Being a socialist at work
distills the experiences of socialists organizing in their workplaces over decades to provide a guide for what you can do to add to that history. Larry is a veteran socialist and labor activist, a retired paramedic in San Francisco and former San Francisco vice president of Service Employees International Union Local 1021, where he was a member of the Change 1021 reform group.
This article is the first installment in the International Socialist Organization’s (ISO) Socialist at Work Toolkit being assembled by the ISO’s Labor Working Group. We hope this collection of articles — as well as the experiences of socialists that went into it and will come out of it — contributes toward reconnecting today’s revived socialist movement with the rich history of labor struggle in the U.S. Only in the U.S. is socialism seen as foreign to unions and shop-floor struggles. It’s high time that changed.
SocialistWorker.org hopes Larry’s article will kick off a series of contributions from our readers about their own stories and ideas about Being a Socialist at Work. Please consider contributing your own experiences and the lessons you’ve drawn from them in an e-mail submission to SW — or just tell us what liked, or didn’t, about this series.
THIS ONLINE publication is for anyone who is a socialist at work, whether you are in a union or not. This guide provides both a general framework for socialists and some useful nuts-and-bolts tips. We think it addresses a growing need on the left. This guide is based on the accumulated experience of members in the International Socialist Organization (ISO). Our experience is the product of trial and error and of successes and challenges.
This piece is far from the final word on Being a Socialist at Work. Ongoing practice and experience in the class struggle by members of the ISO and by other socialists helps inform and sharpen our theory of working-class self-activity and self-emancipation, which in turn enhances and deepens our practice of Being a Socialist at Work. 
We look forward to your feedback and to hearing about your experiences of Being a Socialist at Work. Let us know how useful you found this guide, what you would add and what was not that helpful. We want to hear from socialists about experiences, campaigns and struggles at your workplace that offer important lessons and insights for other socialists at work.
Work Under Capitalism
Being a Socialist at Work is kind of a strange title. If you are a socialist and you don’t own any means of production, you are going have to work for wages in order to pay rent, buy groceries, purchase health care, obtain water and procure the other essentials and niceties of life. By the very fact you are a socialist and you work, you are by definition Being a Socialist at Work.
The title to this article implies something more active than just existing as a socialist in your place of work; it suggests that you are operating as an active socialist in your union and/or at your workplace. So we are not talking about “being” in an existential or philosophical sense.
Speaking of existentialism and philosophy, we should remember that for most working people, work is a source of great alienation. As a system, capitalism promises people a happy and fulfilled life. We are told the way to that happy life, to the American Dream, is through employment and hard work, so that you can earn enough money to purchase the dream and buy you some happiness.
The contradiction that socialist Karl Marx pointed out long ago is that for most people, most of the time, work under capitalism is a frustrating and an unpleasant experience. Sometimes it can be a threat to our health, our safety and our lives. We often experience the world of work as atomized individuals who are powerless and who have little control or say over how we use our labor power or what we produce.
An SW series dedicated to discussing how to organize in your workplace. The ISO’s Labor Working Group has contributed how-to guides, and readers are adding their own experiences.
Socialists at work
An SW series dedicated to discussing how to organize in your workplace. The ISO’s Labor Working Group has contributed how-to guides, and readers are adding their own experiences.
We can be alienated from our co-workers who we might be in competition with for jobs, work assignments, schedules, overtime, promotions and in so many other ways. As the robber baron capitalist Jay Gould once boasted, “ I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.” For most workers, our feelings of being overworked, having no voice at work and feeling alienated are seen as an unavoidable necessity because work is intrinsically unpleasant. Marx’s insightful analysis of alienation and labor under capitalism is a must-read for socialists. 
The Socialist Project and Work
Work and the workplace carry a special importance for revolutionary socialists. The revolutionary socialist project is all about the self-emancipation of the working class through struggle from below. For socialists, the working class is a potentially revolutionary force based on our social position. Workers are situated at the heart of modern capitalism, at the point of production, where profits are created. This gives workers a strategic position at the heart of the economy.
To a large extent, workers are already organized by our employers; we are brought together by our bosses to work in factories, warehouses, stores, offices, hospitals and a myriad of other workplaces. At the workplace, we find ourselves strategically deployed in teams, work groups, departments, divisions and so on.
Because workers are brought together by employers under circumstances we do not control, we are often forced to struggle against our situation and our employers. The struggle can be over the security of our employment, the level of our wages, control over the pace/intensity of work, or it can involve asserting our dignity and demanding fairness and respect on the job.
Because we are exploited collectively, there is little to no room for us to fight that exploitation singularly, as individuals. The workplace is where we will have to struggle collectively. So the workplace, in addition to being a great source of alienation, can also become a place where we experience our collective power, build a comradeship with our co-workers and start to overcome some of the alienation we talked about.
Socialists and the Workplace: A Perfect Fit?
On the surface, socialists and the workplace seem like they should be a perfect fit. There is an old movement poster by R. Crumb that had a picture of a protester kicking down a door. The caption to the poster read something like “Remember, when you are smashing the state, keep a smile on your face and a song in your heart.” Work should be the place socialists regularly go to with a smile on our face and a song in our heart — and kick some capitalist butt.
Unfortunately, that is often not the case. Even though we are socialists and we have a special affinity to work and the workplace, Being a Socialist at Work can still feel a bit intimidating and confusing when you are just starting out. Depending on where you work, it can even seem downright overwhelming and daunting.
You might be the lone socialist at work. As socialists at work, we face questions like, “How do I get active?” If there is a union, “How and to what extent do I get plugged in?” Even if you are in a union, it’s often the case you may be one of a few activists or possibly the sole union activist.
