Union membership in the United States is at its lowest level in decades. Nonetheless, unions have hit a 50-year high in public approval. Enthusiasm for unions is not manifesting solely in polls, but also in shop floor organizing by young and lower middle-aged workers.
Simultaneously, the 2010s have seen a proliferation of social movements focused on race, gender and other forms of identity. Despite this simultaneity, it is unclear if present-day union structures and leadership are capable of learning from and incorporating the insights of such social movements.
At a national scale, unions have been slow to diversify their leadership, with continued underrepresentation of women and people of color. Even where there is such representation, it is unclear if unions are positioned to convert this newfound mass approval into an inclusive rising tide for the entire labor movement — let alone for, and towards, socialism.
In this context, what should socialists opposed to all forms of domination and exploitation be doing about labor unions? Through what framework might insights and personnel offered by social movements be learned from and incorporated into unions?
A partial answer has come from a broad swath of socialists: rank-and-file power. This means union members exercising control over their unions, rather than union bureaucrats or officials doing so. The 2018 re-release of Kim Moody’s “The Rank-and-File Strategy” has most widely propagated this approach. Moody’s rank-and-file strategy has become the terms of debate within Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and a point of discussion for socialists in general.
However, this strategy overlooks the potential for rank-and-file interventions on various forms of structural racism. Such interventions translate into a rank-and-file strategy that does not consign itself to a simplistic focus on bread-and-butter and the point of production but rather points itself towards the interwoven wealth issues of racialized housing and education. This brings us to a modified union position that accounts for and immediately acts upon the dynamics of an immediate and racialized lived-space: municipalist syndicalism.
Municipalist syndicalism broadly means democratizing unions as a means to democratizing local and regional public power. This is done through advancing an anti-racist dual power agenda for the labor movement by building and acting with communities of color on issues beyond the job. Jobs are simply not enough, even as unions often exclusively focus on them as a means of community empowerment while harmfully conceding total control over land use. Yet, as Marnie Brady notes, “Pitting decent jobs against decent housing is a false dilemma,” particularly where the legacy of “redlining” (housing discrimination and wealth differentiating residential segregation) is still with us.
Thus, a municipalist syndicalist rank-and-file strategy begins with pluralistic “militant minorities” democratizing unions so as to include the rank-and-file of neighborhood, housing and other municipal struggles. It means reorienting labor unions towards funneling resources into constructing and sustaining vibrant tenant unions that in the long term seek to democratize residency and bring about a housing and homes guarantee and reducing harmfully long commutes.
Just as Big Capital increasingly controls real estate, making the lives of workers more precarious, One Big Union is needed to combat this. It means One Big Union includes not just labor unions, but tenant unions and those struggles addressing structural racism head on — and this One Big Union finally takes municipal and regional power and democratizes it.
When labor fails to do this, it fails surrounding communities and fails itself in the process, as shown by the case of 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville.
PROTO-MUNICIPALIST SYNDICALISM AMONG THE NEW LEFT
The Ocean Hill-Brownsville conflict, in which largely white labor unionists found themselves in direct conflict with Black and Brown residential communities in New York, highlighted the limits of mainstream US militant unionism and at the same time provided a roadmap of how to move beyond it.
The conflict was a result of the refusal of the predominantly white United Federation of Teachers (UFT) — previously elected as the exclusive bargaining agent between teachers and the New York Board of Education — to prioritize racial desegregation of schools in the district. The social democratic UFT simply saw race as “epiphenomenal” to class, and, failing to recognize the embedded racism of the system, it believed that “the course of history rather than the race-conscious hiring policies of community control would integrate school staffs.”
Moreover, UFT leaders argued “that teacher professionalism precluded parents from exercising significant authority in the schools.” In practice, this meant white teachers were opposed to parents of color exercising any real influence or authority and were invested in keeping such a racialized hierarchy intact.
Whereas the UFT had supported desegregation in the South, it chose to stay on the sidelines in fighting de facto segregation at home — it would not challenge the New Deal’s legacy of redlining wherein residential segregation cemented urban school segregation.
Despite the Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court decisions to desegregate schools in the mid-1950s, de facto segregation had only worsened in New York schools. This resulted in worsened wealth disparities and the early expressions of a school-to-prison pipeline. In response, the Citywide Committee for Integrated Schools (CCIS) called for a one-day boycott of New York City public schools in 1964, which resulted in half a million students boycotting their classes in favor of attending major marches and pickets across the city. Despite requests by the CCIS, the UFT leadership refused to join.
This refusal, along with the failure to open an integrated public school in 1966, was seen as part of “white New York’s thwarting of integration,” which in turn fueled a “Black turn toward community control,” writes Daniel Perlstein in Justice, Justice: School Politics and the Eclipse of Liberalism. In December of that year, Black and Latinx parents led a sit-in at the Board of Education, and under pressure from the community, Mayor John Lindsay piloted three community-controlled school “demonstration” districts the next year. The community-controlled school district of Ocean Hill-Brownsville became the epicenter of conflict between white teachers and Black and Puerto Rican communities.
