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Building the Left with Rank-And File Base-Building

Notes on the Road
to 21st Century Socialism

Issue 2, March 2020

Building the Left with Rank-And File Base-Building

Introduction

Like many of my peers now swelling the ranks of the left, I came of age politically in the aftermath of the 2008 crash and recession. Over the last decade, I’ve spent time organizing in the workplace both from the rank-and-file and as a union staff organizer. In this piece I’ll reflect on a rank-and-file project I undertook in the mid-2010’s when I spent three years as a retail worker for a multinational company, organizing my coworkers in a major city to build power both against our company and within our union.

To draw out strategic lessons from this experience, I’ll begin by putting forward my basic reading of the left’s current orientation to the labor movement. Based on that assessment and on my reflection on the project, I’ll put forward an argument for the particular significance of rank-and-file organizing. Given LeftRoots’ focus on the process of strategic hypothesis development, I’ll pay particular attention to my initial goals and hypotheses going into the project, and to my reflections on the strengths and weaknesses of those hypotheses after the fact. I’ll be fairly brief in my specific account of the project, and I’ll be vague about certain specifics in order to maintain the political security of the people involved.

I’ll make the case that the development of a rank-and-file base opens up transformative political possibilities in institutional union politics, and the loss of that base closes those opportunities. Rank-and-file workplace organizing has lost some currency as a pursuit among leftists, and certainly has very little currency in LeftRoots spaces. The left-wide trend is mostly explained by several interrelated factors: the experiences of participants in past R&F projects, the overall decline of the U.S. labor movement; changes in the relative strength of various political tendencies on the left; and pressures toward professionalization and staff-ification faced by the many young leftists whose radicalization often takes place at least partly on their college campuses. But the pendulum may be swinging back in certain currents, as sections of DSA return to the R&F strategy, publications like Jacobin trumpet its virtues, and militancy in the labor movement begins to show signs of life once again. Although many LeftRoots members share some critiques of the formations listed above, I argue that LeftRoots’ orientation towards the labor movement and R&F workplace organizing, in particular, is underdeveloped.

“Although many LeftRoots members share some critiques of the
formations listed above, I argue that LeftRoots’ orientation
towards the labor movement and R&F workplace organizing, in
particular, is underdeveloped.”

Despite the deep contradictions that beset the U.S. labor movement, my experience suggests that the workplace remains a viable site of base-building organizing in general, one whose scale and institutional basis can provide an opportunity for the magnification of individual organizers’ impacts. Leftists should carefully consider the possibility of organizing from the rank-and-file (hereafter R&F), and left organizations should support the development of rank-and-file projects, although not without caution and care. We need to strengthen the labor movement as a whole for it to fulfill its potential contribution to a revolutionary movement. The question is not “which side should we take in the labor movement?” Instead we need to ask, “Where should we position ourselves to strengthen it?”

Union Politics and the Rank-and-File

Almost all labor leftists share an assessment that the labor movement as currently constituted–with its low level of militancy, low union density, relative lack of structural power, and conservative class-compromise orientation– can’t fulfill its potential contribution to a revolutionary struggle. Unfortunately, though we share this assessment, the left lacks even a loosely unified program in relation to the labor movement. This contrasts with the two major periods of cadre-based interventions into the U.S. labor movement. The experimentation of CP (TUEL) cadres in the early 1920s, for instance, gave way to clarity and focused organizing in the 1930s around the project to move the labor movement from a craft-union to an industrial-union model.

