The DSA and Organized Labor

Pinellas DSA
5 min readApr 28, 2023

Member Bruce Nissen shares his thoughts on our work with the labor movement

One of the more “foundational stances” of the DSA is support for organized labor. Both in written positions and (less consistently) in practice, the DSA positions itself as unequivocally a pro-labor organization. Some DSA chapters have no working relationship with unions beyond rhetorical support; others like the Pinellas DSA have some of our members actively involved in individual unions and in broader union formations like the local central labor council (CLC).

It is not hard to understand why the DSA has this pro-union orientation. Democratic Socialists believe in democracy and favor struggle with our 1% overlords, the capitalists. Unions are among the most important U.S. forces for democracy. Although they do not have the clout with elected officials that corporations do, unions nevertheless have much more influence than almost any left-wing organization, so their support for basic democracy is important. The unions consistently oppose attempts (usually by Republican lawmakers) to restrict the franchise, make it harder to vote, implement right-wing populist or fascistic measures, or cut back the influence of ordinary Americans by any other means. Research has shown that countries with higher union densities are more equal and more democratic than those with low union densities.

By their very nature unions are also adversaries of large corporations and capitalists. This is simply because bargaining and enforcing a collective bargaining agreement with an employer brings opposing economic interests into contention, at least to a degree.

Therefore, a strong alliance between Democratic Socialists and labor unions seems like a clear plus. That said, socialists often find practical limitations to their work in the labor movement. One stems from the Cold War legacy. Many Americans equate socialism with dictatorship and loss of freedoms for individual workers and their families. Nationally prominent Democratic Socialists like Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) counter this image, especially among younger workers. DSA member behavior within the labor movement also dispels this misconception. I expect this obstacle to diminish over time.

Nevertheless, young DSA members who join and get involved in unions are frequently confounded. This is part of a pattern of American workers in generally often not understanding what unions are or how they work. A young DSA member first thinking about involvement in a union at their workplace may expect to see a dynamic organization on the move; what they often find is a bureaucratic, uninvolving outfit with few interests beyond protecting the contractual protections of its own members and few external activities beyond supporting Democratic Party candidates irrespective of how progressive those candidates are or are not. (Of course, this is not an accurate depiction of all unions — some are dynamic, progressive, internally democratic and involving — but these are the exceptions to the rule in today’s American labor movement.)

Given this “state of the unions,” some young DSAers may ask, “Why is it worthwhile to involve oneself actively in union or labor movement affairs? Isn’t it mostly a waste of time that would be better spent elsewhere?” I think this question deserves a serious answer.

The labor movement must be at or near the center of our focus because unions are the only institutions of any size in American society that are composed entirely of workers and are devoted entirely to the interests of workers. They are unique working-class institutions in a society that has attempted to obliterate even the notion of “working class” by lumping us all into a broad “middle class.” With all their flaws, unions are the only organizations we’ve got if we want to reach workers on a self-organized basis. And reaching workers on a self-organized basis I so crucial because working class people asserting themselves at the workplace (the “point of production”) is the only way that transformative change occurs, and historically this is the only way it has ever happened.

To illustrate this, consider the difference between putting our socialist energies into union work vs. putting them into a party like the Democratic Party. In the labor movement, you are working to build and contest politically within a clearly working-class institution that, however backward its leadership may be, is still at its core an organization composed of and answerable to workers. In the Democratic Party, you are working in a multi-class institution largely funded by and certainly answerable to a core of multi-millionaires and billionaires. Even if the political perspectives coming out of the leadership of both institutions should be identical there still would be a world of difference concerning which is worth serious socialist engagement.

To me, that means that we Democratic Socialists should view the Democratic Party in a totally opportunistic fashion: use it when you can (for example, use its ballot line in most cases) and soak it for support whenever that’s possible for our objectives and candidates, but don’t waste your time trying to internally build this organization that has no clear class basis and no internal discipline except for the discipline exerted by its funders. In contrast we should view the labor movement as fertile terrain for serious involvement and contestation over political and organizing/mobilizing orientation. We have a strong foothold for building class power to the extent that we are able to establish socialist influence and ultimately leadership within it. That means we have to build the labor movement; help it to thrive and then work to make it a better instrument to enhance the power of all workers.

That’s why I believe that an unshakable commitment to the labor movement and to establish and build a socialist current and ultimately socialist leadership within it to be absolutely crucial to the work of the DSA. Given the political and bureaucratic outlook of many labor leaders, that may seem a discouraging prospect but there is no alternative. The members of U.S. unions are much like other workers in our country, and we can’t expect unions to magically be way more advanced than their own membership. Building a socialist working class and ultimately a socialist America is a long-term task — work in the labor movement is crucial, but we must think of ourselves as long-distance runners.

(I want to thank Richie Floyd for incisive commentary on an earlier version of this blog, helping me to make it much better.)

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Pinellas DSA

The Official Pinellas County FL chapter of Democratic Socialists of America