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What happened to the rank-and-file strategy in DSA?

An addendum to Mel Bienenfeld on labor politics


Andy Sernatinger provides further historical context for the uses and abuses of the Rank-and-File Strategy in the Democratic Socialists of America.

Mel Bienenfeld’s great article in Tempest asked what happened to the Rank-and-File Strategy in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)? With the influx of new members to DSA starting in 2016, there was enthusiasm around labor politics, and interest in a concept called the Rank-and-File Strategy (RFS), following a pamphlet written by Kim Moody in 2000. DSA adopted a policy pursuing RFS through a resolution at its 2019 national convention, with specific tasks attached for its labor body, the Democratic Socialist Labor Commission (DSLC).

While this was a big deal at the time, not two years later that perspective was walked back by many of the same people who put it forward in the first place. The sole labor resolution submitted to the 2021 convention was a so-called “consensus” resolution, a deal brokered between leading factions to ensure they each got what they wanted rather than fight over competing resolutions. What happened? Since, as Bienenfeld notes, “no such assessment…was provided to the 2021 DSA Convention” and there was no explanation from the DSLC leadership, we have to figure it out ourselves.

The cover of the original Kim Moody pamphlet, circa 2000.

Bienenfeld’s account has some very useful insights. First, without being nitpicky, he observes that what people are calling the RFS in DSA doesn’t resemble the ideas in Moody’s pamphlet, and it’s fairly clear that many of the partisans debating the pros and cons of the RFS (Bread and Roses against Renewal, née Collective Power Network) don’t grasp the concept. The debate shifted from anything about class consciousness, building a “bridge” for workers to socialist organization, and the problem of the bureaucracy, to simply emphasizing getting union jobs.

The back-and-forth that has gone on since 2019 has obscured the RFS. Instead of digging in on the “getting a union job” thing, Mel suggests that you actually just read the pamphlet, which addresses most criticisms – including  organizing the unorganized. (Moody includes a discussion of rank and file union organizing historically, and in his list of tasks for socialists includes building working-class organizations beyond existing unions.) The 2019 Convention debate never addressed the central question, the relationship to the labor bureaucracy. In short, the RFS is not synonymous with industrializing, and the explicit tasks it lays out have been brought out of focus in a fictitious debate.

His second point has to do with a historic contingency: in New York City, a report issued by chapter leadership went public. The blowback from union officials, politicians, and hostile media was, in Bienenfeld’s account, more than NYC-DSA could handle and they went silent; eventually we end up at the weakened 2021 labor resolution.

Another Account

The strength of Bienenfeld’s piece is in documenting the debate as it took place around the RFS, having fluency in the politics to know that they were missing key parts of Moody’s pamphlet as well as older socialist history, and then the honesty to point out that something wasn’t stacking up properly. I largely agree with the points he makes and find them helpful, but I want to offer some additions to explain what happened and why.

The context of DSA’s interest in the RFS was the Red State Revolt teachers’ strikes, led by rank-and-file teachers who refused to accept worsening conditions and broke laws prohibiting strikes. Some of these teachers, in fact many of them leading figures, were DSA members, and DSA chapters participated in the protests and did what they could to support the strikes.

The wave of teachers’ strikes created a common experience for many DSA members, and that formative moment of being in opposition to conservative union leaderships as well as the state was instructive in DSA members’ interest in labor. However, the last of these strikes ended in the first half of 2019, before the DSA convention that codified the RFS. The wave of teacher activity was strong enough to sway DSA’s labor policy, but it had already passed by the time of the convention vote. The expanded consciousness and sense of possibility began to recede with the movement that spurred it.

Milwaukee Teachers Picket, 2018. Photo by Charles Edward Miller.

