From the Ashes of the Old

Can DSA transform the labor movement?

Alex Press
October 21, 2019
Members of DSA East Bay transport signs in support of the Oakland teachers’ strike, February 2019. Photo courtesy of DSA East Bay.

ON A FRIDAY IN EARLY AUGUST, wearing a dress patterned with roses, Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, took the stage at the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) National Convention. Nelson, who became a symbol of a more militant labor movement when she called for a general strike during last year’s government shutdown, opened her keynote speech with the story of an 1881 organizing campaign by Atlanta washerwomen, many of them formerly enslaved. 

“Most would have said what they were attempting to do was impossible,” she said from the podium in a convention hall at the Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia—one of the only unionized hotels in the city. (I was attending the convention as a journalist, but I’m also a DSA member.) “There were no labor laws to protect them, there was no single employer with whom they could negotiate, and their low-skilled work could easily be taken over by others.” The women, Nelson explained, announced their intent to strike if they didn’t receive a raise. They recruited thousands of members, and organized the elite into a corner: “Would they grant the pay raises demanded by the women, or hold out and risk the strike spreading to other domestic workers? And, in the meantime, who would launder their clothes?” The washerwomen won.

Nelson teared up telling the story. So did more than a few of the thousand-plus delegates in the room. Thanks to a decades-long war on unions, the washerwomen’s story from almost a century-and-a- half ago reads as a striking parable for the present, in which workers once again face hostile laws and long odds, and feminized care work is again at the center of both job growth and the labor fight. “We have to think on a strategy of organizing millions of people,” Nelson said when I asked her how the American left can reverse the labor movement’s decline. Throughout this year’s convention, this directive was front and center, with delegates passing a spate of far-reaching labor resolutions committed to organizing the “unorganized”—the nonunion members who make up the overwhelming majority of the US working class—and radicalizing existing unions from within.

Press coverage of DSA—which has ballooned from some 5,000 members to over 55,000 since 2015—has usually focused on its electoral efforts. The organization now boasts nearly 100 DSA-endorsed elected officials, including Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, who are members themselves; another win for a DSA-backed candidate, this time in Nashville’s city council, was announced during the convention. By contrast, little attention has been paid to its efforts within the labor movement, which remain largely invisible to outside observers. 

Despite extensive growth since its last convention in 2017, DSA’s labor efforts have been uneven, at best, with some DSA chapters at the center of strikes and new organizing, and others remaining uninvolved. But now, the organization is working toward a broad transformation of the labor movement. One goal is the radical democratization of existing unions, which would redistribute power from union leadership to the rank and file, empowering workers to take a more confrontational approach to fighting back. Another involves new unionization campaigns in sectors at the heart of the US economy, from “pink collar” sectors like health care and education to more traditional strongholds of worker power, such as logistics and manufacturing. “Socialists have really operated as small cells of activists looking for ways to flyer at a strike here, or hold onto a seat in a local union there,” says Ryan Mosgrove, a Washington, DC delegate and Teamsters staffer. “Now we’re talking about large-scale labor [mobilization] as socialist workers. It’s a whole other ball game.”  

Lessons from DSA’s disparate labor wins since 2017—including the group’s role in unionizing Anchor Brewing’s beer production facility in San Francisco and its position in influential union reform caucuses like the one that leads the Chicago Teachers Union—are driving the new strategy. One core resolution passed at this year’s convention formalizes DSA’s adoption of a “rank-and-file strategy,” which focuses on organizing workers directly, rather than on cultivating ties to union leadership, or making deals with the Democratic Party on their behalf. Another—the “organizing-the-unorganized” resolution—directs the group to organize nonunion workers, beginning with DSA’s own members. 

These are ambitious proposals, made possible by a DSA resurgence that would have been unimaginable even three years ago. But can DSA bridge the gap between its membership—which skews urban, white, and highly educated—and the labor movement in all its geographic, sectoral, and demographic diversity? And will the group’s efforts be enough to change the course of a long-atrophying American labor movement? 

DSA Denver members form an assembly line to make materials in support of striking teachers, February 2019. Photo courtesy of DSA Denver.

IT WAS ONCE IMPOSSIBLE to imagine the socialist left as distinct from the working class. Famously, the strike-happy Congress of Industrial Organizations, better known as the CIO, employed Communists, who flocked to the organization because of its commitment to organizing all workers, skilled and unskilled, white and black. Even their political foes admitted that they were unparalleled organizers. “Never were the Communists more than a minority among the CIO organizers,” Irving Howe and Lewis Coser write in their study of the period, The American Communist Party. “But the Communists were the best-organized . . . The devotion, heroism, and selflessness of many Communist unionists during these years can hardly be overestimated.” Though their numbers were at times formidable, it was their rootedness in a framework that saw workers as the only possible agents of their own liberation—for which backdoor deals with bosses or political lobbying were no substitute—that made them resistant to narrow, short-term thinking and gave them standing beyond their ranks. 

