Our new issue, “War Is a Racket,” is out now. Get a discounted $20 print subscription today!

We Need to Reconnect Socialists to the US Labor Movement

Eric Blanc

Socialists have historically played a key role in the US labor movement as part of a broader current of militant rank-and-file workers. The recent teachers’ strike wave shows that to rebuild unions, we have to build that militant current.

Detroit teachers stage a sick-out for the second day in a row and protest in front of Detroit Public Schools headquarters, causing 94 of the 97 Detroit school districts to close, May 3, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan. (Bill Pugliano / Getty Images)

Interview by
Micah Uetricht

Few questions are as burning for radicals as how to revive the labor movement. The rising socialist movement will have a very tough time carrying out many aspects of a broad, progressive agenda without US unions rebuilding their membership, going on strike in numbers far greater than they are currently, and fighting for demands that benefit not just union members in one industry but the entire working class.

The recent teachers’ strike wave, seemingly emerging out of nowhere, should give us cause for much hope — not just because it represents a potential rebirth of labor militancy in the United States, but because those strikes give us a road map of how radicals can play key roles in that revitalization. To do so, we can’t just support strikes from outside: we have to embed ourselves as workers on shop floors around the country, joining other workers who aren’t radicals but are workplace leaders in cohering a militant rank-and-file current. Figuring out how to do this recently became even more pressing as the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the most important socialist organization in the country, passed a resolution adopting the “rank-and-file strategy” for labor work at its convention in Atlanta.

Eric Blanc has covered the teachers strikes closer than any writer in America. He wrote a book about them, published by Verso as part of the Jacobin series: Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics. Blanc spoke with Jacobin managing editor Micah Uetricht for our podcast, The Vast Majority, about the book. Blanc and Uetricht spoke over two episodes; you can read part one here, and listen to part one here and part two (on which this interview is based) here. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


MU

There’s a chapter in your book called “The Militant Minority.” This is a key term for thinking about the US labor movement. Who does that term refer to and why are they so important to the labor movement?

EB

The term “militant minority” basically refers to active groups of dedicated rank-and-file radicals in the workplace. The term was coined by leaders in the Industrial Workers of the World around the turn of the century, and it continued to be used by their successors in the Communist Party and others. Historically, the role of this layer has been really crucial for helping make big class-struggle wins.

Most workers at most times are not usually engaged in active organizing — they’re just struggling to survive. So to get the ball rolling for mass collective action like strikes, you need a core group of workers who are oriented in that direction — people who understand class struggle and who can use what they’ve learned from past struggles to push the workplace fightback forward. You need a nucleus of class-conscious activists focused on building working-class power in their workplaces and in their unions.

MU

The argument some people, myself included, have made is that this layer of experienced, class-struggle-focused activist workers on the shop floor, the militant minority, is the missing ingredient in union revitalization. Every time there’s been a labor upsurge in this country, there was a militant minority at the center of it. That layer desperately needs to be rebuilt if we are going to revitalize a fighting labor movement.

EB

I think that the current weakness of our labor movement and socialist movement is largely a result of the forced separation of the two since the second Red Scare purges. That was McCarthyism’s real purpose — the government saw communists and socialists were responsible for rebuilding the labor movement in the 1930s, so they kicked the Reds out of the unions.

Unfortunately, since then, the Left and labor have been for the most part working in isolation from each other, and this has severely weakened both movements. The Left became relatively weak and marginal because it was no longer based in working-class institutions and struggles.  In turn, our labor movement has declined much more than in other countries precisely because we’ve been missing a core of radicals and dedicated class-struggle activists who can help initiate the majoritarian collective action necessary to win.

MU

The Marxist sociologist Barry Eidlin argues in his book, Labor and the Class Idea in the United States and Canada, that countries where the Left was not severed from the working class and where the militant minority remained intact still have stronger labor movements today. We should be clear the militant minority isn’t just socialists, but also workers who discovered the only way to win against the boss is with a class-struggle approach because of their direct experience in struggle.

EB

That’s right. Ideally, the militant minority should include all those individuals in a workplace who Jane McAlevey calls “organic leaders” — folks who have the connections and accumulated influence to move a supermajority of their coworkers into action. And the militant minority I talk about in Red State Revolt definitely wasn’t just socialists.

For instance, in West Virginia, there was a layer of rank-and-file leaders in southern counties where the traditions of labor radicalism going back to the mine wars were strongest, and where there was a real living memory of families going out on strike and learning what it takes to win. They initiated the first walkouts that inspired the rest of West Virginia.

Similarly, in Arizona a key organizer from the militant minority was Rebecca Garelli. She wasn’t a socialist, but she was a rank-and-file member in the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike — she learned the crucial lessons of that strike, and then later, as a teacher in Arizona, she taught those lessons to her coworkers and helped lead their successful movement.

