Originally published in Chinese on Stand News. Republished with permission.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear a longstanding truth about American “democracy”: that everyday workers and other marginalized populations have minimal freedom to control their own lives and material conditions, ranging from how emergency health infrastructure is run to ordinary demands for basic workplace rights during an extraordinary global crisis. Unions have historically been an important site in which workers can fight for power, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics just reported in 2019 that union membership has fallen to an all-time low, with aggregate union density of only around 10.3 percent. In recent years, however, we have witnessed a potentially historic wave of militant worker mobilization, challenging employers in adverse conditions for labor under the Trump administration. How can we understand the historical background and current state of American labor? How can “the rank-and-file strategy” provide a key way forward for leftists and the mass movement in the US and beyond?
Even as significant elements of Hong Kong’s 2019 protest movement have looked to the US for inspiration and support, the American governmental system provides no positive alternative to Chinese bureaucratic capitalist rule despite its pretensions to democratic values. Despite its gestural support to the Hong Kong movement, US state elites have long benefited from the CCP’s economic exploitation of Hong Kong—an issue that is inseparable from the latter’s political oppression of Hongkongers. This does not mean that Hong Kong should not have an “international line.” Rather, we need a new analysis of American society and politics to better understand how real political power stems from the organization of everyday workers and mass movements, not the closed-door chambers of Congress or other forms of civil society mobilizations that are delinked from strengthening class consciousness. This will allow us to find new ways of connecting with the US for solidarity and support and transform our understanding of our own movement. It will also help us to identify and uplift elements like the new union wave that hold the greatest potential for radical change in the face of state terror.
Rank-and-file militancy in the US
Simply put, American labor law reframes labor disputes as merely issues of individual rights within the realm of partisan conflicts, rather than fundamental symptoms of class conflict. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which enforces US labor laws, is directly appointed by the sitting president. Its status as a nonpartisan special-interest body meant that its core function was to render labor matters as isolated issues between interested parties or mere civil conflicts between employers’ rights and workers’ rights, rather than seeing them as symptoms of and resistance to a core structural problem. As labor academic Barry Eidlin writes, “Labor law became a political football, with Democratic and Republican appointees taking turns reversing each other’s decisions. But the back-and-forth bent in a pro-management direction. The courts that reviewed NLRB decisions favored narrow readings of the law that privileged employers’ property rights over workers’ collective rights.”
On the other side of the equation, union leadership has for the most part happily obliged to work within this arrangement: substituting workers’ capacity for radical change for labor-management cooperation. Rather than being a democratic vehicle for workers’ power to fight for better conditions, American unions have traded away major weapons in the worker’s arsenal, including many kinds of strikes, in exchange for long-term bargaining agreements, regular wage and benefit increases, and job security for their members. All of this has contributed to the decline of workers’ organizing. They have become what Stanley Aronowitz calls “a set of corporate-oriented institutions that at best function as service organizations similar to private welfare agencies.”1
The current state of US labor politics has a history, and we can find better alternatives for the working class from the past and in aspects of the present-day. After militant workers’ uprisings in the 1870s and 80s, the labor movement began to coalesce around two ideological poles. One is represented by Samuel Gompers’ “pure-and-simple unionism” and the burgeoning union bureaucracy in the American Federation of Labor (AFL), a precursor to today’s bureaucratic business-friendly unionism that reduces workers’ interests to “nonpartisan” pragmatic reforms within the existing capitalist system, and away from struggling for political power as a class. The other pole, following from the democratic ideals of “labor republicanism” by early labor groups like the Knights of Labor and advanced by anarchists, socialists, and later Communists and Trotskyists, continued to push for rank-and-file workers to build power within their unions and into the political sphere. Eugene Debs’ Socialist Party, the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and later militants in the Communist Party’s Trade Union Educational League (TUEL), which brought together various radical unionists on the same platform, continued to cultivate this spirit.
