YDSA’s Labor Strategy Should Be About Recruitment

Jacob W argues that YDSA’s labor strategy should be about convincing students and workers to become socialists rather than convincing socialists to change careers. YDSA needs a strategy that is regionally flexible & emphasizes outward facing organizing. This piece was originally republished in The Organizer.

One of the labor proposals passed at the 2019 YDSA convention posed important questions about the relationship of YDSA to the labor movement. The resolution “Recommit to the Rank and File Strategy” proposes to prioritize the industrialization, or mass entry of socialist cadre, of YDSA members into fields such as teaching, nursing, and logistics. This strategy hinges on convincing current YDSA members to enter into strategic industries through internal organizing. The DSA pamphlet “Why Socialists Should Become Teachers” sets out to explicitly convince socialists of the need to industrialize and as a result presumes the audience of the pamphlet to already be committed socialists. 

The need for a militant labor movement full of rank-and-file socialists is essential, but prioritizing internal organizing over external recruitment is a mistake. The social function of school is largely to prepare people for work, making it a prime battleground for fledgling socialist organizing. It is more strategic to convince workers-in-training to become socialists, than it is to convince socialists to change their careers. This should make recruitment of new socialists the primary objective of a labor strategy. 

In the past year the YDSA labor committee was entirely inactive, highlighting weaknesses within the organization. Today we have to carefully think about how we can best move forward to advance our goals of a powerful labor movement. While the rank-and-file strategy starts from this perspective, it diverges in how to do it, focusing on building a militant minority, rather than seeking to wield the power of the working class with the majority. If YDSA is going to be a factor in the labor movement for years to come, it cannot stay a minority on campuses. Instead it needs to recruit and grow.

The rank-and-file strategy correctly identifies college students as being in a position of making job decisions with the socialist movement in mind. It’s no secret that college serves as a platform to gain the credentials to be employed, and for the elite a means of reproducing their class position. But by identifying the purpose of college as training future workers, the rank-and-file strategy in YDSA starts at one of the origins of working-class people’s careers.

For jobs like nursing, teaching, and tech work, extra-credentialing is needed beyond the undergraduate degree. Compared with a current student, a person ten years out of school is less likely to go back through additional years of training to become a nurse. Even as singular careers become increasingly rare, the financial limitations of going back to school to start a new path poses a serious challenge to the rank-and-file strategy as DSA’s primary labor strategy.

So, while YDSA may be in a better position than DSA to get socialists to become teachers, nurses, etc., the rank-and-file strategy as an internal organizing project still shows serious limitations at the student level. YDSA has grown significantly in the last few years, but still represents a tiny minority of students on even small and medium-sized campuses. YDSA grew again as the Bernie campaign galvanized more and more students to seek out democratic socialist ideas and class-based organizing approaches. But the ability of chapters to direct members to specific careers is unlikely to become realizable anytime soon.  

Reforming the labor movement in the long term requires winning millions of workers over to socialism, simultaneously preparing them to take control of their own unions, while wielding the power of the union for broader class struggle. The rank-and-file strategy as it exists now seeks to create a militant minority that can be a vanguard for the rest of the workers in a given union or union local. Proponents of internal organizing as the focus of rank-and-file point to events like the West Virginia teachers’ strike. Eric Blanc proposes in his book “Red State Revolt” that the strike’s growth was facilitated by a few socialists. 

Others point to the inception of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), a reform caucus started in part by socialists. CORE, which currently leads the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), navigated that union to victory during a strike less than a year ago. While we must not discount these success stories, the idea that they are replicable across the country misreads local conditions. We need far more socialists working in strategic industries or preparing to do so. But, as with much of socialist strategy, we shouldn’t count on a minority victory, but rather organize to win the majority.

More broadly, college students overwhelmingly supported Bernie Sanders for president. Students identified climate change, stagnant wages, healthcare, and jobs as priority issues, and responded accordingly to Sanders’ platform. The task of moving the hundreds or thousands of working-class students on campus from voting for a democratic socialist to organizing for socialism is the primary task of YDSA today. This is something that can be done through shared struggle, political education, and explicitly targeting certain sections of the student population for recruitment. Crucially, our job is to provide our fellow students and workers with the organizing skills and political education necessary to confront the challenges facing our class today and into the future.

The University of Virginia (UVa) has what amounts to three trade schools that train the nursing, teaching, and logistics workers that the rank-and-file strategy revolves around. If we look at the conditions of the campus, we can see how merely attempting to get current members to go into strategic industries is insufficient to the task of affecting the labor movement. The most obvious way to ensure that more socialists are teachers, nurses, and logistics workers is not to ask the handful of students in YDSA to change their major and enroll in a different program, but to focus on recruiting those already seeking to enter into those careers. In short, YDSA chapters should prioritize growth, and this includes bringing future nurses, teachers, and logistic workers directly into our movement.

There are about 680 people training to be nurses at UVa who we could be engaging with and recruiting from directly. In discussions with multiple future and current nurses within the University hospital system, I’ve found that many didn’t even know that nurses unions exist! We need a strategy that analyzes and realistically engages with real material conditions on campuses around the country; one that can introduce unionism and socialism to large numbers of future nurses and other workers.

