Younger radicals in the United States are today considering how to relate, personally and collectively, to the labor movement. Should they try to become agents of workplace change? Will serving on the payroll of local or national unions be supportive of such efforts?
Or should they organize “on the shop floor”—as teachers, nurses, or social workers—and then seek elected, rather than appointed, union leadership roles? Members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) discussed this “rank-and-file strategy” at their convention this past summer, narrowly passing a resolution in support of it.
Other progressives, further down the rank-and-file road, are debating how to best support newly elected union reformers—and how to hold them accountable to the members who backed their insurgent campaigns. In some big city and statewide affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers or the National Education Association, left-led reform caucuses have continued to function, even after an electoral shift from old to new leadership.
Fifty years ago, activists who came of age in the 1960s grappled with the same questions during their initial challenges to the labor bureaucracy. Some had the foresight to transition from campus and community organizing to labor activism in education, health care, and service sectors, where college backgrounds were useful and job security good.