This is where the discussion of debates and choices made in Bienenfeld’s piece are informative. The vote to adopt RFS as policy was won on a razor-thin margin: 475-465. Bread and Roses, as the main mover of the motion, overstated their victory. It would be more accurate to say that they didn’t lose, or that they were on borrowed time. To fortify the ground gained, let alone make stronger advances for the RFS among the membership, education and support would have been critical. As Bienenfeld notes, this never happened. Most of the debate he recounts—between Ryan Mosgrove, Barry Eidlin, Eric Blanc, and others—all happen before the convention, as did the Politico leak of the New York City memo. What happened over the next two years?

The DSLC

Six months after the 2019 DSA Convention, elections were held for a new DSLC steering committee. The DSLC, formed in 2017, operated largely off an invite-only email list and Facebook group. In that short time, it had produced some impressive educational materials introducing DSA members to labor and unions, as well as the pamphlet with YDSA encouraging college students to become teachers (undoubtedly, inspired by both the Chicago Teacher Union strikes and Red State Revolt).

The election held at the beginning of 2020 was a second battle over the RFS. [Full disclosure: I was a candidate.] Two formal slates were announced, Bread & Roses and another backed by CPN (against the RFS), as well as a number of independent candidates. In so many words, the election was cooked: the quota system determined who 8 of the 12 winners were before anyone cast a single ballot, leaving only four contested spots. Caucus slates drew from their bank of members to hit those quotas, some of whom had been DSA members for only a few months before standing for leadership. The vote counts were never released. Even still, the election reproduced the same stalemate from the convention, roughly 50-50 on the RFS.

The new DSLC unilaterally disbanded the existing communications and disastrously moved everything to a Slack despite protests from members. The member-to-member links from that email list that the body depended on and had used to create materials from 2017-2019 were cut, and the DSLC eventually turned into the non-entity it is today. Only a handful of general meetings were ever held, most of which were show-and-tell style without member participation. The DSLC has no bylaws, no defined member rights or processes. The DSLC Steering Committee cut off their own legs by ending their member-to-member communications.

DSA’s national labor work since 2019 has almost entirely been done independently of the DSLC. The Emergency Worker Organizing Committee (EWOC) was organized separately through the National Political Committee. The Restaurant Organizing Project (ROP) was brought to the DSLC from without, and though it has maintained activity it has never had much interest or support from the labor commission. The PRO Act campaign was organized by the DSA Ecosocialism committee as part of their Green New Deal efforts (“To solve our climate and economic crises, we need a Green New Deal. To win a Green New Deal, we need mass worker power. To build mass worker power, we need to pass the PRO Act.”) The DSLC initiated a campaign to save the post office, which entailed getting on calls put on by the American Postal Workers’ Union (APWU) and buying DSA postcards and stamps.

The DSLC’s dysfunctionality has led to it losing the right to an elected steering committee, with the NPC announcing it will now appoint the majority of the new leadership. Of course, we must have a democratically elected body to represent the DSA labor work. We have to understand how we got to this point if we want to do better in the future.

As it pertains to the RFS, there was nothing automatic. The period could well have been one where the leadership used the pool of talent they already had, created the education materials they themselves proposed, and deepened the understanding and implementation of RFS. YDSA passed their own version of the RFS resolution – certainly they could have used guidance. Instead, the DSLC leadership largely decided they did not want to have conflict on their board between the leadership factions and neutralized themselves.

McAlevey’s Moment in DSA

Every political shift has a corresponding intellectual shift. Bienenfeld doesn’t address the celebrity status of SEIU-staff-organizer-turned-author Jane McAlevey in DSA, but her ideas are important to consider. In mid-2019, DSA began a partnership with McAlevey, offering free copies of her book, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age and organizing webinars (still on the front page of DSA’s website). This matters in understanding the fate of the RFS because McAlevey’s politics served as an addition and then replacement perspective for DSAers.

On its surface, there’s no direct conflict between the common understanding of RFS within DSA and McAlevey’s politics – she frames her task as union organizing in today’s context, takes up “power structures”’ among workers and capital, and tries to establish her legitimacy by drawing on the legacy of militant CIO organizers in the 1930’s. This is appealing to young DSA members who are historically disconnected from the labor movement; McAlevey is a capable writer who can give entry into concepts from organized labor and rule over a void.

