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New Freedom Road labor pamphlet outlines rank-and-file, shop-floor strategy for socialists

By staff |
June 5, 2019
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To mark May Day last month, the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO) dropped a new pamphlet aimed at the hundreds of thousands of people embracing socialism across the country. Titled Class Struggle on the Shop Floor: A Strategy for a New Generation of Socialists, the 24-page paper outlines the FRSO’s approach to unions, the labor movement and the fight for socialism in the United States.

Just to say, this isn’t a rehash of tired political slogans. It’s a fresh, concrete look at the challenges facing both unions and socialists in 2019. It’s a call to revive the best elements of American unionism and socialist organizing. Frankly, there’s not much else like it in terms of depth, strategy and practical guidance for socialists, new and old, looking to dive into labor work.

It couldn’t come at a more important time either. “Socialism is back,” as the opening words read, and it’s growing fast. Just in March, roughly 50% of people between ages 18-35 said they would “prefer living in a socialist country” in a survey by Harris Poll. The explosive growth of groups like the Democratic Socialists of America and the continued popularity of self-described ‘democratic socialist’ senator Bernie Sanders attest to the growing disgust with capitalism.

But socialism’s popularity isn’t the only rising force in American politics. Last year, the U.S. saw 20 major strikes and work stoppages - more than any time since 1986 - along with dozens of militant contract battles at UPS and in the steel industry. This outbreak of strike fever began with teachers in West Virginia and quickly spread to teachers’ unions across the country. Now private sector unions are getting in on the action, like the victorious ten-day strike by Stop-N-Shop grocery workers in the Northeast.

Class Struggle on the Shop Floor identifies the U.S. socialist movement’s distance from labor as a key weakness - one that new socialists and radicals can help overcome. The fight for socialism is the fight for rule by the working class over the economy, government and society. But for several decades, much of the socialist movement has organized outside and away from its natural mass base.

This ‘hard divorce’ between socialism and labor, as the pamphlet calls it, hasn’t benefited either movement. Labor lost many of its militant, most dedicated fighters for worker power. In their absence, union bureaucrats increasingly discarded the strike weapon, preferring instead to strike deals with employers. Meanwhile, socialism got pushed to the margins of U.S. politics, distorted by the outsized influence of middle-class intellectuals, academia and more.

This pamphlet lays out a strategy for changing that. Even as membership hits historic lows in the U.S., unions remain the biggest and most important mass organizations of workers. Situated at the point of production, organized labor can do battle with their capitalist bosses in the arena where they are strongest. If we’re serious about fighting capitalism, that’s where we need to organize - not as staffers or allies, but as rank-and-file union workers on the shop floor, fighting side by side with our sisters and brothers.

One of the strongest sections of the pamphlet deals with the militant minority in the labor movement. It provides much-needed clarity at a time when more socialists and radicals than ever are talking about a rank-and-file approach to union organizing.

“The militant minority,” it says, “are those union workers who know the score. They clearly see management as the enemy and want to fight back. But they also understand that most of their union officials don’t share their view and collaborate with the boss. Whether organized or not, large or small, a militant minority exists in every union. They represent the natural trend towards class struggle in the working class, and that makes them key to transforming our unions.”

But the militant minority is more than just a grouping in the labor movement. It’s also a method that socialists and communists have used throughout U.S. history to transform unions into class struggle organizations - something the pamphlet explores in detail. The militant minority directs its main line of attack at the boss to draw as many workers as possible into the fight, including union officials. “If they join with us, good! Our struggle against the boss – and the class struggle in general – grows stronger. If the officials refuse, they are forced to step between the workers and the boss, exposing themselves as collaborators and opening themselves up to attack by the rank and file.”

The FRSO’s pamphlet concretely explores how rank-and-file socialists can help transform our unions. As part of the rank and file, we’re better positioned to lead fights against the boss - and sellout union officials - and raise the class consciousness of our coworkers. Sure, class consciousness alone won’t make workers socialists, “but we won’t have socialism without tens of millions of workers developing class consciousness.”

Class Struggle on the Shop Floor tackles other timely questions too. It looks at the material basis for the oppression faced by African Americans, Latinos, women and others - and why unions are one of the best vehicles for confronting systematic inequalities and discrimination. While its central argument centers on a revolutionary path to socialism, the pamphlet seriously grapples with the question of strategy, avoiding the eye-rolling clichés that mark so much writing on the U.S. Left.

The FRSO isn’t one of the flashiest socialist organizations in the country. But Class Struggle on the Shop Floor is written with an intensity and level of insight that only comes from hands-on experience in the labor movement. Their members spent the last decade in the rank and file of union workers, organizing on the shop floor, developing as workplace leaders, leading fights against the boss and pushing class struggle unionism. This isn’t to say this pamphlet is the final word on strategy or tactics - just that it’s backed up with practice.

Any socialist rank-and-filer will tell you it takes a certain patience and lunch-pail mentality to organize in the labor movement. But if we want to get rid of capitalism, it’s the only road forward.

The FRSO labor pamphlet can be viewed here.