What is the Rank-and-File Strategy, and Why Does It Matter?

Barry Eidlin

Working on a production line at a Chevrolet plant in the 1960s.

Pictorial Parade / Archive Photos / Getty

Socialism’s recent resurgence has revived core debates about socialist politics and strategy: what do socialists want, and how do we get there? Whether figuring out how socialists should relate to electoral politics, how and to what extent socialists should push for reforms from the state, how socialists should engage with broader social movements, or simply what it means to be a socialist, these questions all have a greater urgency now, simply because what socialists do these days matters a lot more.

These debates come freighted with history, making it hard for newcomers to discern what’s at stake and what the disagreements are about. This is certainly the case when it comes to discussing something called the “rank-and-file strategy,” a term that has recently achieved greater currency.

This is in no small part due to a pamphlet put out by the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) in late 2018 called “Why Socialists Should Become Teachers.” The pamphlet plainly argues (in bold red letters no less) “that socialists should take jobs as teachers (and other school-based workers) for the political, economic, and social potential the industry holds.”

We can’t win socialism without workers fighting back. The rank-and-file strategy gives us the tools to do that.

Fox News and other conservative media outlets seized on the pamphlet, taking it as prima facie evidence that socialists were actively plotting to infiltrate public schools in order to indoctrinate America’s youth. But beyond the alarmist headlines in right-wing media, the pamphlet rekindled a long-running discussion on the Left about socialists’ strategic orientation towards the workplace, the working class, and the labor movement.

As commonly understood, the idea of the rank-and-file strategy boils down to the core argument of the YDSA teacher pamphlet, namely that socialists should make a concerted effort to find jobs in sectors deemed strategically important for building working-class power. Sometimes, a corollary idea is that socialists should be wary of becoming part of the labor bureaucracy either by running for union office or taking jobs as union staff.

Taking rank-and-file jobs can certainly be part of a rank-and-file strategy. Likewise, adopting a critical assessment of the opportunities and limitations available to elected union leadership and staff can flow from a rank-and-file strategy. But these actions describe tactical decisions aimed at achieving a strategic goal, given a specific context. They are not the strategy itself.

Understanding what the rank-and-file strategy is, and why it matters, requires taking a step back from such tactical decisions and focusing on how it fits into a strategic vision for building socialism.

What It Is

The rank-and-file strategy is: 1) an assessment of the core challenges facing socialists today; and 2) a strategic framework for addressing those challenges. At bottom, it’s an effort to grapple with the central question that socialists operating in non-revolutionary times have faced: how best do we bring about a socialist society?

For Marxists, the answer lies with the working class, the only class that has the power to overthrow capitalism and transform society. But if socialists have learned anything from the past 150 or so years, it’s that “the working class” as a coherent actor capable of bringing about revolutionary change is not something that just happens. Rather, it’s something that must be created.

So the question then becomes: how best to form the working class into a revolutionary agent and make it fit to rule?

As organizations whose purpose is to organize workers as workers in the place where they have the most potential power — the workplace — unions almost by definition must play a key role in this process. However, unions are also a limited vehicle for transforming the working class into a revolutionary agent.

That’s because their very existence affirms and reinforces capitalist class society. As organizations which primarily negotiate wages, benefits, and working conditions with employers, unions only exist in relation to capitalists. This makes them almost by definition reformist institutions, designed to mitigate and manage the employment relationship, not transform it.

Still, if something recognizable as “the working class” is going to develop into a force capable of bringing about a socialist society, labor unions are going to be an essential part of that process.

The working class can only develop the consciousness and skills needed to transform society through active struggle with the capitalist class, and the workplace is the most direct and obvious site of that struggle. Without unions, individual workers are isolated and weak, and more vulnerable to be divided along lines of race, gender, religion, region, immigration status, and more.

Unions give workers a platform to wage class struggle in a coordinated and sustained way, in the process developing the capacities necessary for future fights. That’s why many socialists rightly spend a lot of time thinking about and actively working to strengthen unions.

The Militant Minority

But then the question becomes: how best should socialists work to strengthen unions?

Proponents of the rank-and-file strategy argue that socialists’ central focus should be on identifying and developing a layer of rank and file, i.e., workplace-based, leadership that can organize in the workplace on a day-to-day basis. This day-to-day organizing plays a crucial role in creating workers’ sense of being part of something bigger — not just a union, but a working class — that is capable of fighting, winning, and ultimately ruling.