McAlevey speaks to the core anxieties of the DSA milieu: her writings center on organizing unorganized workers with a comprehensive model, all while delivering a sense of legitimacy to DSA labor efforts that might otherwise be an outsider affair. As Bienenfeld points out, the focus on “getting a union job” became a preoccupation of the Bread & Roses advocates of the RFS, which had the obvious weakness of being unable to speak directly to the decimation and uneven distribution of union workplaces. This is not endemic to the RFS, but a choice made by DSA partisans to emphasize rank-and-filing in existing unions without sufficiently developing a view on new union organizing. Since the central questions of business unionism and the labor bureaucracy were avoided in the DSA discussion of the RFS, the RFS was cut off from much of its central explanatory power and was routed by the professional organizer logic expressed by McAlevey.

Lest this sound like an inevitable outcome, Bienenfeld reminds us that there were forces that were partisans against the RFS. Some of this is due to confusion or misunderstanding of the RFS, claiming weaknesses that are in fact accounted for in Moody’s pamphlet. But the more substantial issue is that a disproportionately large section of DSA’s labor activists are union staffers—and social being tends to determine consciousness. This section of DSA rejected criticisms of unions as they are and tried to argue that there is no tension between rank-and-file workers and the bureaucracy—because they are part of that bureaucracy. Even the most honest union staffer will have to acknowledge that adhering to the RFS creates difficulties in their paid job; others will find it a personal attack or even recognize a DSA that challenges the labor leadership is a threat to their careers. Tactically, they attempted to shift the terms of the debate away from what is obvious to most every union member (there is a bureaucracy, actually), and towards the value of alliances with labor leaders. McAlevey gave expression to this current in DSA, with help from RFS advocates like Blanc as he continues to shift politically to the right.

McAlevey’s ideas are largely the perspectives of the progressive wing of trade union officials. Moody addresses this in part in Reversing the Model: Thoughts on Jane McAlevey where he points out that the premises the McAlevey operates under are the same that labor leaders have deployed for decades: labor has been in retreat because of anti-labor laws like Taft-Hartley, an industry of union busters, and deindustrialization. Moody and others point out that these explanations don’t hold up well to scrutiny, considering manufacturing output in the United States has grown in the period. “We” do still make stuff in America – the where and how (productivity) have changed.

McAlevey’s answers to the problems she identifies are essentially the same as the labor leaderships’: lobby and elect politicians to change the law; increase professional union staff to combat union-busters and be “better organizers”; and finally prioritize service industries, health care, and other non-manufacturing economies that ‘cannot be offshored’. The influence on DSA becomes clear in the PRO Act campaign’s emphasis on the primacy of the law, while also cribbing McAlevey’s language to say that the phone banking effort was a “structure test” for DSA. The main actors who drive the struggle shift away from workers themselves to expert “organizers.”

The Sanders Campaign

DSA’s major discussions of the RFS were in between the two Sanders campaigns. As already mentioned, much of this has to do with the fate of the class struggle itself and the teachers’ strikes. The key shift in DSA’s labor policy has to do with the evolution of the Bernie Sanders campaign, and a change in activity that begat a shift in conception (towards McAlevey, above).

The Sanders campaign completely eclipsed all other activity in DSA—DSA members made phone calls, knocked doors, tweeted aggressively, traveled to early primary states, and so on. As I wrote at the time, this activity was not independent of Sanders but done either through his campaign directly or mirroring the campaign’s efforts as DSA for Bernie. This didn’t match the perspectives that were argued (and won) at the 2019 Convention. After the August 2019 Convention, DSA campaigners’ analysis shifted from using the campaign to build movements to literally believing that Sanders could and would win the election. Campaigners got high on their own supply selling Bernie. As a result, the politics were dropped, and all other strategic ambitions had to conform to the need to win the election.

