Gregory Butler argues that the DSA and Jacobin’s “rank-and-file strategy” in the construction industry consists mostly in pushing policy from above, leaving out worker concerns and worker organizing. This article was first published by Organizing Work.
For the last couple of years, the Democratic Socialists of America and Jacobin Magazine have been promoting something called the “rank-and-file strategy.”
This concept first emerged from a Trotskyist group called Solidarity and its closely affiliated publication Labor Notes in the 1980s. Basically, the rank-and-file strategy is supposed to be a way for socialist groups to win workers to their ideas and then use those radicalized workers to (as Labor Notes liked to say) “put the movement back in the labor movement.”
Considering the present decay of the trade unions in this country — only 6% of private sector workers are unionized — and the weakness of the largely middle-class-oriented left among American workers, this might be a good idea.
The DSA’s twist on The Rank-And-File Strategy is that instead of recruiting working-class people into their group, they send their current (largely middle-class) membership to get working-class jobs. The DSA in New York City actually put forward a detailed program, identifying specific industries and unions that they wanted to send their members to work in:
Public Schools/United Federation of Teachers
Nursing/New York State Nurses Association
Logistics, UPS/International Brotherhood of Teamsters
Transit Workers, MTA/Transport Workers Union Local 100
Building Trades/District Council of Carpenters
NYC Public Sector Agencies, DC 37 AFSCME
Apparently career fairs were even organized to further this process.
Let’s take a look at these efforts in the construction industry, one of the industries they’re targeting.
It seems that for a supposed “rank-and-file strategy,” the DSA and Jacobin aren’t particularly interested in the problems, concerns or goals of rank-and-file construction workers. Instead, their main objective is to promote the Green New Deal, a political program of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, among the leaders of construction unions. Apparently, the goal is to give the Green New Deal the appearance of having official labor support.
Case in point, a recent article in Jacobin: “New York’s Building Trades Unions Are Showing the Way Forward on Green Jobs,” by Paul Prescod. Prescod speaks glowingly of a backroom deal between a Danish energy company called Ørsted, and North America’s Building Trades Union (NABTU), an umbrella group for the nation’s 17 construction unions. The article describes the deal as “winning building trades workers and unions to an environmentalist agenda that also benefits them,” and claims that the agreement will create 83,000 jobs and “guarantees that the building of these offshore wind turbines will be done with union labor at prevailing wages.”
However, if you actually read NABTU’s press release, Ørsted merely agreed that they would think about using union labor at some point for some of the 15 windmills they plan to build along the East Coast of the US.
Fifteen windmill developments isn’t a lot of jobs, especially if the windmills are fabricated in shipyards on shore and merely installed at the site, which is almost always how offshore windmill installation is done. Windmills are installed from specialized ships – only 137 of them exist in the world currently. None of these wind turbine installation vessels are registered in the United States – two thirds are registered in Europe with the remainder based in China. With no US flag wind turbine vessels currently existing, and Ørsted having its own vessels and shipyards in Denmark, it seems unlikely that many American workers will be hired for these wind farm installation jobs at all, especially since, unlike the vague memorandum of understanding with NABTU, Ørsted has a binding collective bargaining agreement with CO-Sea, the Danish Union for Seafarers, covering its Denmark-based offshore vessels.
Even if jobs do materialize out of this vague project labor agreement, it’s helpful to point out that, in union construction, “project labor agreement” means that the job will be “open shop” (partly non-union) and this is probably going to be an “international agreement” job, with a union scale lower than regular New York scale.
In other words, if Ørsted actually does install these windmills with American workers, it may be because they can use non-union American workers getting paid less than the company’s all-union Danish workforce would be paid, under inferior working conditions and with no rights that Ørsted is bound to respect – that’s not a good thing for any of the workers involved.
The press release describes the agreement as patterned after the Block Island Wind Farm (BIWF) that Ørsted operates in Rhode Island, saying “more than 300 union workers were employed.” That’s not a lot in any case, but according to this Workforce Development Institute report, that 300 included professionals like “project managers, engineers, scientists [and] lawyers.” Breaking down the numbers in the trades, “100 local workers” were involved in the 18-month foundation assembly, 60 “hired to work at the temporary manufacturing facility to assemble the components and tower sections,” “forty workers including electricians, ironworkers and pipefitters assembled the turbines. Almost 20 pile drivers installed the five foundations.” That is not a ton of workers, and not all were union.
As for ongoing jobs, a study by the New York Energy Policy Institute estimates that a 250 MW wind project – double the output of BIWF – only produces 22 jobs (full-time equivalents) per year.
Transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy is important, and that transition should involve union labor. But it’s not clear what this has to do with advancing socialism among workers. For the vast majority of New York’s 400,000 construction workers who do building construction (as opposed to infrastructure), a few offshore wind farm jobs are pretty irrelevant to their working lives.