The newly elected school board, which included prominent Black nationalists who had been voted-in by the community — sought to transfer 19 white teachers and administrators out of the district. The UFT leadership, fearing that this type of decentralized community-controlled power structure would undermine their influence, chose the side of the dismissed teachers and administrators and demanded their reinstatement. The white teachers and administrators were provided with a police escort as they re-entered their schools, solidifying the commonplace belief that white professionals and unionists were agents of white supremacy. The school board and wider community rebuffed their entry.
Three citywide and UFT-led strikes ensued, pitting the 90 percent white union and its 54,000 members against a majority of predominantly students, communities, schools and neighborhoods of color. Public service had become the terrain of contestation, and it appeared that union officialdom was against any kind of substantive democratic anti-racist agenda.
In the midst of this conflict, a proto-municipalist syndicalist rank-and-file revolt emerged. Teachers aligned with the New Left “helped reopen hundreds of schools which [striking] UFT teachers had abandoned.” In taking over the schools, these teachers provided their students with a radical alternative to formal education. After two dozen teachers crossed the picket line and took over the Bronx High School of Science in alliance with students and parents, it was renamed as “Liberation School” and “governed by a committee of eight teachers and eight students whose decisions were subject to ratification by daily assemblies of all students and teachers.” The school declared itself in solidarity with community control advocates at Ocean Hill-Brownsville, and in opposition to the city bureaucracy.
As such, New Left teachers advanced and briefly enacted an anti-racist vision of joint teacher-community control. Nonetheless, they did not hold the influence or formal organizational authority to shift the UFT towards such a stance, let alone the broader labor movement. Ultimately, school decentralization was significantly watered down. Union-community relations continued to sour.
The Ocean Hill-Brownsville conflict highlights what was true for much of the Long Sixties when identity-based social movements came into conflict with labor unions: the strengths and weaknesses of this era’s militancy. On the one hand, the era of rank-and-file revolts recalled and carried forth the “students’ demand for self-government” of the 1960s into unions and workplaces. On the other, it laid bare the “debilitating weaknesses” of the era’s revolts and strikes, including the confinement of respective rank-and-file organizations to their particular industry and union; a focus on replacing union leaders who often “did little, however, to alter the behavior of the unions”; and a failure to “build material alliances with the era’s social movements.”
Building on such strengths and rectifying these shortcomings bring us to municipalist syndicalism.
As shown by 1968 New York, militancy at the point-of-production can sometimes backfire. But the point-of-production has changed. Wage labor is no longer predominantly situated in manufacturing; it is increasingly employed in the service sector, such as in hospitals and schools. The object of labor is no longer an object; labor is increasingly concerned with other people. As both Jane McAlevey and Eric Blanc have put it, “the point of production is the community.” If unions do not recognize this, the disaster of Ocean Hill-Brownsville will be repeated. Thus, meeting workers where they are at means meeting them in the relationship of their labor to other people. It means not only accounting for the people doing the servicing, but the people being serviced as well.
Elements of a syndicalist outlook have manifested in the most successful recent teachers’ strikes. For example, West Virginia teachers striking in 2018 were more effective than their counterparts in Oklahoma because the former struck in tandem with paraprofessionals, custodians and bus drivers. Beyond their sectoral industrial unionism, they also coordinated student activities with parents and local churches to provide for students. This repeated itself even more strongly in the early 2019 Los Angeles teacher strike.
Strike support had built up through the caucus Union Power taking over the teachers’ union in LA. This caucus had delivered on “the promise to institute an organizing department, a political department, a research department, and a parent/community division.” This oriented the union towards “bargaining for the common good,” which labor reporter Sarah Jaffe defines as “the idea of introducing demands in collective bargaining that benefit the community as a whole.”
To do this, the union restructured the way collective bargaining has been traditionally done. Rather than a small exclusive bargaining team, the negotiating process occurs through structured membership involvement. In LA, this means, “Teachers are elected as leaders at the school or chapter level; then those chapters are grouped into clusters that have their own leaders, all of them in regular contact with the union leadership.” Furthermore, union staff were deployed to arrange school assemblies with parents to hear what was of main concern to them and their communities.
The union has also worked with various racial justice and student activist groups to reduce class size, stop police searches in schools targeting students of color, support undocumented students, add full-time nurses, and make schools greener. More than gaining “public support,” the union has utilized its capacity to bring in the “the public” as a partner in the struggle to reshape schools. Chicago public schools are likewise seeing an industrial unionist standoff with both the Chicago Teachers’ Union and SEIU Local 73 acting in solidarity with one another, together fighting for more affordable housing in the city.