Today, leftists have a variety of often-overlapping, sometimes competing, visions for how unions should act. These visions include such variety and contradictions as focusing on organizing the most oppressed workers (e.g. migrant workers, fast-food workers, etc.); focusing on organizing the most structurally powerful workers (almost always meaning logistics workers); bargaining for the public good; advancing explicitly left electoral politics; abandoning dues check-off; and striking in order to save dues check-off. Most labor leftists think that the magic alchemy resides in some interrelated combination of these features, although we may have disagreements about the primary driver in the formula. Jane McAlevey’s “deep organizing” has also recently gained some traction. Essentially, she prescribes a focus on organizing programs to move not just already-committed activists, but also inactive and oppositional workers to action in large units where they have real power. It suggests that we should move workers to realize their power at the point of production, but also engage in “whole-worker organizing,” organizing them to fight around collective issues outside of the workplace when applicable.

Regardless of the particular formula, many of us get stuck on the operational level when it comes to our program for the labor movement. We have this idea, but how do we get the majority of unions that aren’t already “on board” to carry it out? Through skill, vision, and will, McAlevey wrestled herself into positions of real leadership in major locals and carried out inspiring transformations, but I fear that this experience, while clarifying the program we should fight to implement, has actually clouded the operational question of how we transform these massive base-building organizations. In practice, the more common experience is for the skillful, willful, and visionary staff organizer or organizing director to find their transformative program forever deferred, stuck in a morass of structural and institutional contradictions. Indeed, in most non-SEIU unions the herculean climb that Jane made to leadership is simply impossible without a R&F movement behind it, and contrary to the understanding of many non-profit-based leftists, SEIU actually only represents a very small fraction of the U.S. labor movement. What you often can do from the rank-and-file that you usually can’t as a staffer is build power from the base to free your radical organizing director.

This is not a condemnation of staff organizing, which I did after this R&F project, or a suggestion that the primary place where leftists need to intervene is in a black-and-white war between the militant rank-and-file and conservative union bureaucracies. Many leftists do extraordinary work as staff organizers. But almost every single one of those staff organizers also get to do that work because some often-long-forgotten group of courageous rank-and-filers fought to make those opportunities possible. For example, UNITE HERE organizers get to engage hotel workers in real militant base-building campaigns in part because of the work that LRS cadres and other self-conscious leftists did as HERE rank-and-filers in the 1970’s and 80’s. My experience and the experience of many cadres before me suggests that if our project is to build more militant and left unions, we need to think hard about organizing from the R&F.

Background Hypotheses & Goals

I originally took the job as a retail worker when a comrade put me in touch with a staff organizer in the union, who we’ll call Carl. Carl is a socialist with similar politics to mine, and as part of his effort to push his vision in the union, he recruited me to work on the shop floor in a large downtown store of a major city. We were politically codependent when it came to the project; my work was made possible by having an effective socialist ally within the national bureaucracy and his was made possible by our militant activity in the rank-and-file. His role demonstrates the dynamic impact that committed and effective socialist organizers can make on staff, although almost always through a relationship to workers who are taking action from the rank-and-file.

I had different goals at different scales going in. On one level I just wanted to build a base. I would roughly define base-building as moving ordinary working-class people to realize their common interests and collective power by taking action through some organizational form or structure; especially against a ruling-class or state antagonist. I wanted to develop leaders out of the union rank-and-file who had the ability to organize for power both in the workplace and in their union. I wanted to develop a widespread baseline level of union consciousness that included retail workers seeing their union as relevant to their interests. Somewhat contradictorily, I also wanted to help workers on the shop-floor develop an analysis of the union’s shortcomings and a vision for how we could activate it as a vehicle for transformative class conflict rather than class compromise on the company’s terms. I wanted to expose people to a revolutionary analysis of the system and to recruit and develop shop-floor leaders as LeftRoots cadre, or at least as organic leaders committed to a revolutionary politics beyond their shop-floor struggle. I also wanted to test strategic hypotheses related to movement and institution building. These hypotheses included:

Making the union fight for workers: If we could build a militant rank-and-file campaign against the company in a major city, we could push the union to take its retail membership seriously and invest in organizing us nationwide for a real contract fight despite their lackluster record in retail.

