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The US Labor Movement and the Socialist Role

Published onMar 05, 2023
The US Labor Movement and the Socialist Role

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This guide provides background information and describes how to run a session of “The US Labor Movement and the Socialist Role,” an introductory NPEC course on the US Labor Movement.

As Labor Notes founder Kim Moody has said, “The labor movement is the critical institution for the left. Socialists should root themselves in it.”

This course focuses on two concepts of particular importance for socialists to understand:

  1. The vital role socialists of various kinds have played (and can still play) in the US labor movement. To thrive, labor needs a strong socialist movement.

  2. The critical role powerful labor organization and strikes play in shifting the power balance between labor and capital to realize political and social objectives. A thriving socialist movement needs a powerful labor movement.

This module includes:

  • Scripts for moderator, presenter, and discussion facilitators

    • Including a short lecture (for the presenter) with accompanying presentation charts highlighting the 1934 W. Coast Waterfront Strike.

    • Short excerpts from each of the two recommended articles to be read out loud during discussion period.

  • Questions/prompts for facilitators to promote on-topic conversation on the talk and recommended reading

  • Links to material to advertise the course and information for those who sign up.

This guide is for DSA members who wish to present this intro labor course to their branch. Thanks to DSA-LA’s Political Education Committee for developing the basic organization used here.

In this module you will find:

  1. Section I. Objectives of the course

  2. Section II. Set-up and Overview

  3. Section III. Readings on US Labor History and the Socialist Role

  4. Section IV. Talk & Presentation-The US Labor Movement & the Socialist Role

  5. Section V. Concluding Discussion and Remarks (15 min.)

Section I. Objectives of the course for Moderators and Facilitators

The 1934 West Coast Longshore Strike, our case study, highlights key lessons that illustrate why labor needs socialists and socialists need labor. The strike exhibited the worst of US business unionism and the best of what US socialists have brought to battles throughout US history. The resulting “class-struggle unionism” produced a multiracial, cross-industry, and community-based working-class alliance, characterized by democratic decision making, creative and powerful tactics, refusal to concede to union/government “mediation,” and a general strike. This is how to win significant economic and political victories, despite unfavorable legal climates and ruthless suppression.

Course participants are introduced to the following concepts through a 15-minute lecture/presentation, two short excerpts from the recommended literature to be read out loud, and questions. (And two recommended readings, but we don’t assume participants have read them.) Facilitators can bring these points out during discussion, as appropriate.

  • Workers share common material interests, despite racial, national, and other differences. This, along with trust, is the foundation for the development of working class solidarity and class consciousness. Typically, neither arise spontaneously; both must be actively nurtured.

  • The labor movement is the greatest source of working class power. In association with other mass movements, it can cause pain sufficient to force capital and the state into significant economic and political concessions.1

  • The dominant US union paradigm is business unionism, as opposed to the class-struggle unionism fostered by socialists.

  • Socialist involvement in the rank-and-file labor movement is key to building socialist understanding of, connections to, and influence within the working class.

  • Socialist minorities have played an essential role in building industry-wide working-class consciousness, multi-racial solidarity, collective resistance, grassroots militancy, and democratic self-organization in the US labor movement.2

  • Historically, socialist-influenced grassroots US labor movements have won significant economic and political victories, despite unfavorable legal climates and ruthless suppression.3

  • Socialist movements thrive and win victories only when labor and other mass movements are strong, and vice versa.4

The following additional points are very important but could only be touched on in this introductory course, due to bandwidth limitations. The facilitator can highlight them as they arise during discussion. These points should be covered in a course on multiracial organizing.


  • Capitalists use all means at their disposal to divide the working class based on differences, including sex, race, national origin, language, ethnicity, and religion.

  • Marx declared divisiveness to be “the secret of the impotence of the . . . working class . . . the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power.”5

  • The entire working class loses, albeit some more than others, when divisive tactics succeed.


  • The entire working class gains when divisive competition is replaced by trust and solidarity.

  • Socialists combine specific anti-racist and other anti-discriminatory work within the economic struggle and outside the workplace to combat divisiveness in the working class, win significant on-the-job and community victories, and take the working class struggle to the political level.

Section II. Set-up and Overview

Organizer roles, course preparation, and how to set up and run ZOOM classes.

