Critical Mass

By the Labor Branch OC

Unions have developed a negative reputation as exclusive organizations which fight only for paychecks for their members at the expense of “efficiency” and “productivity” for society. Caricatured as conservative bigots, a relic of the past, we are told that union members are actors who seek to preserve only their livelihood.

The radical history of the labor movement shows us the true legacy of unions: control over one’s work, halting arbitrary discipline, supporting public housing struggles, elevating socialist candidates for office, providing wealth to families of color, sharing resources with other workers through international delegations, and finally raising the living standards of ALL working people by setting a high bar for hours, wages, and benefits - essentially embodying the rising tide that lifts all boats (so much for trickle-down economics). DSA’s activists are committed to this vision rather than the labor movement’s current course, and many Labor Branch members have seen firsthand what a critical mass of organized, dissenting union members can achieve in defiance of an ineffective union bureaucracy.

On Thursday, January 10th, more than 60 people funneled down a tight stairwell to pack a small union hall. Inside, the NYC-DSA Labor Branch was holding a meeting seven months after taking on Resolution 33, which makes workplace militancy the cornerstone of the Chapter’s approach to union reform. The resolution’s aim is to select a handful of economic industries where DSA will concentrate its efforts and build a force, starting with rank and file union members, that effectively wields the institutional power of Labor against the big bosses of the NYC economy.

Peppered throughout the group were bricklayers, social workers, musicians, retired postal workers, union staff organizers, and folks wearing red in solidarity with teachers striking in Los Angeles. Not everyone was in a union or workers’ center, and some were at their first meeting.

Many understood the tactical need for discretion when building a strategy for Labor that places power back in the hands of the workers. As one member explained, “the Left has been subject to repression in the past (the witch-hunts of the 1950s come to mind) and we could be putting people’s jobs in jeopardy. When our members make a commitment to go into an industry, they are committing themselves for years and perhaps their lifetime. We need to protect that commitment.” As such, no names have been used in this article.

The Labor Branch Organizing Committee (OC) gave the floor to 10 speakers who would delineate the strategic importance of joining their union. Branch members had crafted a set of criteria on which to base one’s choices. The unions under discussion were the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Hotel Trades Council, the United Federation of Teachers, the Communication Workers of America, the Professional Staff Congress at CUNY, the Carpenters’ Union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the NYS Nurses’ Association, the Transit Workers’ Union, and AFSCME District Council 37. Meeting goers also considered the way the work in each particular union coalesced with NYC-DSA’s citywide priorities, healthcare and housing.

Early in the discussion, the topic of “entry requirements” was raised - that is, the relative difficulty or ease of getting a job in the target industry. Some unionized workplaces require a civil service exam and then at least a year’s wait for an interview (e.g. DC37 or TWU). Others might hire you within a week, but only if you are ready to have no vacation days and work overtime during the provisional period (Teamsters).

This conversation led to more criteria for selection related to the working environment of the job. To address some of the difficulties that might come from particular organizing contexts, Branch members have committed to building support networks among like minded activists as one method to keep people engaged in what is to be a long fight for the soul of the labor movement.

Others in the room emphasized the support structure that militant union caucuses provide in the fight for bottom up union democracy. One of the most influential, TDU (Teamsters for a Democratic Union) openly challenges its union bureaucracy, revealing how the current union leadership forces concessionary policies onto its members. “There are hundreds of thousands of Teamsters ready to fight for a stronger, more militant, and more democratic labor movement, and we should build a bridge between DSA and this active layer of the working class,” said one member, relating to us that union locals of Teamsters across the country “are being taken back by rank and file reformers and TDU activists, including here in NYC.”

The New Directions caucus in the Transit Workers’ Union (TWU) was another example cited by members, with the explanation that there is “a rich history of militant unionism within TWU Local 100.” In the early 2000s, the caucus put forth a leftist platform with clear demands that culminated in the union going on strike, despite it being illegal for public sector unions to do so.

Yet another factor that members weighed was the public perception of a unionized workforce. We forget that the self-interest of workers is often the self-interest of their families. With certain industries’ more tangible connections to issues that affect the public, as is the case with nursing, teaching, and transportation, a new consciousness could be built to show the overlap of union members’ workplace demands and the material struggles of the cities they belong to. Members brought forward the point that MTA has a lot of potential for disruption, as it is a single massive employer in NYC. Similarly, healthcare workers like NYSNA and DC37 members work in one of the largest and most profitable industries.

This was a conversation which generally does not occur with such diverse participation, and the enthusiasm from union members and non-members alike could be felt throughout the room. Each eligible voter was given instructions on when to expect their online ballot. The results came in a week later, with six industries selected in the following order:

  • Department of Education (United Federation of Teachers)

  • Nursing (New York State Nurses’ Association)

  • UPS (Teamsters)

  • MTA (Transit Workers Union Local 100)

  • Carpenters (NYC District Council of Carpenters)

  • NYC Public Sector Jobs (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, District Council 37)

The NYC-DSA Labor Branch will continue to work toward a society in which solidarity is the norm, between all working people, and we hope you’ll read more about the Rank-and-File Resolution.

Reach out to labor@socialists.nyc for more information on the history, political currents, and ways to get involved in the labor movement.