If you are fortunate to already have a union, the union could be weak, bureaucratic and run from the top down. Your co-workers could feel disaffected from the union. If you have a union, the officials may put up barriers to your involvement. Or the union may welcome you with open arms because they have so few stewards or activists; they are ecstatic to have someone show interest. Even this scenario, has its own set of dangers.
Socialists within unions can feel a pull to focus solely on “union work” and tone down our “socialism.” Throughout history, many visionary socialist crusaders has started down this road of working-class emancipation and socialist transformation only to end up having their horizons limited to being a good trade union militant and/or union reformer. We will talk more about this later.
As socialists at work, we face questions like “How do I raise socialist politics?” “Am I an ‘out’ socialist; if so how ‘out’ am I?” “How do I effectively blend fights for racial, economic, gender, environmental and social justice into Being a Socialist at Work“? “How do I use Socialist Worker newspaper and the International Socialist Review in my workplace?”
We can call this “the special case of socialist alienation at work.” Let’s look at how we can overcome that alienation and keep that smile on our face and that song in our heart while we wage class war against capital. We will turn business lingo on its head and look at some “best practices” for socialists at work. One of the best ways to do that is by sharing our ideas and our experiences of Being a Socialist at Work. We’ll also share some of our challenges and how we overcame them. Many of the challenges we face are common to many of us, while some are unique based on our particular circumstances.
Warning: There will not be universal, one-size-fits-all answers. A lot will depend on our own very unique circumstances, including things like: where we work, our workplace dynamics, the work culture, the history of struggle or lack thereof, and the management style your boss adopts — maybe it’s the “nice boss” or it could be the evil “Catbert” from the Dilbert cartoon.
While we cannot possibly address all the particulars and peculiarities of each of our situations, we can look at some principles and frameworks that may help guide us in analyzing our own work situation. The more we share experiences and trade notes, the more we will find that the challenges we face are common to many of us.
At the end, we will look at some of the tricks and traps of Being a Socialist at Work. We will start with our top 16 tricks and traps based on the experiences of ISO members.
In turn, we encourage you to share with us any tricks or traps gleaned from your experiences of Being a Socialist at Work. This way we can continue to enrich and update this online resource, making it a collective resource for new socialists and young workers. Collectively we can deepen the pool of experience of Being a Socialist at Work and contribute to rebuilding a vibrant socialist current in the working class.
Before we get to the tricks and traps, though, let’s take a step back and look at a big picture overview of what is involved in Being a Socialist at Work.
What Is the ISO’s Labor Work?
In the ISO, we define our socialist labor work as:
Supporting, leading and organizing collective fights at the worksite.
Defending, extending and strengthening unions.
Building a fighting labor left.
Constructing a revolutionary socialist current within that left.
These are not individual or discrete undertakings, nor do they advance in some predetermined sequential order. Building power at the worksite, strong trade unions, a labor left and socialist organization are interconnected and simultaneous parts of building a fighting, conscious, revolutionary class in this country.
If you take a step back, what all these interrelated areas of work have in common is that, at their root, they are about building political relationships and engaging in collective action with our co-workers. One of our chief battles today is one of ideas — to break the hold of the past. We use conversations, building political relationships and shared experiences of struggle to:
Assist our co-workers to take collective action.
Form a union.
If you are in a union that is an “open shop,” it means winning our co-workers to stay in the union while simultaneously fighting to make the union more democratic, militant and stronger.
Work with and collaborate with others on the labor left.
Win union militants to revolutionary socialism.
Let’s unpack each of these interrelated areas of socialist labor work.
Building, Strengthening and Extending Trade Unions
One way to sum up the revolutionary socialist approach to trade unions is that while unions are necessary, they are not sufficient. Unions are the basic defensive organization of the working class. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were the first socialists to recognize this fact and to champion unions.
Under capitalism, individual workers have limited power and limited wealth. The primary way workers can gain more power over our lives is by uniting with our co-workers in unions and utilizing our collective power and our collective wealth. Trade unions have risen in country after country across the globe in response to the expansion of capitalism as workers have sought protection from the vicissitudes and ravages of a system that elevates private profit over the needs of people and the planet.
In this country, the trade unions are the only class organizations of the proletariat. Trade unions are class organizations par excellence because they organize only the members of a class and they organize them for the sole reason that they belong to that class. The class character of an organization does not depend on its ideas; it depends on its objective role and function in society.
There is, however, another side to trade unions. On the one hand, unions unite workers for our collective fights. On the other hand trade, unions can divide workers and keep us separated, often on the basis of trade, occupation or employer. British socialist Tony Cliff reminded us that the geography of trade unions typically mirror the geography of capitalism, when he wrote:
As workers in various industries earn different wages, work under different conditions, the unions unite workers into distinct groups and keep each group apart from one another. The geography of trade unionism matches the geography of capitalism. Here there are low wages, there an increase in track speed or unsafe working conditions.
Another limitation of unions is they can derive their power from inclusion or exclusion.
Some unions build their power by limiting the labor market. Many of the first unions organized in the U.S. did this by excluding Blacks, women, immigrants, unskilled workers and others. Other unions build their power through inclusion, by uniting all workers. Bill Fletcher and Fernando Gapasin trace the history of these two routes of inclusion versus exclusion to building union power in their book Solidarity Divided.
There is another limitation to trade unions. Generation after generation of working-class militants have created powerful trade union organizations. Union militants risked their lives and fought pitched battles to defeat the open shop, going on to build strong trade union organization — unions strong enough to wrest major concessions from capital, redistribute wealth down to the working classes and win major social welfare legislation.