What is relevant is the collapse of the union sector and the fact that the rapidly expanding non-union side is low-paying, has no benefits, and relies heavily on superexploited immigrant labor.
- Roughly 83% of the industry in the city is non-union (in an industry that as recently as the 1990s was 85% union). A field that was once mostly union even in right-to-work states in the South is now majority non-union even in heavily unionized northern cities like New York.
- Many construction workers are immigrants; lots of those workers are undocumented and their employers frequently use the threat of deportation to impose low pay and abusive working conditions on them.
- For most construction workers, low pay and no benefits are the norm. A job once considered a gateway to middle income is now a poverty-level job, and that’s on top of the chronically unstable employment that is the norm both for the non-union majority and the unionized minority (even union workers are hired by the day and layoffs can come at any time).
- Latino and Black construction workers frequently experience racial discrimination, and both sex discrimination and sexual harassment are common abuses faced by the few women in the industry.
- Construction is one of the most dangerous industries in the country – every year, roughly one thousand construction workers die on the job, and over a quarter of a million are injured. Many of the injured workers find themselves struggling to stay employed after they recover – workers who work “too slow” because of the effects of an injury are the first to get laid off, if they get hired at all.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified things: many construction workers are sitting home unemployed and out of work, and those who have jobs are risking their lives to pay the bills. It’s also likely that there will be a dramatic drop in construction activity due to the recession caused by the coronavirus, which means layoffs and joblessness are in the immediate future of many of America’s tradespeople.
Of course, organizing worker resistance to those abuses would involve class struggle on the job sites and in the streets by workers, not backroom deals between the bosses, the government and the AFL-CIO. The latter has little to do with building worker power.
Policy from above
Here is another example of the so-called “rank-and-file” strategy in action.
Ryan Pollock, a DSA member who’s an electrician in Austin, Texas, and close enough to the union’s leadership to be a staff organizer and that local’s Central Labor Council and Texas AFL-CIO delegate, got a resolution passed in both of those bodies supporting a Green New Deal. He wrote about this in Jacobin.
Now, those familiar with the labor world know that Central Labor Council and State Federation of Labor resolutions are essentially meaningless and have virtually no impact on the real world. Getting a resolution passed in a labor body involves log rolling and deal making with other union delegates, and nothing to do with mobilizing workers. It is the opposite of rank-and-file activism.
This is especially true of a resolution that calls for the elimination of the oil industry in a state where much of the manufacturing and construction union membership is composed of oil, gas and refinery workers.
Trades workers and unions do not necessarily have to be opposed to environmental demands and the greening of the economy, but Pollock poses this as a way of the DSA spreading socialist ideas among construction workers in the Lone Star State. This is misguided.
First of all, you’re not going to reach non-union workers through internal union politics when 96% of construction workers in Texas are non-union.
Moreover, you have to present them with something that has immediate relevance to their working lives. There are real issues for Texas construction workers, like the fact that the state doesn’t require workers’ comp coverage — it’s not unusual for construction workers who were injured in major accidents to refuse medical care because they know they can’t pay for it. Or the fact that a majority of construction workers in the state are immigrants, many undocumented, who are constantly looking over their shoulder for ICE or the Border Patrol.
If the goal is to reach workers through policy initiatives, then a call for ending deportation, or a demand that Texas end its status as the only state that does not require contractors to carry workers’ compensation insurance, would be far more relevant to them.
Besides, like in New York, most construction workers in Texas are in building construction, so a program built around the energy industry is pretty irrelevant to their work lives. Meanwhile, most of the union construction workforce in Texas are maintenance workers in the oil industry. Talk to this group about environmentalism and you will get an earful!
Again, it’s not that environmental and worker interests have to be opposed, but the idea that the DSA is building up socialism among the working class through these initiatives is a fantasy.
Any “rank-and-file strategy” that’s only addressed to the leaders of the unions, which themselves only represent a tiny fraction of the workforce, is a “rank-and-file strategy” in name only.
Strategy that relies on backroom deals between developers, the government, and union officials implicitly relies on the morals and human decency of the developers.
But that’s not how socialism is built. It is built through worker struggle, using the real leverage workers have.
What needs to happen in the construction industry is for it to be organized from the ground up. Recruit workers on a city- or area-wide basis, and organize them to fight for their needs. Building construction is a business where speed is of the essence: developers build with money borrowed from the bank short term at high interest. Any delay in work leads to millions of dollars being lost and the risk of bankruptcy. Shut the jobs down, and don’t let work restart until the workers’ needs and demands have been addressed.
Widespread strike activity is the only leverage construction workers, or any workers, have. It’s only by developing that capacity that any kind of new deal is going to be struck.
Gregory Butler was a union carpenter and shop steward in New York City for 24 years.