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The Young Socialists’ School-to-Union Pipeline

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When West Virginia’s union teachers defied state law and walked off the job for fair wages and better healthcare in February 2018, their wildcat strike?—?and the wave of strikes it inspired?—?changed lives hundreds of miles away.

For example: Claire, a pre-med student at New York University (NYU), switched from the doctor-track to nursing?—?with the aim of landing a union nursing job. Claire is a member of NYU’s chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA), which encourages members to find union work. 

In These Times spoke with half a dozen YDSA and DSA members across the country about their similar plans. (Claire and others requested pseudonyms to avoid limiting their chances of employment.) All of them pointed to the militant example set by teachers as a motivator. 

Emily, 22, a YDSA member in New York who wants to become a teacher, says the West Virginia strike was ?“probably the most inspirational thing I’ve seen in my years as a socialist.” 

In 2018, YDSA committed to steering college graduates toward unions to build working-class power from the shop floor up. It passed a resolution to create a National Labor Committee (NLC) in the summer of 2020, which will oversee a school-to-union pipeline and administer a yearly survey to assess union interest after graduation, among other responsibilities. 

The strategy dates back to at least the 1970s, when socialist organizations asked members to ?“turn to industry” and take up blue-collar jobs. The International Socialists went a step further; they advocated a ?“rank-and-file strategy” to place committed organizers into auto plants, steel mills and other factories, to inspire a ?“militant minority” of union membership to transform the working class into an agent of political change. 

While YDSA has only just begun implementing its rank-and-file strategy, the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (NYC-DSA) passed a similar resolution in the summer of 2018. Articles in Politico and the New York Times went on to condemn what they deemed a socialist infiltration of New York City’s most powerful unions. 

Labor organizers within NYC-DSA, however, take issue with this characterization. They say they are building strong, democratic unions by focusing on day-to-day issues (such as overtime and health and safety), not pursuing union staff positions. NYC-DSA did not provide an estimate of how many members have taken union jobs, but the chapter’s Labor Branch says a large number are working in a range of union industries (from blue-collar to professional) and in a range of rank-and-file roles (from shop steward to low-level union officer). 

When shop floor issues arise, these DSA members offer to bring their coworkers to a Labor Branch meeting for training?—?on how to find a committee of people to run a campaign, for example, or how to turn a grievance filing into a collective action. 

Their idea is to fight collectively to improve working conditions and to demonstrate to other workers that solidarity is a winning strategy?—?one that can eventually expand to the whole working class. 

Others are more skeptical. ?“This idea that socialists should switch jobs, get whatever certification is necessary and go into these strategic sectors [is] really not something that most of our members can do,” says Ryan Mosgrove, secretary of Metro D.C. DSA and an organizer with a local teachers’ union. ?“Many of our members are in low-wage work. Many of them are not in these urban, high-union-density, metropolitan areas where this sort of strategy is even applicable.” 

Mosgrove says that, as only 1 in 10 U.S. jobs is a union job, members should organize whatever workplace they happen to be in. 

Proponents of the rank-and-file strategy?—?like Barry Eidlin, a sociology professor at McGill University—argue that militant minorities have historically played a critical role in working-class victories. They are ?“the necessary building block for any kind of mass collective action,” Eidlin says. ?“It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Even if you get a few people going into various types of unionized jobs (as opposed to becoming [a nonprofit] worker), that can really shift things.” 

YDSA’s focus on only a few particular sectors?—?healthcare, education and logistics?—?is also controversial. YDSA believes these sectors can have the most impact for the working class because of their preexisting labor militancy, a higher than average unionization rate and (especially in the case of logistics) the structural leverage they hold within capitalism. Eidlin believes that inroads into manufacturing and production will also be essential to any long-term strategy. 

The success of this rank-and-file strategy will be difficult to measure, especially because of the time it takes to build trust with coworkers or transform entrenched union bureaucracies. Proponents believe that socialists should be prepared to make a lifelong commitment to their organizing. 

Adam, 23, a YDSA member in Florida who is studying to become a union teacher, is ready to take the leap. ?“There are no shortcuts to organizing,” he says.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on March 1, 2021. Reprinted with permission

About the Author: Indigo Olivier is a 2020?–?2021 fellow with In These Times’ Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting and a member of NYC-DSA.

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The Forgotten Socialist History of Martin Luther King Jr.