Yet generation after generation of workers have seen those same unions wane in power and influence. In country after country, we have seen these same strong trade union organizations undermined, weakened, defeated and even destroyed.
In An Injury to All : The Decline of American Unionism, Kim Moody writes about how even at the zenith of power for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (the CIO), capital had already set in motion a long-term corporate strategy to weaken and if possible eliminate unions. To put it very crudely: under capitalism, trade unions must be either tamed or destroyed. In the case of the U.S., unions were tamed in order to destroy them.
Perhaps the biggest limitation of unions is that they fight the effects but not the causes of those effects. In other words, unions exist to improve the terms on which workers are exploited, not put an end to exploitation. One consequence of unions accepting the framework of the capitalist system (either explicitly or tacitly) is the tendency to exclude political issues. In the U.S. labor movement, there is often a strict separation of economic from political fights.
Rosa Luxemburg, the great Polish revolutionary socialist, likened trade union struggle to Sisyphus, the Greek mythological figure who was forced to roll an immense bolder up a hill, only for it to roll down again when it neared the top of the hill. That is why we say building trade union organization is necessary, but it is also insufficient.
The fact that trade union organization and trade union consciousness is limited in these ways in no way lessens the importance of building, strengthening and extending trade unions. Our work in in rebuilding unions and our success as socialist militants on the shop floor requires building political relationships with co-workers, developing common work and promoting collective action to form, defend, reform and strengthen our unions.
However, given the limitations of trade unions, our goal as socialists cannot be limited to solely rebuilding trade union strength and organization. This is why we also have to build a dynamic fighting left wing of the labor movement. This leads us to the second interrelated element of Being a Socialist at Work: building a fighting labor left.
Building and Influencing the Labor Left
The left has played a key, often times pivotal, role in building the labor movement. At the center of some of this country’s biggest labor battles, leftist ideas and strategies were instrumental. These included:
Fights at the point of production
Strong workplace organization
Militancy and strikes
Forging democratic unions
Blending working-class political and economic fights
The history of working-class struggle in this country and around the world is often contiguous and intertwined with the history of the left.
In a revived labor movement, when tens of thousands or millions of workers go into motion and we use our collective power to wrest back some of the wealth we create, to defend and extend public services and to build powerful trade union organizations and restore our communities — there will be struggles over tactics, strategies and ideas. We will be competing with those who want a return to business unionism, albeit, a militant business unionism.
In a revived labor movement, there will be those who will want to build union power by limiting the pool of labor by building walls and excluding immigrants. There will be those in a revitalized labor movement who favor protectionist tariffs, who are attracted to right-wing populism, or who oppose marriage equality.
We know that some very good union militants in the “red state” teacher rebellions supported Donald Trump, and may still support Trump. It is not logically inconsistent to be a militant trade unionist while holding views that support fracking or oppose abortion and a woman’s right to choose or any number of reactionary and ultraconservative ideas.
There are those in the labor movement today, and will be those in a revitalized labor movement, who will tell us labor’s future lies with a Democrat — a Democrat who supports free trade, the use of military force aboard when American corporate interests are threatened, and a militarized police force at home. There will be those who tell us we need to vote for a Democrat who cuts wages, slashes pensions and starves the public sector.
So in addition to rebuilding our unions, Being a Socialist at Work means being part of rebuilding a vibrant left wing of the labor movement where we champion building workers’ power from the bottom up, not the top down. We want to be part of a fighting left that takes up wider class issues, that builds real unity by challenging racism and sexism and transphobia, that engages in deliberate acts of solidarity, that fights for democracy in our unions and builds international solidarity.
At the same time as we are fighting to defend and extend strong trade union organization, we also need to help build a strong, lively and large labor left around a pole of ideas that can be instrumental, sometimes decisive, in future class battles. Progressive, transformative and liberatory ideas can be, and often are, part and parcel of a revived labor movement, but the connection is not a foregone conclusion. Ideas about economic, racial, social and climate justice have to be advanced, advocated and fought for.
We need a vibrant labor left where we can both collaborate and disagree with others on the left. For example, there are those on the left, particularly in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), who have a different view of the possibilities for workers and their unions to use the Democratic Party as a vehicle to advance the labor movement.
We also know that the Democratic Party will remain a party of austerity for workers, particularly in places where public-sector union density is strong and Democratic Party politicians are in office.
Building a strong, resilient labor left requires that we work with others, such as the DSA, in contract campaigns and fights against individual Democratic Party mayors, city councils and boards of supervisors which are imposing austerity — while continuing to have debates and struggle over our differences in non-sectarian ways. Building political relationships and collaborating in collective action is key to building a new labor left.
However, building strong unions and being part of a growing and dynamic labor left is not enough. To borrow from one of Naomi Klein’s recent books, No Is Not Enough, resisting Trump and/or the employers and/or the judiciary and/or the labor bureaucracy is simply not enough. We also need a positive vision of what it is we are fighting for.
Our co-workers may join us in resisting the multipronged attack on labor, or in defending their particular set of wages, benefits and working conditions, but many of our co-workers also want an aspirational vision of the kind of society we want to live in. This brings us to the third interrelated task of Being a Socialist at Work: building a socialist current within the labor left and winning union militants to revolutionary socialism.
Socialist Ideas and Socialist Organization
At the root of capitalism is a system that places the accumulation of profits for the few over human need and the aspirations of the many. It’s a system based on a few owning and controlling the means of production, thereby guaranteeing we live in a society that will always be undemocratic and riddled with huge inequalities.