Rank-and-file militancy reached its heyday in the 1930s against the backdrop of the Great Depression.2 A surge of strikes around 1934 led by rank-and-file teamsters in Minneapolis, longshoremen in the West Coast, and auto workers in Toledo, against the will of their conservative union bureaucracies, kickstarted the power of industrial unionism in American politics, leading to the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).3 Most of these actions were activated by leftists in the workplace—from Communists and Trotskyists to anarchists—organizing and energizing other co-workers to take collective leadership on the shop floor itself. As Eidlin and Micah Uetricht crucially point out, the success of these actions was not due to progressive policies or union staff; on the contrary, “labor made its greatest gains when the legal climate was most restrictive: Its great upsurges were in the 1930s, before the establishment of the modern collective bargaining regime.” In the ensuing years of the decade, labor militants rode on these grassroots victories and pushed big business into the defensive, forcing President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the table to advocate for a number of progressive labor reforms.
Once-vibrant militant energy often dissipates quickly if rank-and-file workers themselves are not empowered to collectively organize on their own.
But labor’s cozy alliance with the Democratic Party machine would prove to be the root of its downfall. By the Second World War, the unions, and even the leadership of CIO and the Communist Party, became increasingly delinked from the rank-and-file in their alliance with the Party bureaucracy. Union leaders squashed rank-and-file-led strikes in support of the war effort, and the years after Roosevelt saw the beginning of big business’ revenge. After a near-general strike in 1945 and 1946, anti-union conservatives and congressional Democrats pushed the Taft-Hartley Act, significantly curtailing unions’ power, making a variety of strikes illegal and expanding “right-to-work” laws, which makes it harder for workers to bargain collectively in a union under the guise of giving workers the “choice” to opt out of union dues. Around this time, the alliance between union bureaucrats and political leaders began to solidify into the arrangement we see today: Militant unionism from below gave way to a greater integration into the state apparatus and the Democratic Party. The CIO purged the militants from its ranks, and its distancing from the rank-and-file further rendered them vulnerable during the Red Scare. The historic merger between AFL and CIO in 1955 solidified organized labor’s turn to embracing its mission in the narrow field of labor as special-interest, rather than as the basis of a class-based political movement.
Exemplified by Ronald Reagan’s clampdown on the air traffic controllers’ strike in the 1981, the latter half of the 20th century continued the employers’ onslaught on workers’ rights, from deindustrialization and “deskilling” to further attacks on labor—but not without a fight. The most effective resistance to this came not from the Democrats or the union bureaucracy, but once again, the rank-and-file, especially in the 70s.4 Reform caucuses formed by rank-and-file workers pushed for radical change by electing new leadership in unions such as Miners for Democracy, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, Justice for Janitors in Los Angeles, and independent “union movements” in Detroit later grouped into the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Unlike the 30s, however, these initiatives lacked the same kind of momentum that, as labor theorist Kim Moody writes, operates “across the movement and across the class, function[ing] together collectively in order to push the movement forward.”
In the present, we have seen strengthened attacks on labor, with employers finding ways to keep jobs precarious and exploring ways to maximize productivity while paying workers less. “Lean production,” or relatedly, what Mike Parker and Jane Slaughter call “management-by-stress,” maximizes efficiency in the workplace to the point of breakdown in the weak points in order to rebalance and improve the system.5 These strategies are increasingly adopted in schools and educational programs like Teach for America, where teacher turnover rates are high. These strategies are exacerbated by biometrics and workplace surveillance tools—all under the name of “teamwork” and “innovation.” More recently, the Janus vs. AFSCME ruling in 2018 severely cut the bargaining power of public-sector unions, while last year’s Prop 22 fight in California bodes ill for the future of gig workers’ bargaining power. In the face of this, the Democratic Party continues to sit content with a political framework inherently stacked against labor.