Broadening the base across the industry; Building a foothold in retail: If we could make this first domino fall and push the union to build a national fight against our company in retail, we could open up the possibility of organizing the non-union retail workers at the other companies in our industry. This might ultimately give the labor movement a foothold from which to organize the retail sector more broadly. Conditions at our company were rapidly deteriorating, just as they were at the stores of the other companies in the industry. At our company we had a union, but an initial organizing drive by card check followed by 20 years of neglect by the union had left retail workers extremely weak and disorganized (both objectively and compared to the company’s infrastructural workers who were in our union but in a different bargaining unit). Most of us knew workers in the other companies’ stores, but when we didn’t see their union as relevant to their lives, those relational connections don’t become organizing connections. I thought that activating the membership at our company could be the bridge to organizing the rest of the industry, which in turn could be one of very few direly needed footholds for the labor movement in the retail sector.

Moving the labor movement left: If we developed autonomous campaigns with workers from the city and other key parts of the local against the company it would build the basis for an insurgent reform project, allowing us to win partial leadership in our local’s elections, and exert influence for the interests of retail workers in the national union. Our national union already fell on the progressive, militant end of the labor movement, so the prospect of activating the retail membership and bringing some of its organic shop-floor leaders to power in the union represented one piece in the larger puzzle of driving a wedge in the labor movement, politicizing and strengthening its centrist and progressive forces while pulling them to the left and isolating its reactionary forces.

Testing the hypotheses

On reflection it looks like the project confirmed my first hypothesis, tentatively refuted my second, and supported but didn’t confirm my third. In hindsight, it also appears that my first two hypotheses were well constructed to deliver strategic implications, but that my third needed some serious sharpening.

1. Making the union fight for workers: Our R&F organizing absolutely helped change our union’s approach to retail. For years union officials had nursed a deep skepticism that retail workers would ever take real action, much less go on strike. To the leftists looking at the picture it seemed that retail workers weren’t militant because no one had ever organized them. In contrast, union officials looked at it upside down and used the lack of militancy as a reason why it wasn’t worth investing resources to organize retail workers.  

The language of “investing resources” is important here. It’s critical to recognize that this was not precisely a case of a backwards leadership holding back a more militant R&F. That dynamic was more prevalent in the 1970’s when R&F organizing hit its post-NLRA1 apex among left forces in the US, although it certainly still shows up today (Red for Ed, Teamsters, etc). The terrain has shifted since then but this vision of the relationship between members and bureaucracy still tends to inflect discussions of the R&F strategy.  We shouldn’t fall prey to a romanticized view of the rank-and-file membership as always burbling with a barely repressed militancy. In our case, the purpose of our work was actually to force the national union to invest resources in organizing retail workers for a militant fight. The message to union leaders was less, “get out of the way!” and more “get behind us and push!” By “putting the union leaders in the crossfire” between a small-scale campaign and the company, workers won more resources and a stronger commitment to militancy from a heretofore service-oriented and neglectful union. 2

Only three months after I started the job, the company instituted a deeply unpopular change to our sales structure, effectively cutting pay nationwide for retail workers, cutting average pay by almost 500 dollars per month in my area, and putting our paychecks at the mercy of unpredictable and highly inflated sales goals. Carl pushed to develop an escalating campaign to fight the change and build towards our contract fight the following year, but he was only successful in getting two low-militancy actions off the ground before the national’s commitment to the campaign fizzled out. Through some clever politicking he got me into a stewardship before my backwards local (which never trained stewards on their own) came to see me as a threat. In the course of regular visits as a steward, I began to identify leaders at other stores in the city. We realized that although the payout structure was set nationally, sales goals were set store-by-store and so were potentially susceptible to a region-wide campaign. After some discussion we settled on a couple of tactics leading to a series of “phone-bomb” 3 days where we would all call the cell phone of our regional manager (a senior position in the retail hierarchy) and deliver a message demanding lower sales goals. Although this was not an objectively militant action, it was the hardest retail workers had ever hit the company, and, after an initial divide-and-conquer attempt on the company’s part, it won a solid concession.