Premature deaths, from starvation, war, unsafe drinking water, lack of access to health care and climate change are the inevitable by-products of a system that elevates accumulation of vast wealth for a few and relegates the rest of us to toil and misery. These are not accidental side effects of capitalism that can be ameliorated or cleaned up.
Socialists also understand that negotiating and renegotiating the price of our labor power under capitalism will always have its limitations because we are not addressing the fundamental root of the problem — a productive apparatus that is privately owned and where major decisions are made on the basis of maximizing profits and exploiting our labor power.
We have seen how the employers and politicians deployed their media and propaganda machine to denounce participants and leaders of the red state teachers rebellion and paint the teachers as selfish and uncaring about the students they teach. We see how the right wing, in conjunction with the employers, has deployed the courts, all the way to the Supreme Court, to vilify and weaken workers’ organizations.
And we have seen how the legislative branch, while lavishing tax cuts on the corporations and the very wealthy, bashes public workers, attacks private-sector workers and starves the public sector.
There is organizational and political cohesion arrayed against us. That is why we need an organization on the workers’ side. We need an organization that is the repository of lessons from workers’ struggles of the past, so that we can avoid repeating mistakes and study strategies and tactics that have won for workers in the past.
We need an organization that promotes the history of workers’ struggles and the ideas of the socialist movement. We need an organization where we can pool our resources, talents and experiences — an organization that is defined by our common political outlook of revolutionary socialism. We need our own press, a socialist press, with our own circulation based on networks of workers.
We need to build an organization of socialists to train new leaders for the fights ahead, from building and extending trade unions to building a vibrant labor left. Building socialist organization is not a separate area of work. The International Socialist Organization brings a rich tradition of socialist ideas and labor experience to the project of building both the labor movement and a robust labor left.
This includes basic Marxist ideas, such as understanding that unions are an important and necessary element in the class struggle, while at the same time not giving unions uncritical support or regarding them as sufficient in and of themselves. We also bring the rich Marxist tradition known as the rank-and-file strategy, distilled from 100 years of international working-class struggles.
The new norm of the open shop is in reality a return to what was the norm for most of American history. The open shop has been defeated in the past through a combination of worker insurgency, strike activity and class politics. As socialists, we know much of what it will take to defeat the open shop: militancy, strong worksite organization, class consciousness, independent working-class political action, and challenging racism and other divisions in the class.
This is not to say socialists have all the answers; some are still to be discovered in future struggles. But fighting the open shop plays to our strengths as revolutionary socialists.
We also know building socialist organization and developing socialist leaders is not something that is divorced from what’s going on in our workplaces. This brings us back to our first interrelated element of Being a Socialist at Work: building political relationships and collective action at our worksites.
Tricks and Traps of Being a Socialist at Work
When you are starting off Being a Socialist at Work, workplace organizing or union work can seem intimidating and it feels like there is so much to learn. We’ll share some lessons ISO members have learned along the way. We call them the tricks and traps of Being a Socialist at Work.
1. You have to be good at your job. To be an effective socialist, you have to have the respect of your co-workers. You don’t have to be the best in your occupation, trade or field, but you do need to be proficient and competent. Your co-workers will recognize and respect that attitude and ability.
2. Keep your head down until you get established. Even if you are hired into a work situation with a union, you are still “at will” until you finish probation. The employer can fire you while on probation without having to give any reason, and there is nothing the union can do for you. Most private-sector workers without a union are always “at will” with few, if any, “just cause” protections. Keep a low profile while you get established on the job, and earn the respect and trust of your co-workers.
3. You must always speak up against injustice, mistreatment, racism and oppression. This is the exception to the previous rule on keeping your head down when newly hired or while on probation and/or getting yourself established. If you see someone being mistreated, abused, harassed, discriminated against or bullied, you need to speak up and, if necessary, intervene.
You don’t say, “I am going to let that pass and not say anything because I am too new or I need to pass probation.” You can pass probation or become “established” only to find out you have no credibility because you stood aside and ignored some racist or sexist or homophobic behavior. In the end, all any of us have is our reputation. Protect it.
We need to add scabbing to the list of things you can never do, even if you are brand new or still on probation. One ISO member shared an experience of being a new hire “probbie” as a Teamster garbage truck driver in Detroit. The laborers, who were in another union, went on a wildcat strike over an incident at work.
When the ISO member and their 20 other newly hired drivers showed up at 5 a.m. for their shift, the Laborers’ Union had a picket line up. The new hires, still on probation, were very stressed over not showing up for work. The ISO member explained to their co-workers that it was unsafe (wink, wink) for them to cross a militant picket line (they were actually drinking coffee and eating donuts) and suggested the new hires all sign in on a piece of paper to show management they had showed up for work but feared for their safety to cross the picket line.
Everyone took the ISO member’s lead except for one driver who insisted he had to cross the line to show the boss he was there and ready to work despite crossing a picket line. As he started to open the gate, a laborers’ punch sent him to the ground. The ISO member tried to resist, but couldn’t help but say, “See I told you it was dangerous to cross a picket line.”
Although the wounded “probbie” driver ended up passing probation, they had difficulty regaining the trust and respect of the laborers they would be working with in the future.
Local unions have different policies on whether they ask the probationary workers to honor the picket lines or send the probbies across the line so they don’t lose their jobs. If you are a socialist and a new hire or on probation, you find a way to not cross that line.
4. Keep your nose clean after you become established and/or pass probation. Even after you pass probation or become established in your job, keep your nose clean. Stepping up as a union activist and a socialist will put a target on your back. Do not give management any opportunity by missing work, being late, taking long breaks or not doing the work, or they will use it to take you out.
