Students and Strikes: Why YDSA Needs the Rank and File Strategy

University of Virginia YDSA’s Griffin M argues that the Rank and File Strategy is crucial for understanding how student socialists should relate to the labor movement. A response to YDSA’s Labor Strategy Should Be About Recruitment.

The rank-and-file strategy is about building a militant, left-wing, and democratic labor movement. Wherever workers are striking, socialists should stand with them. When workers create reform movements within their unions, socialists should support them. And when socialists themselves are in unions, they should push their unions to strike against the boss, raise class-wide demands, and organize the unorganized. Our central focus should be identifying and developing a layer of rank-and-file leaders who can organize in the workplace on a day-to-day basis (from Resolution 32 passed at the 2019 DSA Convention).

Jake W, a member of YDSA at UVA and the Collective Power Network caucus (CPN), recently wrote an article arguing that the rank-and-file strategy should not be YDSA’s labor strategy. Instead, he suggests that YDSA chapters should recruit more members from the college programs that prepare students to work in strategic sectors. But this is not a labor strategy; it is a recruitment or outreach strategy. And while Jake concedes the usefulness of the rank-and-file strategy at some points, he mischaracterizes it throughout as being primarily about getting socialists to take rank-and-file union jobs, sometimes called “industrializing.”

But the rank-and-file strategy in YDSA is not just about industrializing after finishing school. It’s also an analysis of the labor movement that our members should carry with them throughout their lives. Some labor leaders won’t support socialist candidates, demands like Medicare for All, or invest in organizing new workers. Others may reject internal democracy or be willing to accept management control of the workplace in the form of speed-ups and “tiered” workplaces without much opposition. Shying away from the class struggle like this is called “business unionism,” and in order to win socialism, we must overcome business unionism.

Throughout the article, Jake provides helpful suggestions regarding how best to strategically recruit new members to YDSA. Unfortunately, his piece continues a pattern of CPN arguing against a strawman version of the rank-and-file strategy and not advancing much of a distinct strategy of their own. While he misrepresents and criticizes the rank-and-file strategy, his vision for strategic growth is completely compatible with it.

Jake writes that we should work to recruit more future nurses and teachers to become YDSA members. It’s hard to disagree with this; we should try to get as many people as possible to join YDSA, and we need to think about who to reach out to first. But once those students do become nurses and teachers, how should they relate to other socialists in their workplace, with their coworkers, and toward the class struggle in general?

By calling a strategy for targeted growth and political education a labor strategy, he obscures the need to answer these sorts of questions. If everything we do to grow our organization and develop our class consciousness is a labor strategy, then we never have to tackle the specific question of how we best rebuild a fighting labor movement. This is what the rank-and-file strategy attempts to answer.

Jake writes that the rank-and-file strategy “seeks to create a militant minority that can be a vanguard for the rest of the workers in a given union or union local.” This is a misinterpretation of the rank-and-file strategy, the original version of which can be read in full here

The “militant minority” is not a small group of socialists who simply seek to win union elections or propagandize, which was the approach taken by some groups who required their members to industrialize in the 1970s. Rather, the concept of the militant minority refers to the objective fact that usually only a portion of workers are politically active in the workplace. There are already organic leaders in the labor movement, and the rank-and-file strategy suggests that socialists should unite with them in order to revitalize union democracy and turn unions into vehicles of working-class struggle. By identifying and working with these leaders, we can strive for more workers active in workplace struggles and in their unions, strengthening workers’ numbers into a majority and developing working-class confidence. The connection between socialists and the labor movement was responsible for working-class victories in the past, and has already shown itself to be the basis for a revitalized class politics in the U.S.

Socialists in the labor movement can and should fight for their unions to organize more workers and take up class-wide demands. In fact, Jake mentions the Chicago teachers’ strikes and West Virginia walkouts, in which organized socialists initially played an outsized role, as “success stories.” These actions weren’t a few socialists parachuting in and raising radical slogans out-of-the-blue. Workers — guided by the principles of shop-floor democracy and building majorities — campaigned on deeply felt issues.

The historical problems that the rank-and-file strategy addresses are 1) the relative political weakness of the working class and 2) the separation between the socialist movement and the working class. We know that the working class constitutes a majority of society, but it hasn’t yet expressed that fact politically. And while there is a tendency for workers to defend themselves against bosses, this doesn’t automatically translate into socialist politics. A socialist majority does not exist ready-made; it has to be built. 

We don’t control the conditions that cause people to go to college. We can, however, have some say with each other, as comrades, about how we best contribute to the socialist movement. Why else would we dedicate extra hours per week to DSA if we did not think that we have to incorporate being a socialist organizer into our lives in a serious way? The rank-and-file strategy proposes one path: to rebuild the labor movement, socialists need to be constantly oriented toward building rank-and-file power. One of the best ways YDSAers can do this is by getting jobs in a strategic sector near them, where they can then organize on the clock. It is true that convincing our comrades to change the course of their life is difficult. But is it any less ridiculous to believe that the working class ought to govern society?

Jake is correct when he says we shouldn’t just pursue a “scatter shot method” of providing YDSAers with pamphlets. Instead, we should develop a more systematic approach, like building out a national rank-and-file pipeline, which he supports. Bread and Roses YDSA members will be proposing exactly such a resolution for this summer’s convention. Resolutions in support of the rank-and-file strategy passed at the 2018 and 2019 YDSA Conventions, and though it’s correct that YDSA’s Labor Committee was inactive this last year, this is an organizational problem of capacity that has affected most of our national committees.

Students who don’t know what they want to do with their lives should consider committing themselves to the labor movement. But many of our members and potential members are already planning on going into strategic industries. The goal of YDSA’s rank-and-file strategy should be to provide them with the tools, training, and networks they’ll need to be workplace militants long after their time in YDSA.

There is no opposition between reaching out to students who will end up working in strategic industries and convincing our current members that they ought to get strategic jobs after graduation. We can table and flyer outside of the nursing and education buildings during the day and discuss which industries in our respective local areas are most strategic at night. 

Struggle can change people’s political outlooks. And shared experiences make it easier to talk to a peer about politics than to introduce a stranger to socialism. Whether we’re studying or working — in the classroom preparing to be a nurse or in a hospital — socialists are best positioned to make the case for our vision alongside fellow workers.

Griffin M is a member of YDSA at University of Virginia and the Bread and Roses caucus of DSA.

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