We Need a Rank-and-File Labor Insurgency from Below

by Dan La Botz


In the DSA’s “Talking Union” Carl Goldman and Kurt Stand argue against the National Political Committee (NPC) statement that calls for “the absolute necessity of a bottom-up left insurgency within the house of labor.” They argue that “Socialists must try to work with all levels of the union movement.” And they insist that the DSA statement “ignores… and disparages the work of unionists at every level of the labor movement who have been keeping the union movement alive.”

I argue here that their position would lead DSA union members and the organization as a whole to simply follow the labor bureaucracy and the Democratic Party down a road leading to the virtual disappearance of unions in America.

The fundamental weakness of the Goldman-Stand perspective is that it lacks an analysis of the nature of the American labor unions and of the labor bureaucracy. The top union leadership constitutes a caste within the labor unions. Many of its top leaders make salaries reaching well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Take Gerald McEntee, recent past president of the American Federation of State Country and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), for example. By the time of his retirement, he was making over one million dollars per year, a staggering amount that put him among the highest paid officials in the labor movement. In the Teamsters union one official makes over $400,000 per year; half a dozen make over $300,000; and 35 officials make over $200,000 per year. Compare this to the average Teamster wage of $48,000 per year.

In many cases, the top union officials are the 1% of the labor movement. (We’re not talking here, of course, about the officers of a small local unions or elected union stewards, but about the big shots in the unions.)

High-level union officials and workers also have very different work and social lives. Workers go to work doing manual or mental labor under the eye of the boss, often under pressure to work harder and faster, sometimes in unhealthy and unsafe conditions, often harassed, and subject to discipline and firing. Union officials, on the other hand, often become bosses themselves overseeing both union employees and the workers they are supposed to represent. Officials have expense accounts, automobiles, often enjoy their own health and pension plans with golden parachutes and other perks. These officials consequently do not have the same interests as the workers. This bureaucratic caste of union officials at the highest levels tends to seek stability in its relationships with corporations and government in order to protect its own position. The union officialdom, by and large, has not, as Goldman and Stand suggest, “kept the movement alive” over the last 40 years. Deeply conflict averse, it has presided over labor’s decline and if not challenged will see to its demise.

In our capitalist system, labor unions have the potential to work for employers to contain and control workers, but they also have the potential to mobilize workers and lead them in a struggle against the bosses. With ties to both the bosses and the workers, union officials generally vacillate between the two and act in the workers’ best interest when there is a powerful grassroots movement from below pushing them to do so. In the absence of meaningful pressure from below, union officials have largely failed to mobilize workers and have instead collaborated with employers in the closing of manufacturing plants in the United States. Union leaders have also accepted the introduction of automation, the creation of new forms of work organization that disempower workers, and the shifting of health care costs onto the workers’ shoulders.

Under the current union leadership as a whole we have had the lowest level of class struggle in America since the 1920s, with very few large or lengthy strikes. Why? Because for decades, when workers began to organize on the shop floor and threaten economic action, most union officials could be counted on to join with employers in invoking collective bargaining language that forbids strikes during the life of the contract.

Union officials of all stripes—conservative, liberal, or progressive—often come to the conclusion that because of their privileged position, with ties to both the bosses and the workers, as well as to the Democratic Party (sometimes the Republican Party) and to government agencies, that they know what’s best for working people. Compromise often seems the best course of action to them, because they have little faith in workers’ ability to fight the employer and fear a defeat. And they know that an actual mobilization of workers could lead to class struggle, which in turn could lead to the development of new leaders with new ideas who might aspire to their positions. Since they fear worker mobilization, the labor officialdom tends to look to the Democratic Party to solve their problems for them.

Don’t some unions take progressive positions on diversity issues? Yes. Most unions now recognize the need for allies among Blacks, Latinos, immigrants, women, and LGBTQ people — largely as a result of the changing demographics of the working class, but also because of the unions’ weakness. But union leaders most often want to use those alliances as political leverage in the Democratic Party in order to pass legislation so they can avoid direct conflicts with employers over wages, benefits, working conditions. Whether top union leaders liked Trump, Clinton, or Sanders, it was often for the same motive: they want someone else to get the unions out of this mess.

The real divide in the labor movement then is not between conservative, liberals, and progressives, but fundamentally between the bureaucracy and the rank-and-file. What this means is that rank-and-file workers must frequently fight their own union officials in order to take on the boss. That’s why we need rank-and-file movements, movements that often begin as a militant minority among workers in a particular workplace, union or industry.

But the rank-and file movement also needs a political vision, a notion of an alternative to the system we face today. This may not be an explicitly socialist vision, but we need to project a vision for a union, a workplace, and society where workers can exercise power and democratically set the agenda for the future.

