Though bigger, this layer, as with previous waves of rank and filers, is drawn largely from college educated and disproportionately downwardly mobile presumptively professional socialists, part of a radicalization that began with Occupy, among those increasingly aware of the diminished prospects for stable professional careers. For this reason, the rank and file strategy is still often practically posed as a document advocating for a version of “class suicide” that is articulated as a political strategy aimed at discerning the most effective targets for a small group of socialists hoping to make a large political impact. It is also seen as a viable personal strategy for building a life as a socialist that might avoid the isolation of academia, of paid organizer tracks for unions and NGOs, and the longstanding danger that youthful radicalism might give way to the conservatizing influences of traditional professional careers or the pressures of small business ownership.
As a pamphlet, The Rank and File Strategy has been a real workhorse of the socialist movement. When it was initially written, its influence was narrow but intense. It recast the legacy of IS industrialization in a form fit for its moment and swayed a small but important number of the now famously sparse “Generation X” socialists – inspired by Miners for Democracy, New Directions in the UAW, and reformers in the Steelworkers and Teamsters – to commit to taking rank and file union jobs in the hopes of organizing existing opposition caucuses and member-to-member networks. Their influence has taken shape, since then, in logistics (IBT), in transit (TWU), in longshore (ILA and ILWU), in rail, in auto (the UAW, unexpectedly, as a major player in academic unionization), and somewhat incidentally, in the unions representing teachers (AFT and NEA), nurses (NNU and NYSNA), hotels (UNITE-HERE), and more generally, unions including Communication Workers of American (CWA) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Many of them also took the tack of contributing to “transitional organizations” like Labor Notes or to caucuses, reform locals won through caucus struggles and elections, or by joining the staff of left-led participatory unions, particularly the CWA.
The Rank and File Strategy lays out the “the problem” quite convincingly, as a historically generated separation between the socialist left and the working class, as both a result and a determinant of the historic weakness of working-class institutions in the United States. A related problem in this text is the lack of a “sea” of class conscious workers in which socialists can “swim,” and thus “do” socialism. Consequently, the task was to help the tidal waves of local class activity converge into one common sea, at first in the form of a “militant minority” in and through “transitional organizations.” The latter included caucuses like Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), cross-union and cross-sectoral organizing, publication and education efforts such as Labor Notes, as well as formations that might promote “social movement unionism” like Jobs With Justice, organized through Central Labor Councils and under the auspices of “left”-led international unions and locals.