5. Mapping your worksite. This is a must. Socialists have to be mapmakers. Every socialist should map their worksite, whether you are in a union shop or an unorganized shop. It’s a must if you plan on doing any organizing at work.
What do we mean by mapping? It could be a physical two-dimensional schematic drawing or it could be a chart or on butcher paper if you are doing a mapping exercise with co-workers, or it could be on a 3D computer program. You want something that shows where co-workers are located. It could be broken down by desk, by department, by building. If it’s a big workplace, start in your immediate work area and build your map out over time.
What are you mapping? It will be any number of things. After the Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME, and the imposition of open shop on the public sector, it could be identifying where the union members versus non-members are. It could be a way to track who are the leaders and activists, or it could show your communication distribution networks, social networks and informal work groups, or your Socialist Worker readers.
Basically you want to know everything you can about your workplace, the employer and, if you have one, the union. As you build time and experience on the job, your maps will become more sophisticated. They may show things like where different languages are used, workplaces that are difficult to access, shifts or marginalized groups of workers (temporary, as-needed, contract, seasonal or part-time).
We have included several good references on the hows and whys of worksite mapping.
6. Identify leaders. An important part of mapping will involve identifying and getting to know the leaders. If you are in a union shop, you will want to know who are the union stewards (or whatever terminology your union uses for the layperson union position closest to the rank and file). You will want to know who occupies any other union positions in your shop (contract action team, bargaining team members, executive board, officers and union activists, etc.).
Whether you are in a union or unorganized, you will also want to find out who are the social movement activists. It could be Mary and Tamika who went to the last Women’s March, Francis who is active in Black Lives Matter (BLM), Sean who talks a lot about climate justice or James who e-mails petitions for single-payer health care.
We have to remember that not all our co-workers want to become shop stewards or run for union office. Some co-workers, and potentially our best union members or worksite activists, are not active in the union per se, but they are active in BLM, climate justice or immigrant rights or some other social, racial or economic justice work that they don’t think of as “union work.” We have to engage in political discussions if we want to discover this.
Many ISO members wear their union colors (T-shirt, jacket, hat) to political protests and demonstrations for this very reason. It’s not uncommon to have someone approach you to say, “Hey, that’s my union. I didn’t know our union was in support of this issue/cause.”
7. Natural leaders. When mapping, pay particular attention to finding who are the natural leaders. What is a natural leader? Who has ever tried to organize an action at work and when you are speaking with someone and trying to motivate them to get involved or support something, they say, “Have you talked to Joe?” or “You should talk to Dana.” What they are really saying is “What does Joe or Dana think about this? Do they support it or think it’s a good idea?”
Some people call them “organic leaders” or “authentic leaders.” Every work and social group has opinion makers. Although they don’t have an official title and they are often not the loudest or most talkative, they are the ones that others listen to.
Jane McAlevey makes the point that the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) model of organizing in the 1930s was so much more effective than today’s so-called “organizing model.” This was because the CIO focused on a “deep organizing” model that identified and won over natural or organic leaders, whereas today’s “shallow mobilizing model” promotes a few key self-identified activists who are then promoted to become the “front people” for an organizing campaign.
8. Assemble a team. Organizing and winning requires you to bring others along. Some ISO members call it building a team. Others may call it their crew or their gang or posse. Whatever you call it, who will be your witness when you are called into the boss’s office to discuss a grievance, a workplace problem or discipline against a co-worker? Who can you count on to witness this kind of a conversation or attest to a grievance settlement?
When you’re first starting out, it may be just a couple co-workers you can rely on for things like, “Hey, can you come into the supervisor’s office to witness this conversation?” Make it a practice to not meet with management alone. It’s literally for your protection. What if it’s later alleged you physically threatened the boss who is twice your size (as happened to one ISO member), or management claims that you agreed to some crappy compromise on an issue?
If you don’t have a posse or a crew or a team, you will be functioning as a superhero. What do evil villains do to superheroes? In the movies, the superhero somehow prevails. In real life, the evil villains (supervisors, managers and bosses) often take out working-class superheroes. Remember, “the employer doesn’t need you, but the employer needs all of you.”
If you are the superhero, it means you haven’t built political relationships with your co-workers. It makes you a bigger target for management, it adds additional stress to your life and it can quickly lead to burnout.
9. Leadership and finding a role for everyone. The mark of a good socialist organizer is finding a role for everyone. Not everyone will want to be as active as you are, but there is something that most of our co-workers can and would be willing to do. Your job is to find out what that is.
The person may not want to be out front, or they may not be able to attend meetings. Can they post something on their bulletin board? Can they pass out flyers to 10 co-workers in their work area? Maybe they like working on a newsletter or a website, making posters, or organizing a social event. Maybe they can decorate the union bulletin board. The possibilities are endless and are only limited by our imagination.
We often think of leadership and involvement as a straight line; it’s our job to move someone who is apathetic and uninvolved and turn them into a super activist or a Bolshevik. A better way to think about increasing involvement is figuring out where your co-workers are at, and getting them to take the next step.
Maybe they are a passive supporter but take little to no responsibility for moving others into action. What’s the next step that they can and would be willing to do? If they are an activist, how do we mentor and move them to become organizers on a small scale. If they are activists or organizers, have we invited them to an ISO meeting?
When thinking about increasing involvement and leadership, some find it helpful to think about concentric circles, while others imagine moving people along the letters of the alphabet; how do we move someone from an outer circle of involvement to the next inner circle or from an “A” to a “B”, a “B” to a “C” and so on.
The beauty of the circle or alphabet model of involvement is that it lets you see that your goal is moving folks from one ring or letter to the next — from disengaged to supporter, supporter to activist and activist to organizer. We are not trying to move someone from being disengaged to organizer in a single campaign or in the course of their first fight at the workplace.
