Even as initially articulated, the rank-and-file strategy allows that working class leadership and militancy emerges not only from workplace struggle, not only in workers’ centers and the environmentalist movement, but in the broad social fights against sexism, against racism, and against oppression of trans and queer people. These movements, in periods of low struggle, have often been represented and dominated by (or even conflated with) NGO bureaucrats and the most privileged sections of those affected by oppression. But when social movement activity increases, organized working class elements within these movements are inevitably aware of this limitation and begin to contest for power with bureaucrats and reformist leaders. In moments of upsurge and uprising, these intra-movement conflicts intensify; to assume the inevitable defeat of rank-and-file protestors or rioters at the hands of the peace police or established reformist organizations is no more reasonable (or politically satisfactory) than assuming that the rebellions of union members will always lose out to entrenched leadership, even when that is most often the case.
Just as we have seen the rebirth of an organized socialist movement grow out of the financial crisis of 2008, and a radicalization develop from a politics of the 99% to more explicit working-class concerns, we have also seen a class-oriented radicalization amidst a wave of global feminist struggle and the struggle for Black liberation, as well as, in fits and starts, in the movement for the defense and rights of immigrants. Meanwhile, queer workers have led spurts of new union organizing in retail, in New York City, but also in Virginia and Washington, often against employers who market themselves as liberal, Democratic Party-identified, and gay/queer friendly. Such workers led a massive march in 2019 called “Reclaim Pride” against corporate Pride, and explicitly in support of Black Lives, Sex worker rights, trans rights, immigrant rights, and Palestinian liberation, and against police presence at the event and in LGBTQ communities. This year, Reclaim Pride reformed under the same banner holding a massive protest for Black Queer Liberation.
In the feminist wave of #MeToo and the Women’s March, we’ve seen precisely that same radical agenda asserted against the still-largely NGO and Democratic Party leadership, and seen it win. In the run-up to the Women’s March of 2017, the then-largest single-day demonstration in the history of the United States, and certainly since the mass demonstrations against the second invasion of Iraq, women commentators in Facebook groups, and “members” of NGOs like the National Organization of Women (NOW) and Planned Parenthood pushed against initial organizing led by an all white and cis organizing committee. They asserted instead a bottom-up program of representation in terms of both personnel and platform of trans women, queer people, sex workers, immigrants, Black and Latinx women and queer people, and Palestinian women’s rights.
The International Women’s Strike took up this agenda and framed it in class terms, calling for a strike on March 8, 2017—International Women’s Day—in line with calls internationally for mass women’s strikes in Argentina, Poland, Italy, and elsewhere in Europe and Latin America. The call had to be taken up by the reluctant organizers of the Democratic Party-led Womens’ March, who until then, had planned a rally for the release of Trump’s Tax Returns as the “next step” for the movement. The day resulted in the closure of three school districts in “red” states, anticipating the deep well of dissatisfaction among teachers and the mechanism of forcing district closure that later became the multi-state walk out of Red for Ed.
In a similar expression of class tensions and consciousness, in the early explosions of the Movement for Black Lives, we saw increasing conflict between the self-appointed leadership of the movement oriented toward NGO career advancement and Democratic Party politics, and class-conscious local organizers who criticized the consolidation of the movement on those grounds. These organizational dynamics echo the spontaneous ejection of long-time but compromised “leaders” of the Black struggle, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, from mass meetings and demonstrations during the intense wave of demonstrations following the police murder of Mike Brown. #MeToo has sparked a wave of workplace action and strikes against sexual harassment in hotels and food service, entertainment and education, but also in the largely non-union auto sector in the South.
Since then, of course, the historically large mass of four million Women’s March protesters has been utterly dwarfed by an estimated thirty million people participating in the George Floyd Rebellion and the ongoing uprising. The relative size and power of this class-quake has produced comparably large rifts and openings in the same vein as its precursors. In a few short months, a range of immediate reforms have gone from pipe-dream to promise, and labor demands like the removal of police from school grounds or from the AFL-CIO as a whole are suddenly making piecemeal headway and have moved from niche, to normalized well beyond the radical left.
Longstanding institutions long taken for granted as the representatives of Black politics—even the more recently constituted NGO/Democratic Party formation which trademarked Movement for Black Lives in the years since Ferguson—moved well behind the pace of the increasing radicalism of movement demands. Where once body cameras and 25% reductions in police budgets seemed to mark the left edge of a reformist agenda, now, calls for full defunding, disbanding, and disarmament are standard. Even anti-capitalist calls for full “abolition”of the police (recalling the multiple and mutually-implied calls for “abolition” in the Communist Manifesto) are routinely discussed not only in far left reading circles and coalition meetings, but in the mainstream press. Predictably, this radicalism has been met with backlash—from the far right and the Trump administration and from state and local governments, but also from liberal NGOs taking up the task of reigning in radical ambitions and militant activities. The ultimate outcome of those contests remains to be seen.