But this organic base in labor has been lacking on the socialist left since the mid-20th century, when McCarthyite purges split the Communist Party from the labor movement. (While plenty of union leaders were already happy to kick out the radicals in their midst, the Taft-Hartley Act, passed in 1947, required union officers to swear under oath that they were not Communists, further cementing the divide.) The outcome of that separation has been disastrous: many labor leaders, freed of their best-organized internal critics, narrowed their vision from labor as a vehicle for broad social change to labor as a special interest, one constituency among many. Deindustrialization and the rise of the service economy in the US created the conditions for labor’s decimation—the contemporary counterparts of the domestic workers Nelson spoke about remain largely barred from union protections. But the absence of an organized socialist left played a pivotal role.

As union leadership moved away from CIO-style organizing to an approach that emphasized partnership with management rather than strikes, the socialist left, too, lowered its horizons, directing its efforts toward activists, often on college campuses, rather than harder-to-reach workers elsewhere.

“DSA’s [past] orientation toward labor was much less bottom-up and much more focused on working with progressive union leaders,” says Marsha Niemeijer, a New York delegate and staffer for the New York State Nurses Association who was elected to serve on DSA’s national Democratic Socialist Labor Commission in 2017, when the long-dormant body was revived on the rising tide of surging membership. 

Many of the members who flooded the organization in 2016 and 2017—driven by democratic socialist Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign as well as Donald Trump’s election—are frustrated with the Democratic Party establishment, and they see union leaders as too often falling on the wrong side of this divide. These leaders, to take just one conspicuous example, almost uniformly backed Hillary Clinton over Sanders in the 2016 primary, even as Sanders’s pro-labor agenda—universal health care, a $15 minimum wage, stronger protections for unions, and opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership—was a world apart from Clinton’s.

Over the course of the convention weekend in Atlanta, you couldn’t walk five feet without hearing the phrase “rank and file,” the strategy to which many of DSA’s labor organizers now profess to adhere. DSA’s iteration of this approach derives largely from a 2000 essay by Kim Moody, a cofounder of the media and organizing project Labor Notes. It focuses on building caucuses, movements, and cross-union projects that bring workers into an understanding of their own emancipatory power, a power that flows from their unique position in an economy reliant on their labor.

Proponents of the rank-and-file strategy emphasize the need for DSA members to take jobs in strategic, unionized sectors—to become, say, nurses, teachers, or delivery truck drivers. Instead of assuming socialists will lead workplace struggles, the strategy’s adherents say they seek to identify and support existing respected workplace leaders, while eventually becoming such leaders themselves. As Moody writes, “while socialists can and do play an important role in building and providing direction for such a movement, they don’t have to invent [it].”

Speaking on the floor of the convention in favor of the rank-and-file-strategy resolution, Robert Levertis Bell, a public school teacher from Louisville, Kentucky, explained how he and his fellow teachers pulled off a walkout when last year’s teachers’ strike wave hit their state. They could only do it, he said, “because we had a cadre of engaged anti-capitalist teachers. That’s the rank-and-file strategy: having people who already have the politics and the jobs.” Later, Levertis Bell told me he’s since dedicated himself to reforming his union—which was in shambles before the walkout—and revamping his DSA chapter’s political education programming to respond to interest in socialism from fellow teachers who were worried they didn’t know enough about the underlying theory. 

In many ways, Levertis Bell’s experience is an ideal expression of the strategy working as it should, creating the conditions to rebuild ties between the socialist left and the labor movement. But Levertis Bell, a black southerner working in the public sector, is not necessarily representative of the current membership, which skews white, hosts its largest chapter in New York City, and—like the overwhelming majority of Americans—mostly works in nonunion workplaces. Such a starting point will no doubt be an obstacle, but DSA members are quick to focus on commonalities between the current membership and the broader working class. “There are fundamentally two classes: the owners and the rest of us,” DSA National Director Maria Svart said in her opening speech to the convention. Many members cite the experience of downward mobility—student debt, rising housing costs, stagnant wages—as formative for their politics. “A lot of folks in DSA were radicalized by the recession, by the recognition that capitalism isn’t going to deliver the security and happiness they expected,” says Connor Lewis, a DSA delegate from Centre County, Pennsylvania, and National Education Association staffer. 