Do we have an example? The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) shows us one model. A few years ago, a small group of rank-and-file teachers began to organize a caucus –the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) to take over a floundering union and give it a new direction. They organized a rank-and-file insurgency. They proposed to ally with grassroots groups in the community and to lead the union in struggle, in strikes against the employer.

This union could not and did not put an alliance with the Democratic Party at the center of its strategy. How could it? After all, who was the employer? It was Barack Obama’s former chief-of-Staff, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (“Mayor 1%”) who was carrying out the policies of Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. These policies attack public education, teachers, and their unions, as well as parents and children. The union never attacked Obama, but it fought against Rahm and resisted Duncan’s policies in defense of teachers, students, and communities in a largely Black city. The struggle for students, teachers and public education culminated in the CTU strike of 2012, the first important victory (however modest and incomplete) for the American working class in decades.

The lesson? We need a grassroots labor insurgency.

Rank-and-file movements, when they win power or gain significant influence, often prove more successful in winning immediate reforms than old guard bureaucrats. Take the example of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), which in the 1990s supported reformer Ron Carey for the Teamster presidency. When Carey won the presidency and some TDU activists became national union leaders, the union leadership and the rank and file cooperated to mobilize the members for a national strike against UPS in 1997. The strike was a model of rank-and-file leadership and activism—and it was a success.

Do we only support insurgents? No. We support unions when they are on strike. When it comes to improving workers’ lives we will engage in solidarity with union officials and workers whether they backed Trump, Hillary, or Bernie (or nobody at all). Though we recognize that union officials will often seek labor peace over working class struggle, we can join with union officials of all stripes and with rank-and-file workers in the fight for economic improvements and political reforms, but we must be constantly on guard against union leaderships that will want to channel labor and all social movements into the Democratic Party, a party of the banks and corporations that will never be our party.

We thus constantly face (and too often evade) the difficult question of how, while building rank-and-file movements, we can also build an independent political force representing working people, which must be the subject of another essay. What we should not do, however, is to naively believe that the labor union leadership — whether it was pro-Bernie, pro-Hillary, or pro-Trump — necessarily represents a progressive force. A few unions, like the CTU, have worked to combine a rank-and-file perspective with a progressive agenda, but most others do not. Our job as socialists is to organize and support militant minorities and rank-and-file movements in the unions, to bring to them our socialist analysis and to work with them to develop strategies for fighting their employers and capitalism as a whole.

Rank-and-file insurgencies represent the revitalization of the labor unions and a potential source of independent political power, but the logic of labor unionism makes it difficult for them to survive and prosper for very long. Employers put tremendous pressure on union reformers with the goal of discrediting them in the eyes of their members. They work to corrupt reformers with labor peace pay-offs. Or they try to crush them. The bosses will throw everything they have against a militant leader and against activist workers — denying them contract victories, refusing to let them win grievances, and, of course, firing and blacklisting them.

Then bosses may also turn to violence, as they have in the past when worker militants were sometimes beaten or killed. They will bring in the government in one form or another –- anti-strike laws, mediators and arbitration, political persecution, etc. – to break rank-and-file movements and restore business as usual.

Still, rank-and-file movements can win and hold power for a time, and they can make gains. But as we have learned since the 1980s, employers will try to take away whatever gains we make. Nothing about the union or the contract is permanent. But the struggle for union democracy, for a better life on the job, and for a higher standard of living trains generations of worker leaders and activists to keep the movement alive. We need to build such radical movements, even if they are only militant minorities, because they are the heart of the labor movement and the left and their experiences and commitment are the basis for a struggle for socialism.

Dan La Botz is the author of the first edition of The Troublemaker’s Handbook (Labor Notes), of Rank-and-File Rebellion: Teamsters for a Democratic Union, and César Chávez and La Causa, as well as several books on Mexico’s labor movement. He was a founding member of Teamsters for a Democratic Union. He teaches in the Labor Studies Program of the Murphy Institute (CUNY). He is a DSA member in Brooklyn.

The editors of Talking Union encourage comments on and responses to this important debate on the role of socialists in the labor movement.

8 Responses

  1. I agree with Dan’s overall perspective but at the same time Stand and Goldman seem to “hedge their bets” by saying this:

    “However, that doesn’t mean rank-and file democratic control of unions is not essential. It is critical for a healthy union to not only defend workers rights but to go on the offensive. For DSA to have any influence in this area we have to be involved in local unions. How many DSA members are active union members? How many are shop stewards, local officers or members of local union committees? Where we have a concentration they should be helping to build a strong and involved rank-and-file. Sometimes this could take the form of support for progressive initiatives of the International leadership, adding real power to these initiatives, and sometimes it could be oppositional.”