In advance of session:

Moderator, Presenter, and Facilitators should read the guide, lecture script, the two recommended readings.

  • Moderator

    • Can also serve as presenter and/or facilitator

  • Presenter

    • Should practice delivering the lecture to ensure proper timing

    • Should be given “Host” access to share their screen for the presentation

Zoom host should read the guide.

  • In place of presenter, may share the slides and advance them according to the script or at the direction of the presenter

Opening the session:

Everyone running this course should arrive at least 10 minutes before the start of the event.

The Zoom Host should open the meeting waiting room 5-10 minutes before start time.

  • Some people choose to play music as people enter the call. Make sure to keep the volume very low so that everyone can clearly hear the host’s welcome and instructions. 

  • Zoom hosts should welcome participants to the course and encourage everyone to introduce themselves on chat.

  • If possible, the Zoom host should NOT act as moderator or facilitator, since they oversee all technical aspects including setting up breakout sessions.

Breakout discussions sessions

  • If class size exceeds 15 or so participants, breakout discussion sessions (each ≤ ~15) can be created.

  • For zoom meetings, the Zoom Host will have time during the 15-minute presentation to set up breakout rooms.

    • First, determine how many rooms are needed (not to exceed the number of prepared facilitators available).

    • Set up the zoom calls, assign a facilitator to each, notify the chosen facilitators, and assign each participant to a session.

    • As the presentation ends, send out the appropriate links to all participants. Facilitators must be able to admit callers to their session.

    • Five minutes before the end of the breakout period, the Zoom Host should provide a five-minute timeout warning to facilitators.

    • At the end of discussion, terminate the breakout sessions and send participants back to the main meeting.

Discussion questions and facilitation:

  • Questions on the presentation and reading materials are offered to guide the discussion.

  • More experienced facilitators can, if desired, use additional or different on-topic questions.

  • If the discussion digresses, facilitators should reconnect it to the labor movement and the role of socialists.

  • Facilitators should reserve at least 15 minutes of the discussion period for Recommended Reading #1 by Blanc, during which continued discussion of the presentation topic is still possible.

  • When discussion is lively and on-topic, the facilitator can decide which and how many questions to discuss and whether to move on to the second recommended reading.

Note on personal introductions and breakout session feedback 

  • This course has been designed to maximize learning opportunities within tight time and formatting constraints. 

  • In that light, we recommend NOT asking for personal introductions from every course participant unless class size is very small (15 intros can easily take over 40 min.)

  • Instead, we recommend that facilitators ask participants to state their name and chapter the first time they speak during discussion period.

  • The Zoom Host should ask participants to introduce themselves on chat.

  • We also recommend that the Moderator not ask every breakout session to report back. Groups may be given the option to report back on noteworthy observations or disagreements. If time permits, moderators can ask facilitators for specific information on breakout discussions after reconvening in the larger group.

Section III. Readings on US Labor History and the Socialist Role

Eric Blanc, “Liberals Get the New Deal Wrong: Why Voting is Not Enough,” Pt 1. Labor Struggle from Below and Above: Lessons from the 1930s, Labor Politics, May 7, 2022.

If time permits: Paul Prescod, “To Fight Racism, Organize with Your Coworkers,” Jacobin, August 15, 2021.

Supplemental Reading for Further Study

Paul Prescod, “A Religion of Unity,” Jacobin, June 30, 2019. The United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) fought discrimination on the job, challenged racist attitudes, and took on civil rights initiatives.

Barry Eidlin, “What is the Rank-and-File Strategy, and Why Does It Matter?,” Jacobin, March 26, 2019.

Ahmed White, “Memorial Day, 1937,” Jacobin, May 29, 2017. Story of the violent crushing of Little Steel Strike in 1937 and the limits of New Deal legislation

Howard Kimeldorf, Reds or Rackets? The Making of Radical and Conservative Unions on the Waterfront (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), [for CP & Waterfront strike: Ch 4].

Section IV. Talk & Presentation - US Labor Movement & Socialist Role

US Labor Movement and the Socialist Role Slides
US Labor Movement and the Socialist Role Handout

Moderator: welcoming remarks, course description, etc. (≤ 5 min.)