Being a Socialist at Work requires us to find a role for everyone and recruit new leaders. Organizing this way forces us to build broadly. This gives our collective actions more strength and it requires us to solicit divergent views and accommodate different agendas. Where possible we want different points of view discussed on rank-and-file leadership bodies so that activists can debate ideas and strategies. Being a Socialist at Work requires us see both the big picture and the details.
10. One-on-one conversations. As a socialist at work, you will be doing a lot of advocating, promoting, motivating, explaining and debating. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that one of the most important organizing skills we need to acquire is listening.
Some say that 70 percent of a good organizing conversation is listening. Others go higher and say its 80 percent. The cliché that we have two ears and one mouth is a good reminder of the ratio of listening to talking. A good union organizer, a good socialist organizer and a good seller of Socialist Worker develops this skill.
Listening doesn’t mean simply waiting to talk. Building political relationships requires we understand our co-workers’ view, what they are based on and why they resonate with a person. There are lots of elements to a good organizing conversation. If you are in a union, your union may have their own tailored version of a one-on-one conversation.
11. Building unity. Jane McAlevey reminds us, “Solidarity among human beings can happen spontaneously, as in a fire or a flood, or by design, through organizing.” Workers are divided in a myriad of ways: classifications, occupation groups, high pay, low pay, blue collar, white collar, work locations, shift assignments. We are also divided by language, native-born and immigrant, age, ethnicity, politics. Pay and benefits will often follow race/sex/gender lines.
Racism, sexism, homophobia and other divisions in the class are not overcome automatically through struggle and collective action. Collective action opens people up to new ideas and new ways of thinking, but unity has to be built through deliberate acts of solidarity.
Divisions in the workplace have to analyzed and talked open about. Being a Socialist at Work means we need to be leading these conversations; otherwise our co-workers will get their ideas from other places like Fox News and social media. Our worksite organizational power will only be as strong as our ability to reach out and cross the divisions in our workplace and in our unions.
12. Aim your fire at management. Some of our union officials can be some combination of distant (from the rank and file), ignorant (of what’s happening in the workplace), incompetent or lacking in courage or conviction. This is a result of their role of mediating between the rank and file and the employers.
This role can turn some of the best former rank-and-file militants into vacillators with a knee-jerk tendency to shut down militancy. Socialists can sometimes get fixated on attacking union officials, while ignoring the real problem, the employers.
Aiming fire at management is an important strategy developed by Socialist Workers Party members during their organizing with Teamsters in Minneapolis, where they led one of the fiercest labor battles of the 1930s, the 1934 Teamsters Rebellion. The Minneapolis socialists made it a point to always aim their fire at management. If union officials want to step into the line of fire to defend or protect the employer, the members will see this for themselves.
13. Building political relationships. Whether it’s building collective action/power at the workplace, trade union organization, the labor left or socialist organization — at their root, they all involve building political relationships, be it with co-workers, broader groups of workers, allies on the left or those who understand the need for a strong socialist current in the working-class movement.
We build political relationships as we engage in collective action at our worksites and as we bring socialist and class politics to those fights. Political relationships are forged when we advocate for the need to challenge divisions in the class, building unity and not trusting politicians, or arguing that we don’t have the same interests as the employer. We build relationships when we engage in collective action, go on strike — and, if on strike, when we wage a militant fight such as by breaking injunctions with mass picketing.
Relationships are built in some of the simplest things we do — such as asking co-workers to stay in the union as this requires an awareness of their interest as workers in building and maintaining a workers’ organization. These conversations lead naturally to discussions about solidarity, mutual interests and the need to build power that can match the power of the employer.
This is rudimentary class consciousness, and there is no one better than a socialist to start those conversations and then to mentor other union activists on how to have those kinds of discussions.
Many of us work alongside members of the working class who are not much different from members of the class we meet in our social justice and social movement work. We build relationships when we argue with our co-workers about the need to take up wider class demands or issues of racial, social and economic justice.
We need to remember our co-workers who become socialists often do so for the same reasons we did — the horrors of starvation, war, poverty, oppression, global warming and the like. We only become aware of our co-workers’ values, hopes, concerns and fears by engaging in conversations and building political relationships.
14. Using Socialist Worker. One of the best tools for building those kinds of relationships is the Socialist Worker newspaper. SW’s coverage runs the gamut from trade union struggle to social movements, to international issues to socialist ideas and the history of working-class struggles.
It is a conversation starter. You might not be aware that SW comes with a guarantee — that guarantee is that SW will it spark conversations with your co-workers.
Many of our co-workers have varying degrees of formal education and reading preferences. Some like to read more than others. If they want something that goes more in-depth, which develops an argument and cites references, maybe the International Socialist Review is for them.
15. Long-term battle. Being a Socialist at Work means we are building for the long term.
Sometimes a little organizing can go a long way. If the boss is not used to being challenged and you mount an effective campaign, they may quickly capitulate. If you win a resounding victory with your first organizing effort at the workplace, that’s fantastic and we want to hear about it so we can share your success story.
For others, it may be a series of small wins over a period of time. For many of us, despite our best organizing, we may not see immediate results. However, we could very well be having an impact and setting things in motion. Management often doesn’t capitulate overnight in one fell swoop.
For example, paramedics in San Francisco were fed up with their medical director. He was a mouthpiece for whatever management wanted, including putting medics on 24-hour shifts and deskilling ambulances from having two paramedics to one medic. He was indirectly responsible for the death of a dear co-worker.