More importantly, it demonstrated that a) retail workers would take action when organized, and b) the union had better get going because retail workers were taking action anyway. the development of autonomous militancy among a long-ignored membership called the question to union leadership. Actively counter-organizing us and trying to quash our militancy wasn’t something that the generally progressive and militant national leadership had the stomach for (although our truly horrendous local leadership would have loved the opportunity). Ignoring our fight and continuing down the path of lackluster servicing and organizing neglect of our unit might have seemed more attractive to the national leaders, but they would have risked the same anger bubbling up elsewhere in the membership and taking on a form more hostile to the union. Acknowledging the need to organize its retail members while still trailing far behind us was a possibility, but it could have lost the leadership some legitimacy in the eyes of both the members and the company now that we had put a more militant possibility on the table. Indeed, later on in the contract fight when we failed to continue to push from the base the national leadership chose a less militant path. But in the early stages of the project we effectively put the leadership in a position where their best option was to invest resources in organizing retail workers for a fight. This led to a nationwide strike of the tens of thousands of workers in the unit.

By putting leadership in the crossfire between the membership and the company, we can change how unions relate both to their members and to capital, with which many business unions tend to try to “partner.” The kind of base-building entailed by this sort of project also by nature lays the groundwork for deeper struggles to transform unions. We ran an autonomous campaign which engaged the strong majority of the retail workers (~150) in a major city and moved them to action for the first time. A handful of workers stepped into real leadership roles, taking charge of their coworkers in their stores, visiting other stores to organize people there, and thinking through campaign tactics. Many workers developed both a much stronger class consciousness and union consciousness through the fight. My position on the shop floor allowed me to do fairly deep political development work with a few key leaders. One of them advanced to the point of nearly joining LeftRoots, although the combination of the logistical barriers of working-class life and her somewhat low level of development relative to LR’s standards prevented her from actually making it through a bootcamp.

2. Broadening the base across the industry: The results of the project suggest that my second hypothesis was mostly incorrect. The national contract fight that we generated did partially transform the retail membership. This did open up some organizing opportunities in the non-union retail stores of the other companies in our industry. But the new openings were not enough to overcome the barriers to organizing retail workers across the sector.

After the contract campaign wrapped up, the national union developed some infrastructure to keep new retail leaders activated and turn them towards tapping their coworkers for contacts at the other companies in the industry. The scale on which this happened would have been impossible before the contract fight built union consciousness and activated workers across the retail union. Through this process the union was able to build organizing committees and win NLRB elections at a few non-union stores.4 The fight at one company really did lead to fights at the others through workers’ social networks. These openings snapped shut, though, when the process of organizing individual stores one at a time proved insurmountable. We didn’t develop the project enough to clearly assess the initial hypothesis, since it’s possible that years of sustained organization and militancy would have both produced enough of a “union difference” between our shops and the non-union shops and enough organizing connections to get over the hump. But clearly a half-year of organization and militancy nationwide wasn’t sufficient, and my sense is that even a deeper, longer process wouldn’t have allowed us to transcend the barriers to organizing the other companies. I think the experience suggests that in contexts where new worker organizing has seemed impossible (retail, logistics, etc), we need to find ways to organize that operate at least partially outside of the NLRB election framework. We will probably not be able to build density in most very low-density sectors solely by strengthening the existing shops in the sector. In my view, this experience challenges the hypothesis that we could build momentum to make the process work.

