What Is Rank-and-File Unionism?

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With all the hubbub, finger-pointing, and general rancor that’s descended on the labor movement lately, largely over impractical organizing strategies and what some are calling “a crisis of union leadership”, it’s worthwhile to revisit the basic principles of what a union is and what any organizing effort should strive to be. The concept of rank-and-file unionism is our best starting place. Let’s break it down.

Engaging Workers

A recent talk organized by the Emergency Workers Organizing Committee (EWOC), the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE), and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), featuring Jollene Levid, Bianca Cunningham, and Kari Thompson, provided an enthusiastic analysis of best practices for those committed to rank-and-file unionism. Levid, a regional organizer with UTLA and a major driver behind the 2019 Los Angeles Teachers Strike, made clear off-the-bat that organizers must be “engaging as many workers as possible, again and again, and particularly engaging workers around tough questions and decisions.” She did just that when union-wide votes on raising dues and engaging in a strike were called. Rather than go behind members’ backs to make critical decisions about the direction of the union, she was confident that she and her team could make the case it was in their best interest to vote yes.

Nevertheless, no one said these boots-on-the-ground organizing tactics were easy. UTLA invested heavily into research and outreach years before taking decisive action, even developing an app to engage each of its 913 worksites – that’s 913 separate schools, each with its own representative who provided a headcount to UTLA organizers each day during their week-long strike. By establishing lines of communication with every worker and engaging them on critical issues along the way, UTLA’s strike vote was passed by 98% of their 34,000-strong membership and their immense display of solidarity won them a new contract within days of their strike. This victory was a clear reflection of the engaging protocols undertaken by UTLA leadership, ensuring every worker knew the power of collective action.

Worker-Led Movements

In conversation with Jollene was Bianca Cunningham, campaign director at Bargaining for the Common Good, who reiterated Jollene’s rank-and-file commitment while also stressing the importance of “transparency and accountability — that access to power is not always power.” This statement struck deep for Bianca, a former Verizon worker who organized seven retail stores across Brooklyn, making them the first unionized retail workers in the company. Bianca also knows there is no secret formula that labor leaders own that ordinary workers don’t also possess. “Nothing can ever replace the power of a one-on-one conversation,” Bianca stressed, and that there is no one better equipped to talk to employees about their rights than another worker. As a Verizon employee, Bianca was able to identify with her coworkers about specific injustices in the workplace, and when she stepped out on the picket line, others knew she was risking just as much they were.

Engaging in rank-and-file unionism also tends to keep organizing leaders themselves on task, constantly being reminded that their work is at the behest of its members. Kari Thompson, Director of Education and International Strategies at United Electrical – one of the few unions that has the rank-and-file motto literally written into its slogan – reiterated this fact when describing the 2008 strike at Republic Windows and Doors when UE Local 1110 workers illegally occupied their worksite. “We supported their choice to take that military action so that they could win,” Karrie said, “helping them get in contact with the media and with politicians and even with people who could bring them pizza.” In this scenario, UE worked at the behest of their local unions and those locals took power into their own hands in order to take a quick and decisive stand.

Building for the Future

Ultimately, the concept of rank-and-file unionism is to create a more equitable future by organizing more unions, democratizing the ones that exist – check out the United Auto Workers referendum to adopt a one-member-one-vote system as an example –  and taking more militants actions, such as strikes. To practice rank-and-file unionism is to be committed to giving every worker a choice and to upholding transparency, the very options that employers don’t give their employees. Any union must always strive to be better than the employer.

UE is an example of how unions can put these concepts into practice, by offering local and independent unions greater autonomy, giving them the tools to bargain with employers on their own, and maintaining the right to strike clause in many of their contracts — a powerful bargaining tool and federally guaranteed right that many workers don’t realize they are giving away when they sign most collective bargaining agreements. You can learn more about UE’s progressive governance policies here

Rank-and-file unionism has also inspired several worker-led movements in the last few years. The 2019 Los Angeles Teachers Strike was part of a wave of teacher-led walkouts across the country, from South Carolina to Colorado. The work being done by Bianca and others at Bargaining for the Common Good is also leveling the playing field for workers by involving not just public or private sector unions but worker-centers and grassroots organizations as well. These displays of solidarity and community-based alliances, whether it was during the Fight for 15 Campaign or the 2012 Chicago Teachers Strike, demonstrated the true rank-and-file power of the working class as a whole. New groups, including the Alphabet Workers Union, a minority union composed of tech workers at Google, Rideshare Drivers United, and the Tech Workers Coalition have also formed ‘solidarity unions’, organizations that favor direct actions and aren’t focused primarily on collective bargaining. Many of these groups’ policies are influenced by the canonical text Labor Law for the Rank and Filer by Staughton Lynd and Daniel Gross, a great resource for workers committed to self-reliance and mutual aid.

A main goal here at EWOC is to build foundational power in workplaces from the ground up. EWOC structures its organizing training and philosophy around actual workers looking to rouse their fellow employees and community members. You can learn more about their training series and read our new workplace organizing guide.

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