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Image result for Matthew Miles GoodrichIn 1952 a 23-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a love letter to Coretta Scott. Along with coos of affection and apologies for his hasty handwriting, he described his feelings not just toward his future wife, but also toward America’s economic system. “I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic,” he admitted to his then-girlfriend, concluding that “capitalism has outlived its usefulness.”

King composed these words as a grad student on the tail end of his first year at the Boston University School of Theology. And far from representing just the utopianism of youth, the views expressed in the letter would go on to inform King’s economic vision throughout his life.

As Americans honor King on his birthday, it is important to remember that the civil rights icon was also a democratic socialist, committed to building a broad movement to overcome the failings of capitalism and achieve both racial and economic equality for all people.

Capitalism “has brought about a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes,” King wrote in his 1952 letter to Scott. He would echo the sentiment 15 years later in his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?: “Capitalism has often left a gap of superfluous wealth and abject poverty [and] has created conditions permitting necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few.”

In his famous 1967 Riverside Church speech, King thundered, “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

And in an interview with the New York Times in 1968, King described his work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) this way, “In a sense, you could say we are engaged in the class struggle.”

Speaking at a staff retreat of the SCLC in 1966, King said that “something is wrong … with capitalism” and “there must be a better distribution of wealth” in the country. “Maybe,” he suggested, “America must move toward a democratic socialism.”

In Where Do We Go From Here, which calls for “the full emancipation and equality of Negroes and the poor,” King advocates policies in line with a democratic socialist program: a guaranteed annual income, constitutional amendments to secure social and economic equality, and greatly expanded public housing. He endorses the Freedom Budget put forward by socialist activist A. Philip Randolph, which included such policies as a jobs guarantee, a living wage and universal healthcare. He also outlines how economic inequality can circumscribe civil rights. While the wealthy enjoy easy access to lawyers and the courts, “the poor, however, are helpless,” he writes.

This emphasis on poverty is not always reflected in contemporary teachings about King, which tend to focus strictly on his advocacy for civil rights. But Where Do We Go From Here and the final project of King’s life—the Poor People’s Campaign—show that King’s dream included a future of both racial and economic equality.

“What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter,” King is widely quoted as asking, “if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?” In King’s view, the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins, the voter registration drives across the South and the Selma to Montgomery march comprised but the first phase of the civil rights movement. In Where Do We Go From Here, King called the victories of the movement up that point in 1967 “a foothold, no more” in the struggle for freedom. Only a campaign to realize economic as well as racial justice could win true equality for African-Americans. In naming his goal, King was unflinching: the “total, direct, and immediate abolition of poverty.”

The shortcoming of the first phase of the civil rights movement, to King, was its emphasis on opportunity rather than guarantees. The ability to buy a hamburger at a lunch counter without harassment did not guarantee that the hungry would be fed. Access to the ballot box did not guarantee anti-racist legislation. The end of Jim Crow laws did not guarantee the flourishing of African-American communities. Decency did not guarantee equality.

Some white people had gone along with the fight for access and opportunity, King concluded, because it cost them nothing. “Jobs,” however, “are harder and costlier to create than voting rolls.” When African-Americans sought not only to be treated with dignity, but guaranteed fair housing and education, many whites abandoned the movement. In King’s words, as soon as he demanded “the realization of equality”—the second phase of the civil rights movement—he discovered whites suddenly indifferent.

King considered the Poor People’s Campaign to be the vehicle for this next phase of the movement precisely because it offered both material advances and the potential for stronger cross-racial organizing. For King, only a multiracial working-class movement, which the Poor People’s Campaign aspired to be, could guarantee both racial and economic equality.

King was disgusted by the juxtaposition of decadence and destitution in America. We “compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity,” he fumed. Quoting social justice advocate Hyman Bookbinder, King wrote that ending poverty in America merely requires demanding that the rich “become even richer at a slower rate.”

For King, the only solution to America’s crisis of poverty was the redistribution of wealth. In a 1961 speech to the Negro American Labor Council, King declared, “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.”

From his early letters to Coretta Scott until his final days, King put forward a vision of a society that provides equality for people of all races and backgrounds. This is the cause King spent his life fighting for. And it is one we should recommit to as we honor his legacy.

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on January 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Matthew Miles Goodrich is a New York State Director at Sunrise Movement. He has contributed in-depth political commentary, searing polemics, personal essays, and newsworthy interviews to various outlets including Dissent, The Baffler, LA Review of Books, In These Times, Catapult, and Brooklyn Magazine.

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