3. Moving the labor movement left: We simply didn’t develop the project enough to seriously shed light on my third hypothesis. While retail workers certainly exerted some leverage in our union which moved it in a more militant direction, we never gained programmatic control even in a corner of the union to pull it in a more politically left direction. In our local we narrowly lost an election, which would have put us in leadership of the retail unit. Even if we had won the election, internal weaknesses exacerbated by the turn towards the election and away from base-building would probably have prevented us from rolling out a transformative program even in our local for the first couple of years. This hypothesis was probably “too nested” to really test given the restricted impact that one leftist in the R&F and one on staff were realistically going to have in a large national union over a several year period. It turns out that in order to test whether getting strong enough to lift a car over your head means you can run through a wall, first you have to get strong enough to lift a car over your head. But the initial question remains: if we had won the election in a good position, how much could we have moved the union politically from our local? And, how could that have plugged into other leftward currents within the labor movement?

Through most of this piece, I’ve given the impression that the national union represented a totally coherent whole, which of course isn’t the case. Approaches to retail and to our contract fight were contested within the national leadership, and our project took advantage of developments both in the national leadership and earlier quieter rumblings in the membership that had made them more amenable to a militant project for retail. I’ve presented “the national” as essentially unified partly for the sake of brevity, but also because the extremely stark contrast between the national and our local was more relevant to our project than differences inside the national itself. Where the national was in general progressive and militant, if generally skeptical and neglectful of its retail members, the local’s operation in retail was truly dismal. Before our organizing presented a challenge to him, our local’s chief elected officer in charge of retail was lazy, incompetent, and politically conservative. As we built an autonomous base, he became actively repressive, although he lacked the skill to repress us particularly effectively. Clearly his position was the one to target to gain some leadership in the local.

To make a long story short, we lost the election by twenty votes. Although we faced a complicated and powerful set of institutional constraints that make it difficult for retail workers to exert power in the local, we might have swung the narrow margin by avoiding a couple of tactical missteps. But more importantly, we probably shouldn’t have even run at all.

That’s easy to say looking back on a loss, but in this case it’s almost certainly true. Even if we had won, we likely would have found ourselves unable to actually roll out a transformative program from office for several years, if at all. One of the effects of the institutional factors stacked against us was to make it very difficult to put together a strong ticket. After unsuccessfully attempting to recruit several stronger candidates, we settled on a ticket headed by a steward from another part of the local with me running on the next line as his business agent under the agreement that we would effectively switch roles upon getting elected, with me acting as a kind of expanded organizing director. The campaign revealed his underlying conservatism and weakness as a leader, and ultimately if we’d won, I probably would have needed to win a power struggle to either oust or isolate him before implementing a significantly stronger and more militant program. That outcome, while uncomfortably Machiavellian, was both plausible and still politically meaningful. More likely, though, I wouldn’t have actually been able to fully take the reins from him and would have spent three years in office, but unable to move a real left program in the retail section of the local. At the time we recruited him to run, though, I had developed tunnel vision on the objective and failed to fully appreciate the implications of his weaknesses.

Even worse, the election campaign devoured the time I had been devoting to base-building. Store visits to collect every retail worker’s contact info served as the foundation of our turnout plan, and we set about to visit each of the hundred stores in the local within two months which took up both of my days off every week. While we had leaders in the city who could maintain the base to a certain extent and hold down the national program for the contract fight in our area, we’d lost the ones who were strong enough to actively build a base or run a small campaign without my frequent interventions. The incredibly high level of turnover after the strike coupled with this lackluster base-building program in the city seriously diminished our strength and unity over the course of the election campaign. This both undermined the key force that would have made the development of a strong, politically left local possible if we had won office and prevented us from intervening in the contract campaign at its critical final stage to continue to push its militancy.

Strategic Lessons

Outside of the narrow results in relation to my hypotheses, a few strategic lessons emerge from the project.

