participation for workers.” R12-1 replaces this language with the following text:

YDSA recognizes the Student Worker Alliance Network (SWAN) and the Student Worker Alliance (SWA) as separate organizations with their own decision-making structures and membership. YDSA encourages chapters, when strategic, to organize in coalition with SWAN or SWA, and will not take a stance on their political direction. YDSA chapters and members engaged in Student Worker [sic] organizing are encouraged to prioritize recruiting members to Y/DSA over other organizations, including SWAN or SWA. [Emphasis added]

Notice how this paragraph frames the relationship between YDSA members and union structures like SWAN or SWA. The picture drawn here is one of inter-organizational relationships (“coalition”) between chapters and unions – not one of socialists rooted in both their political organization and their union (or union federation).

In other words, the amendment seems to assume that socialists are always outside the working class — and, more importantly, that they should stay that way. This comes through in its recommendation that YDSA members should “not take a stance on [the] political direction” of SWA/SWAN. Instead, YDSA members are encouraged to prioritize recruiting to YDSA, rather than SWA/SWAN.

These changes would be no less significant for the direction of YDSA’s labor strategy than those advanced in R12-2. In fact, if followed to their logical conclusion, the proposals in R12-1 would make it impossible to do any socialist work in unions whatsoever.

Let’s assume that this language is rooted in a more general political principle and doesn’t solely concern YDSA’s policy on the specific question of SWA/SWAN. Consider what this would imply. Socialists in YDSA who are part of any “separate organization” like  a union, a community group, or a social movement organization, should (a) prioritize recruiting to YDSA, and (b) abstain from “political” involvement in the life of that group.

The amendment retains the base resolution’s simple affirmation that socialists should “build and work within” their unions. But where does “building the union” end and “taking a stance on political direction” begin? If union leaders negotiate a concessionary contract, or sabotage a strike, or take bribes from the boss, is a socialist in the rank-and-file supposed to hold their tongue?

Moreover, how is this supposed to build YDSA? Why should a worker in a union be inclined to join up with a socialist so disengaged from the life of the union that they refrain from participation in decisions about collective strategy, i.e. its “political direction?” 

This formula sees mass organizations of working people as mainly recruiting grounds for socialist organizations. Of course we believe that YDSA members should recruit their coworkers to YDSA. But the best way to do this is to first be among the most dedicated builders and defenders of the union (or other working-class organization). This, in turn, is absolutely inseparable from taking “political” stands on the union’s strategy and direction.

Finally, the amendment’s decision to strike our language recognizing the “strategic importance” of SWA/SWAN, like its attitude on “political stances,” is misguided. Despite our disagreements with the authors of R12-2, we each recognize that SWA/SWAN has great potential and that socialists have an obligation to build it into a true mass organization.

On the other hand, R12-1 would have us all abstain from the hard — and yes, political — work involved in building a powerful mass organization of student workers. For this reason, R12-1 would be even more consequential for YDSA’s labor strategy than R12-2. It should be rejected, decisively.

SWA/SWAN is still a young organization. Now is the time to set the course for its growth in the future. If socialists are going to build it into the mass organization it can become, we must avoid the twin traps of red unionism and apolitical abstentionism.