Posted June 2, 2023
Back in the day, newly-minted socialists, recruited from the student movement of the 1960s, determined that the best place to organize the working class was at the workplace — not as paid union organizers but as rank and file workers. That rank and file project has a long and proud history with many real successes and also, unfortunately, significant defeats. Labor Notes, founded in 1979, was and continues to be a stalwart foundation for what we called “putting the movement back in the labor movement.” An organized and militant labor movement was understood to be the foundation for building socialism from below in the working class.
For the following three decades, as corporate capital restructured the U.S. economy, hollowing out the cities and industries that had been at the center of the rank and file project, as “socialism” continued to be a dirty word politically, as young people mostly turned away from the left (with some important exceptions like United Students Against Sweatshops and the global justice movement), the stream of young radicals entering into working-class jobs for rank and file organizing ran dry. Even so, there were important victories — as when rank and file caucuses gained power in the Chicago and Los Angeles teachers unions and led strikes that inspired a new militancy among teachers around the nation. Still, the hardy stalwarts who kept the rank and file flame alive often wondered if and when the situation would turn around.
As we all know, the 2016 election and the Sanders campaign lit a fire that continues to burn. Young people are identifying with socialism, thinking again of themselves as working-class organizers, and looking for ways to connect their socialist politics to workplace organizing — revitalizing existing unions and organizing new industries. Some veterans of that first rank and file project and some labor lefties who stayed with the push for militant unions through the lean years have come together to organize a rank and file project for this next generation of radicals.
As the Rank and File Project describes themselves:
We are recruiting, educating, and supporting a new generation of activists who will join the fight for working class power by taking union jobs. We aim to build the unions we join into strong, fighting, democratic organizations that can win material benefits for workers, by workers. We want to forge alliances between unions and other social movements, like the climate justice movement, the racial justice movement, and the movement for LGBTQ+ rights. We have a long-term view: that workers fighting on their own behalf can build a movement for socialism. Together, let’s build a better world!
The Rank and File Project plans to recruit young radicals, educate them in the theory, history and strategies of “class struggle unionism,” and create a space where new recruits and old hands learn together. The project organizers understand the importance of focusing energies, being strategic, sending people into workplaces together so they can collaborate and learn together, and providing mentorship and support.
Projects already exist to recruit to and support people organizing in non-union workplaces (Amazon, Starbucks, and the many miscellaneous contacts of DSA’s Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee). Until now there has not been a project focused on preparing and supporting people to go into existing unions (with the exception of a few DSA chapters). The Rank and File Project is filling an open space.
The project is starting with two pilot programs, one in the Bay Area and the other in New York/New Jersey. They each have a temporary part-time staffer and a local committee and have decided on local priority industries. An education curriculum is under development.
The Rank and File Project needs funds, and they need volunteers: mentors with shop floor experience and organizing skills, social media and website experts, graphic designers, data managers, educators and trainers for the theory and practice new recruits will need, fundraising and legal support. Donations will support staff, media outreach, and other organizing costs. Want to contribute? Want to volunteer? Learn more? Go to Rank and File Project. Support this great new initiative however you can!
Johanna Brenner is a retired member of the AAUP and a current member of Solidarity. Thanks to Jane Slaughter, one of the founders of the Rank and File Project, for her contributions to this article.