At the same time, we are seeing widespread workers’ militancy—with or without strong existing union infrastructures or progressive legislation in place. Verizon telecom workers fought back against the companies’ benefit cuts against their union’s early concessions in 2016. West Virginia teachers, despite operating in a deep-red state and against the urging of their union president to acquiesce, pulled off an electrifying strike in 2018 to push for wage increases. Chicago and Los Angeles teachers, led by rank-and-file reformers, achieved similar successes to counter educational privatization. Throughout 2020, wildcat strikes abounded across sectors in response to company negligence in protecting working conditions.
What is the rank-and-file strategy?
Kim Moody first conceptualized the idea of “the rank-and-file strategy” by investigating the successes of these workers’ struggles from below. This has been developed since the 70s and was first codified in a 2001 pamphlet published through the socialist organization Solidarity. Moody’s summation of this strategy, as he articulated in an updated defense, entails developing
“grassroots organization and actions based primarily in the workplace (though not confined there) in order to build genuine workers’ power in the conflict with capital and to fight to transform the bureaucratic nature of the union, transcend its narrow bargaining limits to fight for broad working-class issues, fight the racial and gender divisions with the workforce, combat the pro-capitalist business union ideology and practice of most of the US labor bureaucracy, and raise the consciousness of union members about their place in capitalist society and the power they possess collectively.”
Later adherents of the rank-and-file strategy emphasized the role of a rank-and-file “militant minority” in energizing workers toward these goals from within the workplace itself, where the tension between labor and capital is the most pronounced. Moody writes that “the workplace is […] where workers have the most power to act on their class consciousness, whatever its source may be.” And the militant minority of workers are not vanguardist leaders, the most “radical” ones seeking to propagandize for some platform or party, or professional paid organizers. Instead, as Eidlin writes, the militant minority are “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.” The key to this strategy is to empower rank-and-file workers to collectively and democratically push for change and take leadership. While the rank-and-file strategy is not limited to unions, Moody explains that they are essential because they “bring people together at the heart of the social relations of production […] Except on those rare occasions when the class struggle breaks into open political warfare, it is at the workplace that the tug of war between labor and capital is sharpest and most recurring.”
In other words, unions are important not because they are some glorified ideal space in which ordinary people have the most power; on the contrary, as we can see in US history, labor unions are beset by collaborationist and bureaucratic elements that betray working-class democracy in their alliance with business interests and, to a greater extent in other regimes, even as instruments of state repression. Moody sees the union as an essential site in which the contradictions of modern democracy are most apparent: those who work for a wage are always limited in their capacity for democratic action by those who don’t, whether you can vote for your elected officials or not. Without a democratically planned economy and society, one’s freedom and livelihood are always determined in the last instance by one’s capacity to generate capital.
What the rank-and-file strategy offers is a political game plan—not simply a narrow tactic—to most effectively fight for both the immediate demands of everyday, working people, and the larger vision of a more equitable society. Recent critics of the strategy accused it of underplaying the role of fighting for better union staff or elected leadership, emphasizing the role of unions over “alt-labor” formations like workers’ centers, or valorizing “insurgent caucusing” over a larger “institutional capture” of the whole labor apparatus. In doing so, these critics see the strategy more dogmatically than it actually is, and miss the ideological footing on which the strategy is framed. As Moody notes, the rank-and-file strategy lends itself to support a diverse variety of possible initiatives coming from organized workers themselves: petitions, contract campaigns, publishing, caucusing, direct action, union elections, training sessions, and so on. Furthermore, Moody himself, along with others, affirms the importance of “transitional organizations” that may stem from rank-and-file reform caucuses within a union to ethnic-specific community organizations. In a recent article, Kate Doyle-Griffiths expands on the importance of these transitional organizations in the rank-and-file strategy, remarking that they
“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. They can also support and sustain shop floor, tenant, and other formations acting as a political center across sectors and arenas of struggle.”