Meanwhile, the labor strategies adopted at this year’s convention, aimed directly at broadening the organization’s membership beyond a narrow section of the working class, are already being implemented at the chapter level. New York City DSA’s labor branch, for instance, has recently concluded a process of identifying strategic unionized industries. Members analyzed factors like economic leverage (the capacity of workers to shut down the industry, and the impact such a shutdown would have on other industries—here, you might imagine shipping and logistics rank high); sociopolitical leverage (the extent to which the public supports these workers, and sees their issues as connected to larger political issues—think teachers and nurses, among others); and how many DSA members are already in the industry. The branch ultimately decided to focus on six sectors: public schools, nursing, logistics, transit workers, building trades, and NYC public sector agencies. Now, the chapter is connecting socialists who want rank-and-file jobs in those industries with those who already have them, offering prospective workers help with job applications and a sense of what life in the industry is like. According to the branch, nearly 300 DSA members have expressed interest.

Given the friction between union leaders’ interest in stable labor–management relations and rank-and-file reformers’ goals, this development has already rankled some New York City union heads: NYC DSA recently released a statement alleging that the leadership of the Hotel Trades Council, which represents nearly 40,000 employees around the city, pressured some of its staff organizers to attend and secretly record NYC DSA labor branch meetings. The clash is a sign of the pushback radicals will face should they make inroads in labor; indeed, it recalls the anti-communist backlash encountered by the rank-and-file strategy’s historical predecessor, the Trade Union Education League, which acted as a bridge in the 1920s between the Communist Party and the labor movement. It remains to be seen how the NYC chapter’s strategy will affect the city’s politically powerful unions, but it’s notable that the group’s targets are afraid.

A flyer posted in support of the Anchor Steam unionization effort at a San Francisco business. Photo: Otto Pippenger

SIXTY-FOUR PERCENT of Americans currently say they approve of unions, according to a recent Gallup poll—the highest public favorability numbers for organized labor in 50 years. And yet only around 10% of workers are unionized. Many in DSA see this gap as an opportunity to increase union density and build working-class power. 

“I want DSA chapters to [help] push the workers’ movement as far forward as possible, so that workers across the country will say ‘the socialist movement is for us,’” Evan McLaughlin, who works as an organizer for a public sector union, told me over the sounds of shouted lunch orders at Gus’s, the fried chicken place around the corner from the Westin. I had drawn McLaughlin away from the internal politicking that takes up a sizable amount of delegates’ time over the convention weekend, as they whip votes, hype their candidates for the National Political Committee (DSA’s leadership body), and deliberate over resolutions. 

McLaughlin, who helped form DSA San Francisco’s labor committee, is one of the central figures in the recent unionization of Anchor Brewing. When an Anchor employee and DSA member reached out to the committee in early 2018 to see if it could help organize the brewery,  a shop of 73 workers, McLaughlin suggested he pull together a meeting of his coworkers. “They met in my kitchen,” McLaughlin said with a laugh. McLaughlin and other DSA members walked the newly-formed Anchor Brewing organizing committee through the steps of unionizing, and helped them identify unions with whom they might want to work. The workers overwhelmingly supported joining the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).

But, while the ILWU remains one of the country’s most militant unions—see, for example, their penchant for shutting down ports in solidarity with Black Lives Matter or to boycott Israeli goods—they didn’t exactly jump at a call about a socialist-led union drive. “We had to prove to them that we knew what we were doing,” said McLaughlin. When the ILWU organizer finally checked out the campaign, he was impressed—the workers had a reliable organizing committee, and were well on their way to unionizing. After that, “it was about a 50/50 organizing split between me and the ILWU organizer, both pushing the campaign forward as equal partners.”

DSA currently lacks the resources and roots for new organizing on a scale that would involve the millions of workers Nelson alluded to. Existing unions do have that kind of money and power, but many are loathe to pour it into new organizing, especially the worker-led organizing that DSA members see as necessary for a strong labor movement. One aim of radicalizing existing unions through internal, rank-and-file pressure is to shift union resources toward such organizing. But McLaughlin, who coauthored the “organizing-the-unorganized” resolution, points to his experience with Anchor Brewing to insist that DSA shouldn’t shy away from encouraging members who work in strategic, unorganized shops to build unions now. In his view, the benefits are immense, and a victory can create a cascade of wins, inspiring other workers and radicalizing existing unions. “Not every single worker” at Anchor has since joined DSA, McLaughlin said, “but every single one of those workers doesn’t think twice that the socialist movement is on their side, doesn’t think twice to pick up the phone when we call, doesn’t think twice about getting involved in other actions. There’s an immediate solidarity there that’s real and not abstract.” 