For labor activists, this meant shifting the activity that did exist towards the ballot box. Reporting on the red state teachers’ strikes was what gave Eric Blanc much of his political credibility. It wasn’t long before Blanc used that clout to attribute any positive developments from movements or class struggle to Bernie Sanders (most notably arguing that we have Bernie Sanders to thank for the 2018 teachers’ strikes). This prepared the way for the turn against labor activity back to electoral efforts.

One of the key objectives identified by Sanders campaigners in DSA was the need to win endorsements of labor unions or key officials in order to bring along their membership’s votes. This stood in direct contradiction to any rank-and-file strategy—building independent of the prerogatives of union leadership simply won’t do when you now depend on them to deliver votes for your favored candidate. You don’t want to potentially piss off people who you’re hoping to woo. A microcosm of this conflict is represented in the shift from Labor for Bernie to the campaign-controlled Union Members for Bernie, which no longer confronted unions for democratic endorsements and instead appealed to individual networks of union members so as not to upset the bureaucracy.

In the contest between RFS and electoralism, electoralism clearly won the day. Kate Doyle-Griffiths, writing for Spectre, recognized that the fate of the RFS in DSA would wholly be tied up with the Democratic Party question:

Moody’s analysis of the Democratic Party has often been rejected by rank and file strategy advocates in the DSA as either a naive simplification of the possibilities of using Democratic party ballot lines, or as a holdover of a dogmatic sectarian socialist past. Instead, I think this detachment of the rank and file strategy from Moody’s remarkable clarity about the limits and dangers of socialist and working-class capture by the Democratic Party is one that undermines the potential and immediate power of rank and file organizing, and that this is not merely a theoretical objection.

What Bread and Roses’ RFS advocates proved, inadvertently, is that the RFS is incompatible with Democratic Party operations by abandoning the former in favor of the latter. The ideological shift towards McAleveyism starts to make sense as suitable to the electoral ambitions of dirty break, party surrogate, and realignment DSAers who all fundamentally agree on the centrality of running elections as Democrats. Gone is the discussion of the “militant minority” where rhetoric about “mass politics” became the new currency. All that remained was a jobs program and Labor Notes workshops.

The act of campaigning along these lines socialized DSA cadres into a practice that was an acceptance of essentially standard Democratic Party lobby and pressure tactics. Some had gotten a taste of the insider life and decided that going back to patient organizing wasn’t for them —all talk of “no shortcuts” notwithstanding. The new logic became that change would fundamentally come from legal reforms, and so electoralism had to drive every issue in DSA. In New York City DSA, a committee was created specifically to ensure that labor efforts were in line with the electoral aims of the chapter. No one ever announced their departure from the RFS, they just changed its meaning so that its advocates no longer did anything resembling the ideas.

Last Words

The purpose of this kind of evaluation is obviously to learn from mistakes made, yes, but perhaps more importantly, is to rescue the rank-and-file strategy from the mutant creature some would parade in its place. Many an onlooker might observe the state of labor in DSA and agree with opponents that the RFS is a failure. That would be a shame since for all intents and purposes DSA ceased pursuing RFS in all but name. To be sure, there are phenomenal rank and file activists in DSA, but they have tended to operate in spite of the direction of the organization and not because of it.

The strangeness of this turn away from the RFS is that it coincides with a wave of rank-and-file militancy in the private sector. Contracts that have been voted down, sometimes multiple times, have led to strikes. And while the fight is there, the bureaucracy has repeatedly intervened to limit struggle and maneuver concessions. Combative workers confronting employers and, sadly, union structures, draw lessons about the social system as a school of struggle. Supporting these struggles, developing consciousness, and drawing the lessons are key here. This is the stuff of the RFS.

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Andy Sernatinger View All

Andrew Sernatinger is a labor activist and member of DSA in Madison, Wisconsin. He is a member of the Tempest Collective and has written for New Politics, International Viewpoint , Jacobin, and In These Times .