In other words, the rank-and-file strategy is concerned with all kinds of tactics that concretely empower everyday workers to be conscious of their class power on their own terms and in their own respective milieus. This can mean a group of local workers gathering to support and organize with non-unionized migrant workers under the threat of deportation in one city, and the formation of a reform caucus within an existing union in another. An important example is the organization that Moody himself co-founded and built: Labor Notes, which serves as a transitional organization building rank-and-file workers’ consciousness through political education, programming, and reporting. It brings rank-and-file workers together through its programming so they can learn from each others’ struggles, successes, and pitfalls.
Indeed, strategic priorities may emerge, just as some would attempt to identify key strategic sectors like education, for left activists to find jobs to organize. But these priorities are not set in stone, and are set in accordance with a careful, situated analysis of what the weak points of capital are in each local or national milieu. This is what makes it a strategy and not simply a tactic.
From this perspective, we can begin to appreciate that the rank-and-file strategy does not rigidly preclude the possibility of taking jobs as union staff or in other workers’ NGOs. It is, however, not a priority, because of this strategy’s distinct analysis of unions and their position in the capitalist structure. As Moody explains,
“by definition, many staffers—such as researchers and organizers who move from campaign to campaign—cannot have a long-term, day-to-day relationship with the ranks, experience the relentless pressures of management felt by the ranks, lead unauthorized actions, or participate in opposition movements. They remain at a distance from the ranks by virtue of their position, even where they are sympathetic to a rank-and-file movement.”
Rank-and-file worker Joe Evica points out that the terms of the job for union staff and bureaucracy are precisely to maintain the typical bargaining process as enshrined by law—one, as we have pointed out, is stacked against workers’ interest to begin with. Thus, “workplace action and rank-and-file-activity come to appear as a disruption in the regular bargaining process rather than the primary means through which workers can leverage power and control.” In this sense, the strategy does not oppose taking union staff jobs necessarily, but insists on prioritizing the organizing work of the rank-and-file.
The same goes for workers running for union leadership, or supporting a ballot initiative for progressive labor legislation. The rank-and-file strategy does not preclude rank-and-file workers from running for elections in a union or fighting for a more advantageous labor environment in which to keep organizing. But it does suggest that none of these things in themselves are the most effective immediate or long-term solution for democracy for workers. What it seeks to counter is the notion that labor reform or new organizing techniques are the impetus for radical and sustainable change. As Uetricht and Eidlin succinctly put it, “A hostile legal framework did not prevent working-class upsurge; upsurge produced a less hostile legal framework.” In fact, as history tells us, many examples of degenerating militant workers’ movements lie in the centralization of organizing power and expertise into select individuals delinked from the rank-and-file. Once-vibrant militant energy often dissipates quickly if rank-and-file workers themselves are not empowered to collectively organize on their own; as the 1930s have told us, the height of workers’ victories is usually formed before the presence of full-time organizers, not after. These self-directed victories are more often than not the preconditions for structural or legislative change.
The rank-and-file strategy beyond the US
But how does the rank-and-file strategy inform a larger mass-led political movement that can effectively challenge the capitalist system as a whole in the long run? We live in a time when the most threatening kinds of mass movements to the status quo are often leaderless and decentralized, from the global movement for Black lives to the struggles in Myanmar, Thailand, France, Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, and Belarus. Moody suggests that an organized socialist left is needed to bring together various localized kinds of rank-and-file activities to build a “broader class consciousness or significant movement toward independent working class politics.” For some, this means an independent working-class party. But such a centralized formation would be anathema or at least foreign to many contemporary mass movements in the 21st century. Thus, one of the key challenges for the rank-and-file strategy today is to lend itself to a broader kind of mass politics that can remain open to different forms of organization, enabled by new and unprecedented terrains of struggle. Is it possible to avoid fragmentation without parties or bureaucratic forms of institutional politics?
The rank-and-file strategy offers a kind of flexibility that can take movement autonomy seriously across a variety of milieus, without sacrificing a clear analysis of core systemic issues. This ethos is pertinent to our political conjuncture in Hong Kong, and shows a way out of the problem of ideological muddiness that characterizes many of the recent “leaderless” movements. What the rank-and-file strategy offers is not a platform or political line for workers to follow. Rather, it provides a general framework for everyday workers to discover the structural source of their oppression and its weak points: How does collectively organizing for power with each other as a class in our own respective workplaces or regions express the most effective kind of political resistance?