Encouragingly, there is plenty of evidence that future nurses and doctors are already thinking about democratic socialist politics. When YDSA at UVa did a rapid response action around our hospital’s abhorrent debt-collection practices, we discovered a newly formed group of medical students and nursing students focused on Medicare for All. As we develop more robust political education and take action related to medical debt on campus, there’s an opportunity to ask those students to join YDSA, and help put them on a path to joining unions, or organizing their new shops. This isn’t a matter of YDSA sending its current membership into strategic sectors, it’s about prioritizing resources to recruit and develop the political skills of future workers in these sectors.

There are two groups of future teachers at UVa: students enrolled in the School of Education who are already seeking accelerated teaching certificates and other certifications, and those earning undergraduate degrees outside the educational field but who are considering becoming teachers later. Each group requires a distinct approach when considering the mechanics of recruitment. For example, students of the latter group have no centralized location and are spread out across campus, whereas those in the former group have multiple buildings that would be obvious targets for flyering, tabling, and events.

Still, the variety of routes students take to become teachers makes it a bit more flexible than nursing. There are about 800 students at the School of Education getting a variety of degrees. This means there are more people at UVa that already plan to become teachers than there are in YDSA. Gearing chapter programs around recruitment of these students so that they become socialists is much better than the scatter shot method of giving each member of YDSA a pamphlet about “Why Socialists Should Become Teachers.” 

Moreover, campaigns should also speak to the conditions of these students as students, many of whom face immediate challenges with tuition, healthcare, and housing. Radicalization often comes during high periods of struggle. YDSA is in a position around the country to organize for university-wide demands, while engaging with different groups of students as current and future workers.

Finally, although the logistics sector represents a broader spectrum of jobs compared to nursing or teaching, YDSA can still orient ourselves to students entering the field if we pursue a smart recruitment strategy, instead of trying to enter and direct activity from within the field ourselves. Logistics includes anyone from warehouse workers to truck drivers, to tech workers responsible for planning and executing production and distribution. Most industrial logistics training is ignored by colleges, whereas tech workers are considered hot commodities.

Like most schools across the country, UVa has a computer science program clearly meant to train the next generation of tech workers. Additionally, the University received a 120 million dollar donation from a billionaire to establish a School of Data Science, a relatively new and unique institution that could be ripe for organizing. We see time and time again that tech companies use the labor of workers to support and expand the day-to-day operations of racialized policing, ICE, and U.S. imperialism. Injecting socialist politics into these fields and educational programs, therefore, is essential to building a powerful working class movement that can combat oppression in all its forms.

Many future workers are required by their degree program to take some humanities courses, but as we explain in the impetus of the resolution on “Comprehensive Political Education” for YDSA, neoliberalized universities avoid ever introducing students to Marxist concepts of labor and capital regardless of discipline. YDSA can step up to fill that void, and offer an alternative way for future tech workers to understand their social position and common interests within the working class.

Moreover, the tech industry has lower rates of unionization compared with many industries, and certainly much less union density than nursing and teaching. We will have to prepare future tech workers to not only be familiar with class politics, but also to be able to organize themselves–a task that the rank-and-file strategy entirely ignores. 

Already we are seeing successes at schools around the country with the #NoTechForICE campaign. Palantir, a company that helps ICE track and detain undocumented people, has been faced with mounting resistance. At Georgia Tech 293 students have pledged not to work for Palantir. The seeds of workplace organizing already exist on campuses, extending from these class-consciousness-raising campaigns. Why then should we abandon a more organic, contemporary form of labor organizing in favor of a narrowly manufactured one?

Of course, there are many ways to pursue a more effective labor strategy at the YDSA level. Programs could include creating a pipeline to help members get jobs, as well as truly expanding DSA labor work to include systematic approaches to organizing the unorganized and training members to organize their workplace. CPN’s labor proposal from the 2019 DSA National Convention–supported by an overwhelming majority of delegates–offers a realistic and ambitious roadmap for labor work. The recently-elected Democratic Socialist Labor Commission (DSLC) Steering Committee should prioritize the CPN proposal over recapitulating the rank-and-file strategy, which barely passed Convention with a razor-thin margin. 

The campus terrain lends itself to training a new generation of socialist organizers and unionists. To do this, we need to eschew non-specific strategy in favor of a strong national organization, and build YDSA chapters capable of waging struggles that win the trust and support of the working class on their campus. Our chapters should assess the conditions on their campuses, make recruitment a deliberate and targeted practice, and begin acting as a mass organization. YDSA can win the trust of future nurses, teachers, and logistic workers through local struggles, while continuing political education programs that prepare these students for lives in the labor movement. The outcomes we need won’t come from a prefigurative grand strategy, but from building strong chapters and winning the support of the majority of students on respective campuses.

Socialists who automatically concede to being a minority are doomed to fail. The Sanders campaign won over an overwhelming majority of college age students, signaling that our path towards a majority exists. Rather than prioritizing a labor strategy that explicitly aims to keep us in the minority, we have to grow so that one day we can wield the power of the working class as a majoritarian socialist movement. Building a powerful labor movement runs alongside the expansion of the socialist movement in general, thus the only way forward is through steady, strategic recruitment.

Jacob W is a student and member of the University of Virginia chapter of Young Democratic Socialists of America in Charlottesville, VA.

Want to support The Activist and help build a mass working-class movement by and for student socialists? Become a YDSA member today! YDSA members: we want to hear from you! Find out how to submit your work to The Activist here.