Paramedics in SEIU Local 790 held a vote of no confidence, and two-thirds of the medics voted they had no confidence in him. Nothing happened, but the medics had set in motion a chain of events that made it impossible for that medical director to continue in that role, and nine months later he finally left.
Members of SEIU Local 1021 recently won a huge class-action grievance for temporary as-needed workers in San Francisco. It was a fight the union started in 2011 and involved scores of people, months of fieldwork and research, and years of campaigning, public hearings and pressure tactics.
Two years ago, the workers won a settlement that converted hundreds of part-time and as-needed positions into full-time benefited positions. In 2018, the union activists won back-pay damages of $1.4 million.
We could cite many other examples of months- or years-long fights where the victory was delayed but the workers ultimately prevailed. The point is, just because you lose the first round of fighting, and you lose the second or third round, don’t give up. Keep raising the issue, looking for an opening, fighting on multiple fronts and you may find victory.
16. Collective action. The heart of Being a Socialist at Work centers around the idea of collective action. This approach draws upon our greatest strength as workers: the power of acting together collectively. Our role as socialists is to turn a problem, an issue or a grievance into a campaign. Collective action builds self-activity, increases solidarity, emphasizes bottom-up organizing and can increase class consciousness.
A socialist trade unionist learns how to identity the issues that affect the most people the most profoundly. When you find them, you want to involve as many people as possible. You don’t want to be the superhero, trying to doing everything for your co-workers.
Even if you are successful with the superhero approach in solving workplace issues, this won’t build our power as workers, and it won’t build the knowledge and skills of our co-workers. Building workers’ power at the workplace is about using the collective power of workers to match the power of the employer. This requires maximizing solidarity and the participation of our co-workers.
Sometimes the collective action we champion and agitate for will not involve the maximum number of our co-workers. If there is a section of the workforce that is marginalized or oppressed and faces discrimination, bias or mistreatment of some kind, Being a Socialist at Work requires we build a collective action campaign against that oppression.
We do so even when some of our co-workers may be part of the problem or when our allies would prefer to duck the issue in the name of maintaining unity. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia and other forms of discrimination and oppression are poison for the workers’ movement and they undermine our collective power. The antidote to that poison is building real unity on the basis of equality, solidarity and overcoming the divisions that exist among our co-workers.
Collective action strategies use an escalation of tactics. Start small. Maybe it’s getting co-workers to wear stickers or badges, participate in a unity break (when everyone takes a break at the same time), or on a certain day everyone wears the same shirts, hats or scrubs. You want to involve more folks as you escalate your actions.
Good collective action tactics include group or class-action grievances and/or petitions. People are sometimes reluctant to be the first to sign on to a group grievance or a petition. Some ISO members tell their co-workers they won’t submit the grievance or petition unless they get 25 signatures.
Others use a circular wheel for their group grievances so that no one is the first person to sign their name to the grievance. Or you can get 30 people to agree to be witnesses at a grievance. Or take five people in with you to present the grievance. The possibilities for involving more and more co-workers are endless.
It helps to be creative; there is nothing wrong with making it fun for co-workers, even when dealing with serious problems. SEIU Local 1021 members in San Francisco report having great actions on Valentine’s Day where some union members dressed up as Cupids with bows and arrows and marched on the Big Tech companies to demand that they give their enormous tax breaks back to fund city services.
Other actions have featured workers dressed up as Robin Hoods or Zombies. City workers have dressed up as billionaire capitalists modeled on the “Monopoly Man” of the board game and handed out appreciation notes to commuters, thanking them for corporate tax breaks so that they can buy more yachts.
In San Francisco, city and county workers discovered that the mayor was holding what he called “Tech Tuesdays,” where he would visit a tech company to ask management what the city government could do to keep the company in San Francisco.
Workers were incensed that the mayor had time to visit businesses but had never stepped foot into most city workplaces, so they launched what they called “Worker Wednesdays.” Workers in various city departments invited the mayor to visit their worksites to ask him what he would do to make it possible for workers to continue living in this increasingly unfordable city.
Knowing the mayor wouldn’t show up, workers make a seven-foot-tall cardboard cutout of the mayor, brought it to the worksites, set the cutout of the mayor up at a microphone and invited workers to ask him questions. City workers loved this creative way to voice their issues. The media also loved it, which forced the mayor’s office to respond to the workers’ complaints about the state of city and county services.
The possibilities for creative, fun and powerful collective action are limited only by the collective imagination of ourselves and our co-workers.
Add your trick or trap
These 16 tricks and traps of Being a Socialist at Work are designed to help socialists get their bearings, especially when you are just starting out. As the world around us changes, we will need to update, modify and add to our collective tricks and traps. Send us your own tricks and traps of Being a Socialist at Work, so that we can share both our successes and our challenges.
WE STARTED out by talking about alienation and how most people experience work under capitalism as something unpleasant and frustrating. Most workers think this alienation, lack of control, unhappiness and frustration are an unavoidable necessity because work is intrinsically unpleasant. As socialists we know this does not have to be the case.
Sometimes there is a feeling that as socialists we are supposed to hate our jobs. The truth is many of us actually like the work we do. Of course we don’t like the way our jobs are perverted by the values, priorities and illogic of capitalism.
We know that human happiness, freedom and unalienated labor can only be fully realized in a society free of exploitation and oppression, and achieving that kind of society requires a collective struggle to change the world.
It’s a collective struggle that starts in the workplace with collective action. We are surrounded by co-workers with whom we should be engaging in conversation, building political relationships, developing common work and promoting collective action.
Our collective struggle extends beyond the workplace to defending, extending, strengthening and reclaiming our unions. Our work in rebuilding unions requires building political relationships with co-workers and other members in your union.