    Of course, this ultimately makes their argument more incoherent.

  2. We’re in the midst of the most intense attack on workers’ rights and unions in our lifetime and you’re actually proposing to open both barrels on all unions?

    This isn’t a serious proposal for so many reasons, but primarily because calling for an insurgency won’t cause one to materialize if the base isn’t there. And it doesn’t exist in the overwhelming majority of local and national unions.

    And while your heaviest criticism is directed toward national (aka international) union leadership – and I don’t disagree with many of the problems you identified – your example of a success is a local union – the Chicago Teachers’ Union. That union only transformed itself after years of organizing by left activists and other teachers in who established a rank & file caucus.

    Suggesting that labor bureacrats are the sole or even primary reason for lower levels of class struggle “since the 1920s” is unfounded, Your correlation hardly proves causation. Why not look at other structural and political factors that have weakened unions, such as deindustrializtion and decline in union membership; decreased union bargainning power due to globalization; 35 years of Republican attacks on unions; and the more.

    Goldman & Stand are certainly aware of the failings of the labor bureacracy and nothing in their proposal suggests that rank & file union members shouldn’t organize from below.

    It’s an exaggeration to claim as you did that “their position would lead DSA union members and the organization as a whole to simply follow the labor bureaucracy and the Democratic Party down a road leading to the virtual disappearance of unions in America.”

    DSA must work with all levels of the union movement – progressive union officials who fight to protect and expand labor rights, as well as rank & file union members who fight for greater union democracy and social unionism. Supporting both is not a contradiction, but adopting a policy that primarily attacks union leadership and calls for an insurgency while the labor movement is under attack a failure in the making.

    Jim Albers, Cincinnati DSA
    AFGE 3840 (Retired)

  3. I agree with the author that a botton up, rank and file movement is the answer to the US Labor movements many troubles. With the shrinking influence of the AFL-CIO it is obvious that corruption and a business model of bureaucratic unionism that most workers don’t trust is causing a leadership void in the working class. I believe that a new leadership model must be prepared that can fill this void. We must build this new model not on the ashes of the old unions but among the unorganized workers who represent the majority of workers at this time. If there are elements of democracy within the AFL-CIO then we can ally with them but for the most part organizing the unorganized with a model of unionism that is both democratic and empowering is our best hope for a future with a labor party in it. And it must be independent of the influence of the AFL-CIO or the Democratic Party.

  4. If high salaries are the structural reason that union leaders can’t be trusted, why doesn’t this author seem bothered by the fact that CTU top leadership is also paid hundreds of thousands of dollars per year? There is a desperate need for serious, substantive, specific, and strategic proposals for revitalizing the labor movement. Reiterating the right-wing tactic of smearing all union leaders as fat cats (except apparently the few one likes!) is not that.

  5. Where I live, in Maine, there is no special caste of “labor bosses”. I was the president of the Portland Central Labor Council, with the grand salary of $0. The labor movement, and the leaders who run the local unions, are far from perfect on many issues. But they reflect the imperfect working class itself, and do their best to fight for their members in the best way they know how, even if it is often short-sighted. Until the Trump election, which has kicked everything into high gear and turned all kinds of liberals into radicals, the labor movement was really the center of all progressive activity. There is no rank-and-file militancy that is being squelched by the leadership. Any rank-and-file activity at all would be warmly welcomed by leadership, which is often more progressive than the membership. I’m happy to work within the union movement because that’s where the workers are, and I’ve never been marginalized for my openly socialist politics.

  6. Right on!

    I’d add that union leaders don’t just invoke no-strike clauses to prevent strikes. In the public sector they also invoke laws like New York State’s Taylor Law that proscribe public-sector unions from striking. The TWU Local 100 transit strike in NYC in 2006 was a debacle – in large part because the rank-and-file was not effectively mobilized – but at least the leadership was willing to defy the law.

    At the same time, I’m not entirely convinced that union leaders often prefer labor peace to conflict because they are compromised and attempting to protect their privileged positions. If they wanted to get rich, they’d be bankers not labor leaders! Instead, I think that preference is largely the result of a lack of vision – they just don’t know what to do – and an effort, in vain, to preserve the unions as institutions. But the only way to do that, of course, is to fight!

  7. Is anyone considering non-violent protest first?

  8. What about completely rethinking this? Maybe have union leaders during labor peace also try to regulate the economy? If they were to be able to successfully trade they would build a financial base independent of any government, consortium, or individual. Don’t we have here the makings of a Trojan Horse?

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