Just being a socialist in a workplace doesn’t automatically mean you’ll have the ability to lead your coworkers to take big risks and fight the boss. So powerful militant minorities usually consist of both socialists and non-ideological organic workplace leaders.

MU

Does the presence of a militant minority in West Virginia and Arizona explain why those strikes got better results than the walkout in Oklahoma?

EB

That’s part of the case I try to make in the book. Let’s compare Arizona and Oklahoma. On any criteria, you would have expected the strike to be more successful in Oklahoma, because in Arizona the right wing was even more entrenched, you have more racial divisions, the unions were much weaker, and even the size of the rank-and-file teachers’ Facebook group that initiated and cohered the walkout was smaller.

Nevertheless, the Oklahoma strike was significantly weaker. The leaders who started the strike in Oklahoma didn’t have any experience taking that kind of action before. I don’t want to rag on them too much; it took a lot of energy to do what they did, so they deserve credit for that.

But in the absence of previous knowledge of how you win a strike, they made some mistakes. They relied a lot on Facebook, they didn’t systematically do build-up actions, and they tried to make an alliance with superintendents instead of giving them an ultimatum. The whole set of strategies and tactics that underlay the successes in West Virginia and Arizona just didn’t exist in Oklahoma because of the absence of  militant leaders with practical organizing experience.

MU

In all three states, you had rank-and-file leaders trying to harness this incredible upsurge in teacher militancy, but that organic energy can play out in different ways. You write in your book how, in Oklahoma, the two teacher Facebook groups had a skeptical orientation toward unions, but elsewhere the leaders who had militant union experience were able to point all the anger at the bosses instead of the unions.

EB

In West Virginia, the argument the militant organizers made when anti-union sentiment was expressed was to say, “Actually, we are the union. The union isn’t a third party; we are members, and even those of us who aren’t dues-paying members, as workers, the union is us.  The union is what we collectively do, we need to push the union to represent us the way we want.” So they pushed the union in a better direction.

In Oklahoma, the rank-and-file Facebook leaders didn’t really channel energy through the union. They weren’t denouncing the union, they just didn’t see the importance of building a working relationship with it, and they didn’t focus on transforming and pushing it forward. That’s one of the reasons Oklahoma’s movement was less effective than its counterparts in the other states.

MU

Of course, the story is not as simple as rank-and-file good guys vs. evil, do-nothing union bureaucrats. Especially in Arizona, the union played a strong role in following the energy of the rank and file. Can you talk about the relationship between union officials and the teachers during these strikes?

EB

In all three states, the push for the strike came from below, and the union officials were very reluctant at first, though they did eventually get on board. You can understand why they were so reluctant: it’s an illegal action, which means they could all get thrown in prison or their treasury could be seized. So there’s a material underpinning to the relative conservatism of most union leaders. That’s not even considering their long-standing orientation to, and connections with, the Democratic Party, which remains their main strategic horizon.

The participation of union officials and structures turned out to be necessary to win the strike, but they needed pressure from below. Part of the reason that pressure worked was because these “red states” didn’t have a strong Democratic Party in power or any real collective bargaining laws to work with, so union leaders had a hard time channeling rank-and-file energy into more institutional avenues. Unfortunately, after the strike, each of the unions in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona pivoted almost immediately back to their old lobbying strategy.

MU

In the book, you have quotes from union officials openly admitting the rank-and-file radicals who pushed them were right all along, admitting they were wrong to be so conservative.

EB

Yeah — although I think now many of them are less happy about expressing that on the record.

MU

The concept of the militant minority is important for figuring out how a strike happens, but it’s also important for radicals figuring what our role in labor should be. The story you tell in Arizona and West Virginia shows radicals of various stripes, whether as ideological socialists or non-socialists, who understand class struggle unionism and its historical lessons, playing a decisive role in these strikes. That begs the question of what lessons radicals should take from these facts.

You quote an Oklahoma DSA member heavily involved in strike support who realized he could have done more as a rank-and-file teacher fighting alongside his coworkers than as a supporter from the sidelines.

EB

The big lesson, I think, is that radicals should organize at our workplaces, and particularly that we should organize in strategic workplaces with unions that we can transform into fighting organizations. This isn’t a new idea — socialists from different traditions, in particular union activists associated with the publication Labor Notes, have been making this case for quite a while.

Broadly speaking, they believe (and I agree) that the most effective approach for radicals is generally to get a job in a strategic industry, with a union if possible, and to use your position as a rank-and-file activist to help build a fightback organization driven democratically by shop-floor workers. The goal isn’t to build a permanent opposition: you can build a reform caucus within the union, you can and should aspire even to win union leadership — but only as a means to militant, deep organizing, not as an end unto itself.