Here industrial unionism has resembled syndicalism. Past forms of anarcho-syndicalism have been premised on the notion that direct action and democratic control of unions constitute technical preparation for and a means by which to effectuate workers’ control of industry. For example, the rank-and-file strategy itself finds its roots in the Industrial Workers of the World’s (IWW) Syndicalist Militant Minority League of 1912. Also, as documented by Stuart Christie and referred to as “the conscious minority,” the Iberian Anarchist Federation of Labor (FAI) constituted a militant minority within the Spanish syndicalist National Confederation of Labor (CNT). The FAI as a militant minority of rank-and-file workers effectively prepared the way for the collectivization of industry in areas of manufacturing and agriculture as part of the 1936 Spanish Revolution.
Still, Murray Bookchin critiqued syndicalism’s reification of the divide between the political and the economic, with the economic considered exclusively important. This included an organizational tendency among some, like the CNT’s Diego Abad de Santillán, to conceive of unions as centralist organs of “apolitical” administrators of the economy. Such tendencies also caused both reform and revolutionary syndicalists within the CNT to overlook fundamental issues of public financial control during the Spanish Civil War.
Given the increasingly public and therefore politically visible character of work, Bookchin’s criticism can be met head on: syndicalism can be revised into municipalist syndicalism. This is the notion that the democratization of unions can serve as a bridgehead into the democratization of cities, becoming institutional matrices of counterpower to state and capital. In the public sector this means a militant minority can deploy itself towards building a base and working in tandem with the community to democratize public services.
TOWARDS ONE BIG UNION
There are three areas in which I have prior articulated a municipalist syndicalist approach: internal budgeting; external bargaining; and broad-based mapping. The first is participatory budgeting by union members across industry in a given geographic region as well as between unions and residents of the communities they are embedded in. The second means escalating such structures to a form of bargaining for the common good that is structured in such a way that does not simply lift up community demands, but includes communities and service-recipients in the process of bargaining.
The third is participatory mapping, wherein unions themselves facilitate rank-and-file activity by residents in unorganized neighborhoods and workplaces. As a striking West Virginia teacher put it, “As teachers we have a unique window into the economy of our communities.” The key is to take the observed interconnection between work and home, prison and school, and map it out, galvanize it, and build everyday forms of counterpower.
There is a fourth area worth adding here: entwining labor unionism with tenant unionism with the latter also empowered to collectively bargain and eventually convert housing and land into cooperatives and land trusts, as dreamed up in Minneapolis by members of Inquilinxs Unidxs Por Justicia (United Renters for Justice). This means labor unions scaling the fight from calling for affordable housing, as the Chicago Teachers Union admirably did, to capacity building for a vibrant tenant unionism with a socialist horizon. This socialist horizon includes what Erik Forman points to in housing: when unions took it upon themselves to design and construct housing cooperatives. Or even when socialists took it upon themselves to engage in radical housing arrangements that have lasted to this day in Vienna. It can include tactics of combining strikes at work with rent strikes, which the CNT successfully did at its height in Barcelona.
It can also include Marnie Brady’s recommended trans-municipal tactic: “Worker activists in public sector unions [advancing] demands for a member vote on a set of principles to guide the investment decisions of their elected pension trustees.” Brady speaks further of escalating this rank-and-file public sector workers running for pension trustee positions, and redirecting pension fund investment towards the public interest such as housing cooperative construction or conversion.
The urgency of this cannot be stressed enough: the Trump administration has ushered in policies to encourage gentrification, such as creating over 8,000 “Opportunity Zones” within which investors can buy property and double their value — qualifying for a full capital gains tax exemption if property is held onto until 2029. As billionaire Mark Cuban asserts, “OZs are super hot right now. Every major investor I know has been pitched a property or fund within an OZ.” Big Capital is paying attention, aiming for windfalls in profit, but most of all control over land and bottlenecking labor.
In response, Brady asserts that the “AFL-CIO’s Housing Investment Trust should lead the way and prioritize financing of deep affordability and acquisitions for community land trusts.” Yet, there is little indication that labor officialdom will do so on its own accord. Rather, redirecting the AFL-CIO trust’s $6.43 billion in assets will require rank-and-file militancy throughout the labor movement, starting at the local level. It requires a rank-and-file familiarized with the interconnection of labor and housing issues, that operates beyond the affect of “social movement unionism” and instead through deep organizing.
Thus, under municipalist syndicalism One Big Union of laborers and tenants can advance towards a municipality of worker cooperatives, land trusts with mixed-use limited equity housing cooperatives, and democratized public services. This can begin by forming clusters of industry-specific union stewards in a given community escalating into neighborhood-based workers’ councils. Such workers’ councils can thereby link up with tenant councils and assemblies, together forming neighborhood councils and assemblies that become spaces of combined labor and tenant unionism. Positively reinforcing each other, bargaining for the common good goes from vague pronouncement to being based on the twin pillars of militant and strategic labor and tenant unionism.
With retrenched union bureaucracies, it appears that only rank-and-file militant minorities can — and already are in some ways — bringing this about. This is not a top-down led “social movement unionism,” but a municipalist syndicalism of the rank-and-file. Such is a rank-and-file strategy that at once connects the workplace and the community. It is a strategy for a socialism that is organic and true to both.