This layer, sometimes called a “militant minority,” is explicitly not the loudest, most radical people on the job. Nor is it made up entirely of committed, self-identified socialists.

Rather, it is composed of respected, trusted, and militant shop-floor leaders, people known as reliable sources of information and advice who are capable of moving their peers into action. Socialists have played key roles in cultivating, organizing, and sometimes leading militant minorities, but always as part of broader coalitions.

This strategic focus on building a militant minority comes from an historical analysis of when and how workers have won in the past. While it has been far from a guarantee of victory, strong workplace-based organization has been an essential component of the victories that have occurred, most notably in the 1930s, but more generally over the past 150 years.

Not coincidentally, closer examination of these historical victories shows that in almost every case, the workplace organizing was led by socialists of different stripes. They were the hardest fighters, the most dedicated organizers, and the ones that most actively built unions’ cultures of solidarity — a necessary precursor of forming the working class as an historical actor.

Up until the 1940s, the relation between labor unions, socialists, and the militant minority ebbed and flowed, but remained fairly organic. That’s because socialists didn’t simply relate to the working class; they were an integral part of the working class.

Indeed, every left movement in the US up to that point was overwhelmingly based in the working class. Concretely speaking, this meant that there was an existing layer of socialists and other workplace-based leaders ready to serve as a militant minority when the situation called for it.

Severing the Labor-Left Link

That changed after World War II. The combination of the US labor leadership’s incorporation into the New Deal coalition starting in the 1930s, amplified by the McCarthyism of the 1940s and ‘50s, severed the historical link between labor and the Left.

Most socialists and communists were expelled from the main union federations, and without them, the broader layer that made up the militant minority was largely wiped out too.

Without that militant minority, US unions became much more bureaucratized and conservative. When rank-and-file upsurges did flare up in the 1960s, they generally remained unfocused and failed to achieve long-term gains. Where militant unions did develop, as in parts of the newly organized public sector, they were consistently blocked by the more dominant, conservative factions within labor.

Meanwhile, an increasingly frustrated student-based New Left was becoming more radicalized through the 1960s and ‘70s, and more aware of the need to ally with a broader historical agent: the working class. However, unlike previous generations of socialists, this generation was the first which was not organically based in the working class. They were the first to have to ask the question of how socialists should relate to the working class as something largely outside of them.

So, the key question that socialists then faced became: how best should socialists rebuild the link between labor and the Left?

For some in what could loosely be called the “post-Trotskyist” tradition, such as the International Socialists (IS) and later Solidarity, the answer was to focus on rebuilding the missing militant minority, that broad layer of workplace-based leadership within the working class. They understood this as a long-term project, aimed at repairing decades of historical damage to the labor-left link. This was the origin of what we know today as the rank-and-file strategy.

Proponents of the rank-and-file strategy differed from some, most notably leaders in organizational precursors of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), who sought to strengthen the labor-left link by seeking alliances with more progressive elements of the union bureaucracy rather than building workplace organization or rank-and-file leadership.

They also differed from other socialists, particularly those affiliated with the New Communist Movement that Max Elbaum discusses in Revolution in the Air, who largely saw workplace organizing as a venue for socialist cadre to engage in propagandizing for a revolution they believed to be imminent.

A Different Approach

Concretely speaking, the rank-and-file strategy informed IS members’ actions in several ways. The aspect with which many are familiar is the so-called “turn to industry,” whereby socialists who had radicalized as college students took rank-and-file jobs in strategically identified “core” industries such as auto, steel, transportation, and (to some extent) public education.

While they were far from the only socialists to do this, the rank-and-file strategy meant that they took a very different approach to their workplace organizing. Since the overarching goal was identifying and expanding the layer of workplace leadership that could build a powerful working-class movement, the organizing started from workplace issues, the day-to-day reality of class struggle that workers all faced.

The idea was to get workers used to fighting, to taking action to solve their problems collectively. This was a necessary first step towards increasing workers’ sense of what is possible — and what they could be capable of.

Again, this differed from the approach of other groups that made a similar “turn to industry,” who instead focused more on explicit propagandizing in the workplace around socialist ideas, with the goal of gaining adherents to their organization. The rank-and-file strategy was not about being the loudest and angriest people in the union. It was about building a layer of trusted workplace-based fighters.

Often “industrialized” radicals either formed or joined rank-and-file caucuses in their unions, the most well-known of which is Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). These were efforts to broaden local workplace struggles by linking together militant leaders and activists within the same union, with the goal of cohering a “militant minority” layer within the union.