  • Base-building is really important for the left! The (partial) success building a base reaffirmed for me the larger importance of mass organizing for the left. At the beginning of the project, if you had brought up the prospect of striking in your average retail store break room, you would have gotten laughed down. If you had pushed the issue, you would have met a brick wall of fear and confusion. But the process of pushing workers through progressively scarier and more militant actions opened up a possibility that had seemed completely closed only months before. On the collective level, it created a political moment where the impossible suddenly became almost inevitable. On the individual level, it dramatically expanded workers’ sense of what we were capable of. It was especially striking to see how much more readily workers took to the strike if they worked in stores that had been involved in our initial campaign. Almost nobody in those stores talked about how they “just couldn’t afford it” when worker leaders came in pushing them to walk out with us. In stores that had come into our fold more recently, this was a common objection when we started making the explicit ask to walk out if a strike was called. The amazing thing is that I think the workers there really believed what they were saying at first. They might have been confusing their fear of missing their bill payments with their fear of confronting their scary boss or vice versa, but they really believed that they couldn’t do it. Workers who had taken action before didn’t just understand collective power better, their calculation of the forces and risks that constrained their lives was actually dramatically different. Most people walk around the world with almost no idea of what they’re capable of. We have pretty much no other way to push their understanding than through base-building organizing, and we need to push it. If we do, then in the right political moment the impossible can become almost inevitable, and hopefully on a much wider scale than at the retail stores of one multinational corporation.
  • The rank-and-file was an excellent place to do base-building work.  I’m convinced that I made a larger impact organizing in the rank-and-file than I would have made working as a staff organizer somewhere. The staff job that I would have taken already existed and someone was going to do that organizing work whether I took the job or not, but by joining the rank-and-file ,I did work that wasn’t going to happen otherwise. It’s also worth noting that staff jobs which afford the opportunity to do really meaningful work often exist that way because of a struggle undertaken by long-forgotten militant rank-and-filers to shape their union. My position in the R&F also afforded me an unusually high degree of political freedom. This meant I could adopt political positions with my coworkers and programmatic positions in our work without (direct) constraints. It also meant that I could work to move an institutional strategy, often impossible as a union staffer.
  • The base is the foundation for everything else. The turn toward the local election undermined our base-building in our city. This, in turn, would have undermined our capacity to transform the retail operation in the local even if we had won the election, making the decision to prioritize base-building for the local election essentially self-defeating. It also prevented us from intervening effectively to push the militancy of the contract campaign in a decisive moment. While the existence of a zero-sum choice between base-building and union elections was particular to our low level of capacity, the general lesson stands that letting go of the base is a bad idea. 
  • R&F organizing isn’t right for every labor leftist in every case. In addition to all of the other caveats explored above, organizers should generally enter the rank-and-file with other comrades or have comrades in the institution of the union. I entered the rank-and-file alone, but I had a trusted comrade on staff in the institution who connected me with the project. He did the work to push the national project forward and the national impact our local organizing had is almost entirely due to him translating it onto a larger scale. We might have been able to accomplish much of what we did with several comrades in the rank-and-file in other parts of the local instead of an ally on staff, but my sense is that in most contexts you would need one or the other.

The institutional politics in R&F organizing may make it a difficult first project for a new or politically underdeveloped organizer. More traditional salting (new worker organizing) may be a better bet for these folks.Unless the purpose of their project is simply to support the organization and militancy of the base, radicals new to organizing whose first project is in the R&F probably need to do it with more experienced comrades. There are intense contradictions baked into the struggle to build power to confront not only capital but also union leaders. These contradictions produce complicated concrete questions. Will it hurt your project more to alienate yourself from a repressive union leader, or to capitulate to his demand to not hold mass meetings? The answer might never be clear, or it might completely change over the course of a few months. Working through questions like these requires a political compass which takes time to develop. Building campaigns on your own is also unforgiving work. New organizers usually don’t have to choose tactics, negotiate with targets and assume responsibility for leaders’ development; they can just focus on honing their leadership identification and 1-to-1 skills.