Our collective struggle widens to building a vibrant left wing of the labor movement. Building a labor left will require working with other forces, having debates, collaborating and struggling over our differences.
Our collective struggle is also about winning co-workers to become revolutionary socialists and building an organization that has the ideas, experience, credibility and relationships that can take our collective struggles forward.
There are other useful guides out there, including the Troublemakers Handbook and Radicals at Work. We encourage you to check out those resources. Being a Socialist at Work means being a troublemaker and a working-class radical. We know that being a socialist makes us better troublemakers and more effective radicals at work.
It is the ISO’s multipronged approach of helping to organize collective fights at the workplace, defending and building trade union organization, and building the labor left and a dynamic and resilient socialist organization that sets us apart from much of the left. It is also what allows us to keep that song in our hearts and that smile on our lips as we take down capitalism and replace it with workers’ power: aka socialism.
1. The opening sentence of the Communist Manifesto is “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.” See The Communist Manifesto: A Road Map to History’s Most Important Document, edited by Phil Gasper (Haymarket Books), pages 39-57. See also “Marxism, unions and class struggle: The future in the present” by Sharon Smith in the International Socialist Review (ISR), issue 78.
2. At the center of the Communist Manifesto and rooted at the core of the vision, practice and politics of the International Socialist Organization is the idea of working-class self-emancipation. See Hal Draper on “Marx, Engels and Self-Emancipation” in the ISR Issue 52; Ahmed Shawki’s interview of Tony Cliff on “50 Years of the International Socialist Tradition” in the ISR Issue 1; and Elizabeth Schulte on “A story written by the working class itself” at SocialistWorker.org.
3. Nonhuman, physical inputs used in production, including raw materials, animals, land, buildings, tools and technology. See Gasper’s The Communist Manifesto: A Road Map, page 210.
4. This alienation is worsened by today’s long hours of work, the intensification of work and low or stagnate wages. See Kim Moody’s On New Terrain; How Capital Is Reshaping The Battleground of Class War (Haymarket Books), Chapter One, “The Roots of Change.”
5. For more on Marx’s theory of alienation, see Erich Fromm on Marx’s Concept of Man; Phil Gasper on “Capitalism and Alienation” in the ISR Issue 74; Judy Cox on “An Introduction to Marx’s Theory of Alienation” in International Socialism, July 1998.
6. “This is what capitalism is, you work in it, you sell your labor, they don’t need you, they need all of you,” SEIU Local 1199NE President David Pickus, quoted in Jane McAlevey’s No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (Oxford University Press), page 99.
7. Norman Solomon argues persuasively that the Dilbert comic strip actually promotes negative images of employees and reinforces the positions of management. See Norman Solomon’s The Trouble with Dilbert: How Corporate Culture Gets the Last Laugh (Common Courage Press, 1997).
8. The term “tricks and traps” is borrowed from the late Charley Richardson, a longtime working-class militant, labor educator and trade union activist. Much of Richardson’s important work is archived on his Guide to Kicking Ass for the Working Class website.
9. A factory, office or other business establishment in which a union, chosen by a majority of the employees, acts as representative of all the employees in making agreements with the employer, but in which union membership is not a condition of employment. In an open shop, union members pay dues, and those who choose not to join pay nothing. Open shops are typically imposed by the legislative or judicial branch as a means to create internal divisions in the workforce and to undermine and weaken the collective power of workers. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously warned, “In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights.”
10. See Sharon Smith’s “Marxism, unions and class struggle: The future in the present” in the ISR. See also Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein’s Marxism and Trade Union Struggle: The General Strike of 1926.
11. See Bill Fletcher Jr. and Fernando Gapasin’s Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Toward Social Justice (University of California Press), Chapter 1, “Dukin’ It Out.” See also Sharon Smith’s Subterranean Fire: A History of Working Class Radicalism in the United States (Haymarket Books, 2006).
13. See Kim Moody’s account of how business set in motion its counterattack to union organization , even while being forced to capitulate to the rank-and-file upsurge of the 1930s and 1940s, in An Injury to All : The Decline of American Unionism (Verso, 1998), Chapters 2-6.
14. See Sharon Smith’s Subterranean Fire. See also Kim Moody’s “The Rank and File Strategy” in In Solidarity: Essays on Working Class Organization in the United States (Haymarket); McAlevey, pages 30-36; and Lee Sustar’s “Toward a renewal of the labor movement” in ISR Issue 89.
15. For an explanation and critique of business unionism, see Kim Moody’s U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition: The Failure of Reform from Above, the Promise of Revival from Below (Verso, 2007), pages 162-166. Also see Moody’s Workers in a Lean World: Unions in the International Economy (Verso, 1997), Chapters 2 and 3; Nelson Lichtenstein’s State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (Princeton University Press, 2002); and McAlevey, pages 16-20 and Chapter 2.
16. For more reading on what the Janus decision means, see the roundtable discussion “What will it take for unions to survive Janus?” in SW; Chris Maisano on “Labor’s Choice after Janus” in Jacobin; and Donnie Killen’s “I Work with Mark Janus. Here’s How He Benefits from a Strong Union” and “Rebuilding Power in Open-Shop America: A Labor Notes Guide” in Labor Notes.
17. See A Troublemaker’s Handbook 2: How to Fight Back Where You Work and Win! edited by Jane Slaughter (Labor Notes, 2005). See also Labor Notes’ “Make a Map to Guide You,” Workplace Mapping from the University and College Union, and the Unifor Organizing Department’s All In! Campaign Toolkit.
19. McAlevey’s No Shortcuts, page 29. See Chapter 5 for a good case study.