(Begin on Slide 1)

Welcome to the DSA National Political Education Committee’s introductory course on US Labor History and the Socialist Role.” INTRODUCE YOURSELF, E.G.: “My name is ___ and I’m a member of the ___ DSA chapter... I’ll be moderating the session today. This is a 90-minute course, so we’ll end at ____ .”

[If on ZOOM: “First, I’d like to remind you to keep your mic muted when not speaking. If you wish to be called on to comment, enter the word “STACK” in the chat. Please introduce yourself in the chat if you haven’t done so already.”]

(Next Slide — 2)

“The aim of this course is to focus on two important concepts: First, the vital role socialists of various kinds have played in the past (and still need to play) in the US labor movement. Second, the critical importance of powerful class-conscious labor organization in shifting the power balance between labor and capital and realizing socialist political and social objectives.

“All members of the working class share common material interests, despite differences based on race, sex, national origin, skills, and so forth. Capitalists, however, exploit those differences to create division and narrow perceptions of self-interest in the working class. In the US this led to the dominance of “Business Unionism” with its focus on negotiation and cooperation with the bosses. Historically, socialist “militant minorities” have played key roles combating this tendency, building class consciousness, solidarity, and “class-struggle unionism.”6, 7

“The 1934 West Coast Longshore Strike, our case study for this course, exhibited the worst of US business unionism and the best of what US socialists have brought to battles throughout US history. The result was a multiracial, West Coast-wide, community supported, working-class alliance, characterized by democratic decision making and militant tactics, including a general strike. That is how to win significant economic and, ultimately, political victories, despite unfavorable legal climates and ruthless suppression.”

(Next Slide — 3)

We begin with a 15-minute talk and presentation on the 1934 West Coast Longshore Strike, followed by a 55-minute discussion period, and then wrap up with some observations.”

  • If class size > 15: “For the discussion we’ll break into smaller groups..”

  • If on Zoom: “The zoom host will assign everyone to sessions and send out invitations immediately after this presentation.”

(Next Slide — 4)

Talk & presentation: 1934 West Coast Longshore Strike (15 min)

“The Great Depression did not appear to be a promising time for working class victories.

(Next Slide — 5)

“Socialists had been purged in 1919 during the “Red Scare.” Workers had no legal right to unionize, collectively bargain, or strike. One third of the workforce was unemployed, millions evicted, income cut in half, and state-funded public relief programs collapsed.8

(Next Slide — 6)

“Despite seemingly insurmountable odds, the labor and socialist movements strengthened during the Depression. There was an upsurge in socialist participation and influence in labor unions. The Communist Party’s Unemployed Councils participated in a wave of rent strikes, eviction fights, and hunger marches in 75 cities. Grocery stores were raided.9 Employed workers walked out in wildcat strikes.

“Workers realized their suffering was not due to individual failings but, rather, to the injustices of capitalism. The initiative and leadership that led to this collective awareness and to disruptive labor and social actions often came from socialist groups and individuals.”

(Next Slide — 7)

“Authorities feared that, without concessions, a revolutionary movement could develop.10 Federal relief measures were adopted and the right to unionize was given by Section 7(a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933.11 Despite the lack of enforcement mechanisms for Section 7(a), workers rushed to join unions,12 militant rank-and-file strikes surged, and socialist organizations and influence grew. A socialist-inspired strike wave in 1934 included over 1,850 work stoppages involving nearly 1.5 million workers.13

(Next Slide — 8)

One of the most significant was the West Coast Waterfront Strike that started May 9, 1934. Despite employer resistance it spread quickly along the coast, erupting into violent battles between workers and the police. On July 5, 1934, the San Francisco police killed a longshoreman and a strike supporter. In response, the longshoremen called for a general strike that shut down San Francisco for 4 days. The strike ended on July 31 in federal arbitration. It had lasted 83 days, shut down 2,000 miles of West Coast ports, and expanded to involve ten unions and a general strike. Longshoremen won higher wages, increased union control over hiring, and a West Coast contract for their union, the International Longshoremen’s Association, or ILA [eye-el-ā]. The strike established the union as a powerful representative of longshore workers, and in later years the union was able to gain full control of the hiring process as well as significant control over work conditions.

This growing working class militancy, inspired by socialists, as exemplified in the Waterfront strike, created the political context in which some of the most impactful parts of the New Deal, the closest the US came to social democracy, were able to pass Congress in 1935. This demonstrates how workers can force changes not only in their own workplaces but also in society more broadly.