This means that workers can build a mass movement that is leaderless but not ideologically aimless. We must delink the two. The absence of leaders and dogma can be a source of strength, but it can also be a source of mystification that can lead to a total lack of analysis of one’s system of oppression, and the kind of organizational forms that can best strike at its weak points. This is the innate limitation of democratic struggle. But we must not shy away from developing rank-and-file movements toward building transitional organizations that promote political coordination across sectors and regions along a shared analysis of structural injustice. This can include grassroots organizations, forums for democratic debate and skill sharing, cross-union formations, workers’ centers, and so on.
How does collectively organizing for power with each other as a class in our own respective workplaces or regions express the most effective kind of political resistance?
For Hong Kong, the rank-and-file strategy does not mean a narrowing of the broad political alliance needed across many sectors of civil society to build a mass movement, but a strategic and pragmatic coalitional politics that prioritizes building power in formations that can best counter the CCP’s bureaucratic capitalist machine at its weakest points. Doing so requires a clear political understanding of how the system and mass movements work, rather than an indifference to the types of forces that compose our movement.
While the best strategy will manifest quite differently in illiberal authoritarian systems like the CCP, attending to the power of rank-and-file workers still provides an effective tool of resistance against such regimes. More recently in Myanmar, a mass strike, including but not limited to government, medical, and railway workers, threatened to completely paralyze the operations of the newly-installed military junta. This significantly ups the ante for the historic anti-coup mass movement. As Soe Lin Aung writes, the military has “reclaim[ed] political power from a position of ongoing economic dominance,” in which Myanmar’s recent economic decline shrouds the military’s central hold over key aspects of the country’s economic resources and prospects developed under the National League for Democracy (NLD). This has ranged from local capital flows from growing agro-industries that overlaps with the regime’s openness to the CCP’s Belt and Road Initiative expansions. In other words, mobilizing the strength of everyday workers may enable the movement to strike at the core of Myanmar’s anti-democratic system, characterized by the NLD’s dynastic power and unstable compromises with both the military and levers of capital, even beyond the immediate coup.
While the workplace is the key site in which our freedoms are limited in global capitalism, the relationship between the state, employers, and mass workers’ movements differs greatly in different regions. Some regimes, from Vietnam to China, guarantee no right to collective bargaining or forming independent unions at all. The rank-and-file strategy will therefore manifest very differently depending on the system of governance. Nevertheless, it offers us an understanding of both the key site and manner in which workers can fight for both their immediate rights, and the ground on which to sustain an effective movement that can bring about a truly freer society for all.
From oppressive Western governments like the US to the various dictatorships of the Global South, policies from suffrage to infrastructure development would only cement different variations of oppression without a fundamental reckoning of the contradiction between labor and capital. Movements for “self-determination,” especially as we have seen in Hong Kong and elsewhere, have seen their democratic dreams limited when economic freedom and redistribution of power to those who work for a wage have not been guaranteed. This is the precise disconnect the rank-and-file strategy can address: From office workers and retail workers to domestic care workers and freelancers alike, the path to our liberation starts with neither the ballot nor the bullet, but the power of everyday workers challenging the oppressive infrastructures of state and capital in the workplace.
Aronowitz, Stanley (2014) The Death and Life of American Labor. London: Verso, 95.
Milton, David (1982) The Politics of U.S. Labor. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Ziegler, Robert H. (1997) The CIO: 1935-55. Durham: The University of North Carolina Press.
Brenner, Aaron, Robert Brenner, and Cal Winslow (2010) Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt from Below During the Long 1970s. London: Verso.
Parker, Mike and Jane Slaughter (1988) Choosing Sides: Unions and the Team Concept. Boston: South End Press.