Key Interventions for the Left

  • Developing Our Ability to Make Political Reads: I don’t say this to be self-deprecating, I say it to make a political point: I’m a solid but not especially talented organizer. Despite the focus on organizing “skill” in the sense that many non-profits and “organizing unions” (SEIU, UNITE HERE, etc.) use the word, it’s not the sole determinant of an organizer’s base-building or movement-building impact. In fact, I would argue that an organizer’s “skill” in this sense isn’t even the primary determinant of their impact. Fertile ground yields more fruit: the capacity to make the right political reads to root themselves in fertile soil can allow a solid organizer to punch far above the weight of their 1-to-1 rap or meeting facilitation skills. Carl showed an extremely high level of political acuity in envisioning a project like this and recruiting me to help carry it out. His capacity to make good political reads and my growth in that area over the course of the project certainly allowed me to punch above my weight.

The development among its membership of this ability should be one of the key functions of a left organization. By more rigorously assessing the extent to which different projects and forms of organizing “move the needle,” we can train ourselves to better spot opportunities to open up new possibilities and to distinguish between those and projects which would likely have us doing the same old things with the same old results. This is related to the development of a conjunctural analysis: identifying where new possibilities are opening up is deeply connected to identifying where and how the terrain is shifting. But spotting concrete opportunities for projects that might move the struggle forward in qualitative terms happens at a more granular scale. A high level strategy might help orient us in this task, but is its own capacity which left organizations should treat as such.

  • Clarifying the Left’s Program for the Labor Movement. Developing a rigorous assessment of where workers are moving the needle will help the left clarify its program for the labor movement. A number of different theses circulate among labor leftists on the primary contradiction facing the labor movement and the central transformation or intervention necessary to overcome it. While the goal is not for every leftist to unify around one avenue for building the labor movement to the exclusion of all the others, the left effectively can’t concentrate its forces around one or multiple strategies for the labor movement given the current lack of consolidation of most labor leftists.

This consolidation of outlook and program will mostly happen in the organizational and extra-organizations networks that labor leftists already inhabit. The glimmers of a new labor militancy in the last several years have provided some clarity for us and have already pushed this diffuse process of unity development forward. Left organizations can contribute to it by rigorously and systematically assessing where workers are moving the struggle forward and opening up new possibilities from the perspective of explicitly socialist strategy.

  • Making Connections and Building Projects in the Labor Movement. Other left organizations are much better positioned to help build the labor movement than LeftRoots. This particular function also doesn’t exactly fit into the organization’s purpose as a pre-cadre or pre-instrument formation. However, my experience suggests that it may be useful for both LeftRoots and other left formations to explore the possibility of judiciously connecting older, more experienced, staff organizers and shop-floor leaders with young leftists who may be interested in organizing from the rank-and-file. This could be a new approach for left organizations where staff organizing and rank-and-file work have been either explicitly or tacitly posed in opposition to each other. It also might provide a development pathway for young leftists who could otherwise find themselves either out to sea in the rank-and-file without support or set down a staff organizing track with deep political barriers and limitations.

Notes:

  1. The National Labor Relations Act, passed in 1935 as the result of an upsurge of labor militancy, created an entirely new labor infrastructure in the U.S. Among other key changes it instituted the automatic deduction of membership dues from members’ paychecks and a government-arbitrated process for workers to win unions by election, both of which helped lay the basis for a much more “institutionalized” (for better and worse) labor movement. Prior to this and the explosion of union staff that it produced, the overwhelming majority of self-conscious leftists in the labor movement organized from the rank-and-file, pursuing strategies that shifted according to the period and the left organization to which they were connected.
  2. In the interest of maintaining what remains of my word count discipline I’ll only provide a very brief account of the base-building work that went into the construction of this campaign. Interested readers can contact LeftRoots for an extended version of this piece with the full story.
  3. Not an actual bomb.
  4. The NLRB is the government board which arbitrates labor disputes in the US. Winning an NLRB election is the primary pathway for a group of non-union workers to win union recognition if they can’t muster enough leverage to force their employer to recognize them voluntarily. It’s also an extremely difficult path, as labor law is very weakly enforced and doesn’t provide strong protections against employers interfering in the election process.
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