Of course, this initial attempt at a “turn to industry” ran headlong into the realities of the Reagan recession of the early 1980s, which decimated employment in much of US basic industry. Many radicals lost their jobs, most of the rank-and-file caucuses collapsed (with the notable exception of TDU), and labor as a whole adopted even more of a defensive crouch.

Still, many of labor’s small victories in subsequent years bore the imprint of this rank-and-file-strategy-informed organizing.

Another aspect of the rank-and-file strategy was the creation of Labor Notes, both as a magazine and an organizing project.

Again, the idea was not to agitate around explicitly socialist demands, but to help build a militant minority capable of building power in the workplace. It did so by reporting on grassroots labor struggles both in the US and abroad, as well as connecting militant minorities from different workplaces and unions through conferences and workshops.

Additionally, their widely read books on fighting concessions and “team concept” production provided a theoretical foundation for countering prevailing strategies within labor that were contributing to their ongoing decline.

Forty years on, Labor Notes is stronger than ever, and provides a living link to the rank-and-file organizing of the 1970s. More importantly, it provides a forum for identifying and expanding today’s militant minority.

Beyond the decidedly mixed results of the 1970s-era turn to industry, and the small but significant success of Labor Notes, the rank-and-file strategy informs an entire approach to building socialism. It’s an approach that places the actually existing working class, in all its complexity and diversity, at its core.

It’s an approach that seeks to shape that working class into a force capable of fighting for and winning deep social transformations. It’s an approach that seeks to do so not by agitating from outside existing working-class organizations, or by finding sympathetic allies in politics and union leadership.

Rather, it seeks to do so by identifying and expanding a “militant minority,” a layer of workplace-based leaders that can build up workers’ sense of their collective capacity as a class.

The Rank-and-File Strategy Today

What does this mean for socialists organizing today? Of course, in areas and industries where there are strategically important opportunities, and individuals are available and willing, they should be encouraged to take rank-and-file jobs in these areas and industries. Already, we have seen the benefits of such an approach with the teachers strike wave of the past year, in which workplace-based socialists have played central roles.

But it’s also important to recognize that coordinated efforts to encourage more socialists to take specific types of jobs is not the same thing as building the militant minority. It can be part of that building process, but ultimately the goal must be to expand the ranks of workplace-based militants and socialists, not simply to reallocate the existing set.

Likewise, a rank-and-file strategy requires a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between union membership, leadership, and staff, and socialists’ role in each of them.

It’s true that union leaders and staffers are often jittery about encouraging independent workplace leadership outside their direct control. Some see it as training their future opposition. But even for those union staff and leaders who are less narrowly self-interested, it risks undermining their ability to “deliver” their side of a bargain with management, as they can’t be as certain that members will go along with what they negotiate.

Additionally, elected leaders and staff have a material interest in the survival of the union as an institution. This can lead them to shy away from militant struggles that might bolster workers’ power, but at the risk of putting the union’s long-term existence in jeopardy. Think of an illegal strike that could exact a punishing toll on an employer, but at the expense of leaving the union vulnerable to legal injunctions, and possibly subjecting members and leaders to fines and even jail time.

Due to these structural constraints on their militancy, socialists who advocate a rank-and-file strategy are often critical of the role that union staff and leaders play (or fail to play) in building working-class fighting capacity. And while a strategy focused primarily on identifying and cultivating progressive union leadership is indeed misguided, this does not mean that union staff and leaders have no role to play in a rank-and-file strategy.

To the contrary, there are historical and current examples of unions where the staff and leadership seek to build strong workplace organization (too few, but they exist). As always, the central question to ask is whether the union leadership and staff help or hinder the development of a militant minority in their union.

But the rank-and-file strategy goes far beyond questions of who takes which jobs where, or how to relate to union staff and leadership. It’s a theory of how to build power to change society in the interests of the vast majority.

That means that it’s a strategic orientation that needs to permeate all aspects of socialist organizing. In figuring out priorities, the core question needs to be “Does this help build the independent fighting capacity of the working class?”

This is important when discussing work within unions. But it goes far beyond that, as the working class extends far beyond unionized workplaces.

Historically, workplace-based militant minorities and socialist organizations have played key roles in linking workplace struggles to broader community struggles. We can think of how Communists in the 1930s linked labor rights to civil rights and the fight against Jim Crow, or more recently, how reform caucuses in the Chicago and Los Angeles teachers’ unions linked members’ workplace issues like pay and class size to broader community issues like standardized testing and racial profiling.