In thinking about these tensions through a social reproduction frame, the original conception of “social movement unionism” in rank-and-filism requires some revision. Instead of organizing the relationship between the union rank-and-file, and working class organization and tendencies within social movements in and through layers of bureaucracy in central labor councils and NGO coalitions, it seems increasingly possible and consistent with the strategy’s emphasis on working class leadership to connect the ranks of unions with the more class conscious and independent layers of social movements directly. To that end, projects similar to the International Women’s Strike, or the recently activated Peoples’ Strike, could potentially serve as an additional form of “transitional organization.” Such formations serve as both a coalition space and a left pole, attracting unorganized and radicalizing individuals, while open to participation by socialist organizations, union caucuses, worker centers, coops, tenants unions, feminst, queer, trans, immigrant and other collectives.
Such transitional formations could—as the civil rights and anti-war, Women’s Liberation and Black Power movements of the 1960s and 70s once did—help coalesce a militant layer of radical, militant, and even revolutionary workers who can not only build the power of organized workers toward class demands (including those generated through social movement upsurge), but cohere newly activated sections of the working class in independent organizations that can weather and prepare for the inherently inconsistent and unpredictable lulls and upticks in spontaneous social rebellion. Transitional formations can create continuity during lulls in social movement activity and engage in political education within the organized workers’ movement, framing the questions not, as they are in bourgeois politics, as “divisive” culture-war tempests, but as practical matters of the everyday life of coworkers, family, and community members. The can also support and sustain shop floor, tenant, and other formations acting as a political center across sectors and arenas of struggle.
Imagine, for instance, if after the murder of Teamster member and beloved school service worker Philando Castile, a front of workers and worker organizations had been better able to raise his murder within the organized labor movement, not just as an abstract matter of racial justice but as an attack on a union sibling, in the way that Teamsters did when, more recently, Frank Oronez was killed by police while on the job as a UPS driver. Imagine if now, in a new period of increasing radicalization and politicization, socialists were organized to take up the next iteration of something like the struggle of the Charleston 5, that could not only be turned to reform efforts within the ILA but toward radicalization of the Black movement along class lines and radicalization of the labor movement along anti-racist ones. Conditions today clearly favor these possibilities more than they did two decades ago, and we need a rank-and-file and a socialist strategy primed to take them up now and whenever critical moments for doing so occur.
To a significant degree, this kind of social reproduction rank-and-fileism, rooted in explicitly working class formations, is increasingly possible and underway, building on the longer efforts of rank-and-file unionists and socialists who committed some (sometimes many) years ago to a vision of building working class power from below. The new popularity and expression of rank-and-file strategies among the layers of socialists radicalized more recently are also playing a crucial role, particularly among the nurses on the frontlines of the pandemic, among teachers pushing for schools safe from police and pathogens, and in both union and non-union workplaces deemed essential (in retail, logistics, and sanitation).
In the absence of coherent or effective public health policy, and in the heat of mass struggle, the logic of worker’s control has even (occasionally, very temporarily) emerged as a practical possibility or necessity—from workers strikes demanding changes in production toward socially necessary goods (ventilators and other scarce medical equipment), to cross-sector mutual aid delivering Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to where it was most needed, to health care workers’ demands for industry rationalization and nationalization, to transit workers starting and stopping buses and trains on the basis of clear goals: resist police and aid protesters. In these moments, glimmers of the socialist vision and method that animates the rank-and-file strategy appear where they once seemed unlikely-to-impossible.
But what is (and what has been) actually or explicitly socialist about the rank and file strategy, in both its earlier form and in more recent years? Moody is exactly right to raise this question now even as it was largely glossed over in his first rendition of the strategy. Given a few years of renewal in a growing socialist movement, and a few months of crisis and collective action, the question of how to get from shop-floor struggle to a new society suddenly seems like something more than a thought exercise or a deeply held wish. At the same time, we have much more recent experience to observe for the purpose of understanding how the rank-and-file strategy has played out in the context of a growing, organized, socialist movement .
The final part of this essay (part 3) will grapple with the practice and potential of the actually-existing 21st century rank-and-file strategy, and how it has shaped the way socialists as a whole have been able to engage and intervene in the current moment of profound crisis and urgent possibility.