DSA SF, and the Anchor workers themselves, are now working with the ILWU on other campaigns, organizing new shops (so new that no one would identify them for me) and strengthening existing ones, like a group of national veterinary hospitals owned by the Mars Corporation. The first hospital in the group to unionize is in San Francisco, and the terms of its contract, which are currently being negotiated, will set the tone for the entire group. 

“We’ve been helping out with the public face of that campaign based on what we did at Anchor, turn[ing] it into a community fight,” McLaughlin said, referring to how workers with the Anchor campaign canvassed the city’s bars and liquor stores with union signs to build public support. Their mobilization reflected the idea, voiced by DSA members throughout the convention, that labor organizing should seek to build broad working-class communities, rather than isolated union shops. “While having organized workers who can actually shut things down is incredibly important,” McLaughlin said, consolidating this base also serves to “achieve wider change beyond the workplace, to get people in the community to see that their interests are aligned with these workers and their fight.” 

This convergence of interests between workers and the public can be more intuitive in the case of public sector workers—teachers fighting for more funding for education, say, or nurses fighting for safe staffing ratios—but it’s trickier in the private sector. “We have to make an argument that’s based on, ‘These are working people, they’re fighting for more power, and you need more power in your life too,’” McLaughlin said. This vision of a labor movement embedded in the fabric of life harkens back to an era when unions were holistic institutions, hosting sports leagues and dances, popular lectures and classes, in addition to political organizing. Absent this relationship to the public, most unions today tend to rely on labor–management partnerships and political lobbying rather than mass, confrontational campaigns. But they’ll have to organize whole working-class communities, not just work sites, if they want to reverse their long decline.

DSA Denver members serving food to striking teachers, January 2019. Photo courtesy of DSA Denver.

THE WORLD HAS CHANGED too much to return wholesale to the heyday of Communist organizing within the CIO. DSA’s new resolutions, and its activities at the chapter level, perhaps more closely resemble the “industrialization” efforts of student-heavy socialist organizations in the late 1960s and early ’70s, in which a few hundred students took factory jobs intending to agitate from the shop floor. Despite their small numbers, they had a lasting impact on the labor movement through their founding of rank-and-file caucuses; some particularly powerful examples, like Teamsters for a Democratic Union, still exist today. In this 21st-century version of the story, the target jobs are more clustered in education and health care than manufacturing, but the strategy rhymes.

By the ’70s, socialists struggled to find footing in a political climate that was already moving to the right, with Democrats and Republicans alike embracing the neoliberal, anti-union policies that still define our political landscape; union density’s dramatic decline accelerated in the late ’70s. These seismic shifts point to the fact that even the best-crafted strategy exists within the bounds of historical circumstances. Labor unrest feeds left-wing organizing, and an organized left can likewise spark labor action—yet both are subject to economic cycles, the booms and busts that shape political possibilities. The recent uptick in labor militancy may in part be the product of a low unemployment rate; a recession could put a damper on the resurgence. 

But as the largest American socialist organization in decades, even modest successes for DSA could bridge the decades-long divide between labor and the left, and help to transform the labor movement in a few large urban centers, as is starting to happen in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. DSA’s electoral gains, particularly, may prove crucial in defending labor’s advances. When I asked Carlos Rosa-Ramirez, one of six DSA-backed Chicago city councilors, what he’ll do should the Chicago Teachers Union strike again this fall (an increasingly likely possibility), he didn’t miss a beat: “If CTU goes on strike, I’m out there with them. We’re going to use my office to do things like organize support efforts so it’s easier for parents and families not to cross the picket line.” 

The excitement and seriousness with which DSA members are discussing mass labor organization strategies, and their willingness to think at the scale required, is reason for hope. As Annabel Vera, a DSLC representative from Sacramento and unionized public sector worker, told me, “You can’t predetermine when that moment of opportunity is going to come, and you can’t predict what’s going to capture mass attention and people’s imagination. But when it happens, I would hope that we were prepared.”

And if DSA achieves no more than a few new unionized shops and closer ties to groups of striking workers, a couple union reforms, or maybe a few more union endorsements of Sanders this election cycle? Well, that won’t hurt either. As historian Howard Kimeldorf notes, only around ten Communist Party members were West Coast longshoremen when the party began organizing, yet their efforts influenced the formation of what remains one of the country’s most militant unions, the ILWU. “People need to stop thinking of labor and politics as two separate things,” Brace Belden, an Anchor worker, told me on Sunday afternoon, before heading to the airport to catch a flight back to San Francisco. “The structures you create in the workplace, in your unions, those are the structures that are replicated time and again in revolutionary moments.” The present may feel far from a “revolutionary moment,” but DSA members are laying the groundwork to get there.

Alex Press is a staff writer at Jacobin. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, and n+1, among other places.