There can be no socialism without a working class that can fight for it. After decades of demobilization and defeat, the US working class needs to build up its fighting capacity. A rank-and-file strategy is not going to fix this problem on its own, but it’s a necessary part of the solution.

Barry Eidlin is an assistant professor of sociology at McGill University and a former head steward for UAW Local 2865.

This was originally published in Jacobin on March 26, 2019

Hospitals Torch Safe Staffing Limits in Massachusetts

Chris Brooks

November 15, 2018

Photo: Massachusetts Nurses Association

Massachusetts nurses suffered a devastating defeat at the polls yesterday as a union-led ballot initiative, Question 1, lost by more than 2 to 1.

Question 1 would have improved hospital care by limiting the number of patients that bedside nurses could legally be assigned.

The ballot question was shepherded by the Massachusetts Nurses Association, which represents nurses at 70 percent of the hospitals in the state, including 47 private and five public hospitals.

On the face of it, the appeal of Question 1 seems obvious: Would you rather be cared for by a nurse who has three other patients, or a nurse who has seven other patients?

Safe patient limits are the Holy Grail for nurse unions. While many union contracts establish nurse-to-patient ratios (see box), only in California have nurses won universal ratios at the legislature.

The results speak for themselves. “In California they have lower instances of avoidable readmissions and their patient outcomes are better,” said Nora Watts, a 43-year nurse at Newton-Wellesley Hospital outside Boston. “The morbidity and mortality rates from hospital-associated problems are decreasing faster than anywhere else in the country.”

So how did employers persuade the public to vote no? The Massachusetts hospital lobby spent upwards of $30 million to drum up fear and confusion in a campaign that strongly resembled an anti-union drive.


Question 1 pitted MNA’s ground game against the deep pockets of the state’s $28 billion hospital industry.

“We did a huge amount of behind-the-scenes research, polled our members, developed literature, developed a pool of speakers who went all around the state in forums we organized,” said Katie Murphy, a nurse for more than 40 years.

“We made posters. We organized constant phone banks, pumped out social media. We wore buttons on the job, planted lawn signs in our yards, made legislators sign pledge cards, and we knocked the doors of our neighbors.”

But in the end, it wasn’t enough.

“We have been outspent three to one,” said MNA Executive Director Julie Pinkham, “and the hospital lobby was effective enough in confusing and scaring people to the point that they didn’t know how to vote to support nurses.”

Banners and yard signs opposing Question 1 intentionally resembled the MNA’s. An employer-financed television ad featured a statement from the American Nurses Association, a manager-dominated professional association with anti-union roots.

“Everyone wants to support nurses,” Pinkham said. “The opposition has done an effective job in dressing up non-staff RNs in scrubs as the front of their campaign.”


In the hospitals, the employer campaign mimicked an anti-union drive.

“I’ve seen co-workers in tears,” said Mark Brodeur, a nurse from Berkshire Medical Center.

“They have group meetings where they told the LPNs [licensed practical nurses] that if this goes through then there won’t be a job for you,” he said. “In every outpatient office there are pamphlets all over the counters claiming that unless everyone votes no, hospitals will close and services will be eliminated. Administrators are creating terror.”

“There are lots of non-union nurses who helped us in this campaign,” said Karen Coughlin, a 34-year nurse who retired last month to work full-time on the Question 1 campaign. “They’ve knocked on doors, made calls, and been out with signs at the polls—and they’ve been through hell at work.

“They’ve been forced to have one-on-one conversations with their supervisors who tell them to vote no on 1 or they will close their unit or change their hours.”

The MNA established a hotline for patients and health care workers to report intimidation by administrators. Patients called to say they had received envelopes from Baystate Health, stamped “TIME SENSITIVE” in red ink. The envelopes contained “No on 1” pamphlets.

The union also received reports that patients undergoing treatment were told that the services they were receiving might end if Question 1 passed.

Many health care workers are represented by mega-local SEIU 1199, which partnered with the MNA to write the ballot initiative, but then chose to remain neutral on Question 1.

“It is concerning that SEIU members were being threatened but the union didn’t take a public position on this legislation,” said Brodeur.


Constant understaffing is a serious concern for hospital nurses everywhere. It’s a major union priority in contract negotiations.

Had the initiative passed, the maximum number of patients per nurse would have varied by department. These numbers were chosen based on research and guidelines from organizations such as the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric, and Neonatal Nurses, said Susan Wright Thomas, a nursing instructor who works at Cambridge Hospital.

