National Labor Committee members Cyn Huang and Dahlia Wilson argue that YDSA should invest more resources into its rank-and-file pipeline in order to unleash the strategic power of the working class and win socialism.
What is the Rank-and-File Strategy, and What Does it Have to Do With YDSA?
Both DSA and YDSA have made the rank-and-file strategy an organizational priority in recent years. The rank-and-file strategy is based on an analysis of society that recognizes the importance of the working class to socialist change. The key idea underlying the rank-and-file strategy is that, in order to win socialism, we first have to rebuild the militant layer of dedicated and trusted leaders in the labor movement, especially in strategic sectors, such as logistics, education, and healthcare.
The rank-and-file strategy is a response to two urgent problems, the latter being unique to contemporary American socialists: first, the relative political weakness of the working class, and, second, the separation between socialists and organized labor. While the working class has strength in numbers, it is not yet in a position to act collectively on a mass scale. Even if some workers are defending themselves and their immediate interests against their bosses, this does not necessarily translate into a socialist majority, which must be built through robust political education and independent political organizing with the rank-and-file.
YDSA, arguably, has the most important role in reorienting the socialist movement toward the rank-and-file because members are in formative periods of their lives and are open to the possibility of dedicating their careers to class struggle. As an organization, YDSA can provide its members with the tools, training, and networks necessary to pursue the rank-and-file strategy. In fact, many YDSAers are already pursuing the tactic of taking up rank-and-file jobs in strategic sectors –– in part because of the work of the National Labor Committee.
YDSA’s Engagement with the Rank-and-File Strategy Through the Years
In previous years, the rank-and-file strategy was a YDSA priority in name only. Those who have been in the organization for a couple years know that, early on (and still now), YDSA was plagued with too many unnecessary structures and capacity issues that made it impossible to pursue the rank-and-file strategy in earnest. That began to change this past year when YDSA voted to drastically revise its national infrastructure and formed the National Labor Committee (NLC), which was tasked with the creation of a Rank-and-File Pipeline.
The progress that the NLC made over this past year –– especially considering that the Committee started out with only six members –– is nothing short of remarkable. The Labor Committee was able to survey a large portion of YDSA membership and identify around 75 members interested in taking up rank-and-file jobs in strategic sectors and 30 more members who were open to the possibility of doing so. The NLC also hosted national interest calls and a Jobs Fair to teach YDSAers about the rank-and-file strategy and to build excitement around the prospect of working and organizing in education, logistics, or healthcare.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the NLC was the Rank-and-File School, which has run for a total of two semesters (or eight sessions) to date and has drawn in hundreds of participants, 65 of whom have been recurring students. The first two semesters of Rank-and-File School involved presentations from labor movement veterans, paired with discussions and activities in breakout rooms. The school delivered a theoretical understanding of the rank and file strategy and history of the labor movement, practical skills (such as membership mapping and one-on-one organizing conversations), and formed connections between YDSA members who can offer each other support as they pursue the rank and file strategy in the years to come.
The need for staff
Some of these efforts have been immensely successful, such as the national calls, which received massive turnout, and the Rank-and-Rile School, which attendees thoroughly enjoyed and is beginning its second semester. Other aspects, however, require time beyond what volunteers alone are able to provide. Recruiting and training mentors to support students taking union jobs, and speakers to visit YDSA chapters, fell short due to the amount of time needed to identify and train high-quality, experienced organizers. Following the rank-and-file schools, we are seeking to form cohorts of students going into shared industries and pair up mentors with mentees, which requires coordinating people by region, industry, interest, and stage in school or work on a scale beyond the capacity of the NLC. These are very important tasks that will require staff support.
The need for more YDSA staff goes beyond the individual projects that fall behind due to the shortage. YDSA is a democratic organization that decides its priorities each year with its highest decision-making body: the convention delegation. Last year, we voted to recommit to the rank-and-file strategy and build out this pipeline. Some parts of it have been immensely successful but others have struggled due to limited staff support. We must be able to follow through on the goals we set for ourselves; that is our democratic mandate.
Short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals for the pipeline
In the next several months, the NLC aims to carry out the second semester of Rank-and-File School, create cohorts of students planning on entering the same strategic industry, and recruit experienced mentors and speakers. Following that, we aim to begin sending out our speakers to YDSA chapters, pair students graduating school who are committed to the rank-and-file strategy with mentors to support them as they enter their industry, and grow the size and capacity of the NLC. Many of our long-term goals focus around creating a comprehensive rank-and-file pipeline that delivers political education around the strategy through mass calls and speakers deployed to individual chapters; intensive rank-and-file schools to prepare current students to take on workplace organizing; and a tightly-knit group of cohorts and mentors to allow students to industrialize together with the massive amount of support needed for success.
How can we measure our success?
The rank-and-file strategy is a long road to reviving the labor movement and winning socialism. Wins will not be immediate. Some critics say that the rank-and-file strategy can’t be disproven because it doesn’t produce results.
However, we can measure our success both quantitatively (such as the number of people surveyed or attending mass calls, the number of mentors recruited and mentees matched with them, the number of YDSA members entering strategic industries and organizing on the shop floor, and ultimately, union density and the number of rank-and file-led strikes) and qualitatively (the political development of YDSA members, the quality of rank-and-file schools and mass calls, the democratic engagement of union members, the character of strikes, and the development of the rank-and-file-led labor movement).
An Expanded Rank-and-File Pipeline is Necessary to Win Socialism
It is difficult to overstate how much more practically committed YDSA has been to the rank-and-file strategy this year compared to previous years. Before, YDSAers were largely pursuing the rank-and-file strategy as individuals. Without institutional support, they were operating in isolation, learning about the sectors that they would be working in and the organizational skills they needed on their own time.
Today, with a couple months of experience in building out the rank-and-file pipeline, YDSAers have an inkling of what a fully developed pipeline –– what a wholehearted organizational commitment to the rank-and-file strategy –– looks like. YDSA is capable of systematically developing cohorts of young, open-minded students, who have yet to learn about the all-important role of labor in building socialism, into future leaders on the shop floor who are capable of not only enlisting their coworkers in struggle but also tying their local, economic battles into larger political fights and the movement for socialism.
The rank-and-file pipeline offers the kind of preparation that socialists need to revitalize and imbue the labor movement with socialist consciousness. Bosses’ days are numbered if YDSA is funneling cohort after cohort of trained socialist labor organizers into the workforce. Thus, as an organization, we need to double down on our commitment to the rank-and-file strategy; we can start by passing the NLC-sponsored resolution to expand the rank-and-file pipeline.
Want to support The Activist and help build a mass working-class movement by and for student socialists? Become a YDSA member today!