I never could have predicted just how much the teacher strikes would vindicate this strategy. We’ve now seen that a relatively small group of socialists and non-socialist radicals were able to take the lead in a movement that ended up affecting millions of people. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of teachers, millions of students, and even more millions of family members who participated in the walkouts in one form or another. This impact was made possible because these activists were in this very powerful center: a workplace can become the center of a powerful strike, which can become the center of an entire city and statewide struggle. You rarely see this degree of impact in any other type of organizing.

MU

That Oklahoma DSA member felt the strike wouldn’t have missed as many opportunities if socialists had been bringing certain strategic and political lessons to the strike from a rank-and-file perspective. What advice do you have for other radicals who feel the same way?

EB

Hopefully activists who are paying attention take seriously the idea you could do the same thing those teachers in West Virginia did. You might consider getting a job, if you don’t already have one, where you could be part of that militant workplace layer, helping lead your coworkers to fight the boss.

Let’s be honest, though: it’s not sexy work most of the time. It’ll often feel like a slog. You have to learn a trade, whether it’s education, nursing, driving a truck, or something else entirely; your coworkers won’t take you seriously when you talk politics if they don’t take you seriously as a coworker.

It’s a serious life choice that shouldn’t be made on a whim, but if you are looking to change the world, I can’t think of a better way than becoming a rank-and-file labor activist. And it’s a very exciting time to do this because the growth of DSA means you won’t be doing it alone, but in conjunction with many others in the same industry or the same union. There’s no better time, especially if you’re young, to become a labor activist.

MU

Your book is about the red state strikes, but you’ve also covered the “blue state” strikes that have happened since in places like Los Angeles, Oakland, and Colorado. What new conclusions should we draw from these strikes?

EB

Teachers in red states confronted a political vacuum that doesn’t exist in places like California, where collective bargaining is in place, where unions are stronger, strikes are legal, and liberal politicians are willing to negotiate with union officials. This context means that militants in blue states need a more nuanced, long-term approach.

While I was traveling for the book, I met some educators who seemed to underestimate this distinction. In Oregon, for instance, some activists I met thought that if they just started a Facebook group and copied the tactics from West Virginia, they could have a statewide strike and everything would just happen the same way for them. But in a place like Los Angeles or Chicago, where the unions have more weight, there’s already an institutional space that exists to make your demands heard and to even start organizing for a strike. So you’re not going to see the same level of volcanic, semi-spontaneous militancy being unleashed by a Facebook group. You’re going to need a long-term plan for doing things like building a rank-and-file caucus to collectively raise expectations and to start fighting for union leadership.

In West Virginia, it was the opposite: organize a mass strike, then start building a caucus to transform the union. But in LA and Chicago, they had to transform the union before they could push for a strike. So understanding how the political context affects your situation is very important.

And the experience of Los Angeles — which was the deepest strike in terms of empowering and organizing rank-and-file workers — in particular shows that the ideal situation for rebuilding class power is when radicals take back the union and transform it into a vehicle for doing systematic, deep organizing. As part of unions like United Teachers Los Angeles, union staff and officials can play a pivotal role in building up militant workplace leaders. So if we’re going to build a lasting movement capable of inspiring and organizing millions of workers, we need to transform our unions, which have the resources and structures that we’ll need if we want to build real power.

MU

What’s next for the teacher strike wave? How can we revive the militant minority in the labor movement more generally?

EB

I don’t think it’s a simple formula like we just convince enough socialists to become rank-and-file activists and then presto, you have a new militant layer across the country that’s able to revive the labor movement. Our real goal is a more organic emergence of rank-and-file activists who are inspired to take action by seeing the success of strikes and union organizing elsewhere; and their experience of mass collective action, in turn, will create new workplace leaders.

Right now, the strike upsurge is limited to education, and that’s not the majority of workers we’re going to ultimately need. But at this moment, we need to continue winning in education to prevent the Republicans and corporate Democrats from rolling back our hard-won gains, and also in order to inspire and empower other workers to take the risk of collective workplace action.

And we have this big opening now to reconnect the socialist movement with the labor movement because of the Bernie Sanders campaign, which is creating the space to talk about class politics and democratic socialism with literally millions of people. Some activists, unfortunately, are still taking this campaign for granted and are underestimating what an amazing opportunity the Bernie campaign is for socialists to go out and organize a huge layer of the population that we wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise.

Our task is to convince working people that politics doesn’t end at the ballot box on election day: the political revolution has to spread to their workplace and their neighborhood. So participating in the Bernie Sanders campaign, growing DSA, and spreading strikes to more schools and eventually other sectors is how we’re going to rebuild the militant minority and put the movement back in the labor movement.