For instance, nurses treating mothers in labor or who had just given birth would be assigned only one patient. In a step-down unit—where the severity of the patient’s condition is one step down from intensive care—the limit would be three patients per nurse.

The MNA has been trying to pass a law mandating safe patient limits for years. The closest it came to success was in 2014, when a similar ballot initiative was withdrawn in exchange for a legislative compromise that set a limit of one patient per nurse in intensive care units.

Some nurses contrasted the failed campaign with the Massachusetts Teachers’ successful 2016 campaign to shoot down the business-backed Question 2, which would have lifted the cap on the number of charter schools in the state.

The charter school measure “had a lot of money from business behind it,” said Katie Murphy, who has been a nurse for more than 40 years. “But school administrators weren’t publicly threatening teachers with school closures and layoffs.”

Striking for Safe Staffing

Suzanne Love is a nurse in the emergency department at Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield. She and her co-workers won their first union contract in May. She describes the fight to win safe staffing:

“I work for a small community hospital that is owned by Baystate Health, a huge corporation that employs over 12,000 people across the six hospitals it owns. It’s the largest private employer in the region.

“At Franklin, we have a good nurse staff ratio because we won language in our contract saying the hospital will hire enough people.

“Before, they would put out a schedule and there would be hundreds of holes in it because they wouldn’t hire enough people. Instead they would pressure nurses to come in and work more shifts, to work overtime, or work understaffed.

“We had to go on strike twice to get them to hire enough staff to properly staff the place. Those strikes were June 2017 and April 2018. It was only after those strikes that the hospital finally agreed to our safe staffing language.

“As a result, the hospital hired 25 full-time nurses. We only had 200 nurses to begin with, so that is a pretty big jump.

“Having the ability to negotiate with management makes a huge difference. Non-union hospitals have the worst patient and staff ratios.”

This was originally posted on Labor Notes.

Educators for a Democratic Union is Transforming the Massachusetts Teachers Association

Dan Clawson and John Fitzgerald

May 8, 2018

Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU) is the progressive caucus in the Massachusetts Teachers Association in which several Solidarity members are active. Four years ago, EDU ran a candidate for president largely as a vehicle to make connections with those we couldn’t easily reach. As a result of an effective campaign, an unsuspecting old guard, and a disgruntled membership, Barbara Madeloni won a two-year term. She ran for re-election in 2016 with a running mate; she won again, but her running mate lost. Since then our union has been in the process of becoming a more progressive and militant union.

MTA members against Measure 2. Photo: MTA

In the fall of 2016 we defeated a ballot question that would have raised the cap on charter schools in the state.  The pro-corporate forces to expand charter schools (and thereby remove public control of schools), spent $26 million.  In March of the ballot year they were up in the polls by 25 points; the governor (the most popular in the country) and the state’s largest newspaper strongly backed the charter forces.  Our union, together with community and labor allies, organized teachers to go door to door; we eventually WON the measure by 25 points (that is a 50 point swing).

This was a really enormous victory that shocked the corporate ed reformers (see this leaked report commissioned by the Waltons analyzing what went wrong in which they specifically point to a transformed MTA) and has been part of the emerging and growing teachers movement that’s been taking place since the Chicago Teachers Union lead the way.

Barbara Madeloni is terming out. EDU organized essentially a primary to choose our candidates for president and vice-president, choosing Merrie Najimy and Max Page. The vote was May 5 at the MTA’s Annual Meeting (where delegates vote for these positions) and our candidates won a decisive victory. This victory reflects a really well-run campaign as well as a leftward drift of the membership that’s clearly been inspired by our victories under Madeloni as well as by the national walkouts.

This year we (together with numerous allies) have put on the ballot a measure to increase taxes on incomes over a million dollars a year.  That will bring in up to $2 billion a year, which is designated to be spent on education and transportation.  (Comparison:  Massachusetts now appropriates less than $5 billion for K-12 education, and about $1 billion for higher education.)  Our opponents inside the Massachusetts Teachers Association oppose spending any money to promote the ballot question, arguing that since it is up in the polls, it is sure to win without our committing resources.  (Seriously — that’s their argument.)

Had the EDU candidates for president and vice-president of the union been defeated, that ballot question would surely have been lost, as would the transformation process in the union.  Besides the members, a lot of labor and community groups in the state are very happy that EDU won this election and won big.