(Next Slide — 9)

So, why do we say that labor needs the left? Not all unions are created equal. As mentioned, there are two contrasting strategies: business unionism and class-struggle unionism. Business unions play a conservative role within capitalism. Identifying the interests of workers with employers, they provide services to dues-paying members, seeking to negotiate “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.” They have often supported prejudicial hiring practices to limit job competition. Class struggle unions, however, organize workplace insurgencies that challenge capital’s power. Democratically run to “fight the bosses rather than cozy up to them,”14 they understand that “an injury to one is an injury to all”15 because class divisions reduce all workers’ fighting power, even those thought to be the most “privileged.16

“Socialists have played crucial roles in transforming business unions into class struggle unions by radicalizing workers, democratizing unions, and connecting workplace struggles to larger fights for equality, justice, and freedom. Despite weaknesses, socialists have been among the most reliable forces fighting working class divisions. The 1934 waterfront strike would have failed without this radical transformation.

The ILA’s West Coast Strike in 1916 had been defeated by a lack of solidarity between ILA locals, with other unions, and with black workers, who (being excluded from the union) were used as strikebreakers. In 1917, workers influenced by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) persuaded ILA17 to admit black longshoremen, give them seats on internal committees, include them in public policy debates, and elect a black worker to represent the local on the Central Labor Council.

“In 1933, Communist Party organizers in San Francisco took jobs as longshoremen and began working inside ILA. They created the “Albion Hall” study group on labor history and tactics, which attracted experienced rank-and-file longshoremen, including Harry Bridges, and grew to form a base of organized radicalism. Radicalized rank-and-file workers started editing the CP’s “Waterfront Worker” newsletter, increasing its popularity. Longshoremen started bringing work complaints to Communist ILA members. In response, radical workers connected with Albion Hall led several wildcat job actions starting in the summer of 1933.”19

(Next Slide — 10)

Because ILA refused to act, in February 1934, militant workers, led by Harry Bridges, called a West Coast rank-and-file only convention, which made demands backed by a threat to strike. Union officials tried to prevent the strike by signing a settlement and by announcing a postponement. Furious, the longshoremen suspended the local’s president, elected a 50-member rank-and-file strike committee chaired by Harry Bridges to take his place, and moved forward.21 ILA was transformed, for a time, into a class-struggle union, rank-and-file-led with democratic rank-and-file Strike Committees.

“Shipowners claimed the strike convention was dominated by ‘communist elements’ from San Francisco. A dozen times ILA officials secretly collaborated with employers to end the strike, employing violent attacks, strikebreakers, and by signing “settlements” favorable to employers.20 Thanks to the rank-and-file, they largely failed. In the end, ILA officials worked with employers to kill the General Strike, forcing the longshoremen to accept government arbitration. Despite that, workers won significant concessions.

(Next Slide — 11)

“What does the socialist movement itself gain from this participation in labor disputes? History shows the labor movement is the main point of leverage for working class policies, by building working class organization and causing economic disruption capable of shifting the power balance between labor and capital. The 1934 Waterfront Strike was part of a year-long wave of powerful coordinated labor actions (many socialist-influenced or led). Elites, fearing that “the gates of hell” would otherwise open, passed progressive “Second New Deal” legislation in 1935.21

(Next Slide — 12)

“In addition, socialist involvement in the labor movement forges strong connections with and understanding of their working-class base. Prior to 1933, San Francisco communists had isolated themselves in their tiny “red” marine union. Out of touch with workers, they scolded what they called the “social fascist” AFL union from the sidelines. But in 1933 they defied their own party to shut down the red union and join ILA. The communist workers' effective use of political education, democratic strategizing, and militant job actions won them credibility and influence with workers. In contrast, communists at other West Coast ports, who stayed longer in their “red” unions, didn’t notably help or benefit from the 1934 strike.

“Finally, socialists understand that the workplace is an essential training ground to build the working-class solidarity and class-consciousness essential to achieve broader socialist objectives. Solidarity is the recognition by working people that their power lies in unity, despite differences.22 The establishment of solidarity on the job, and its extension into community life, is crucial to building working class consciousness, which is the understanding that workers’ labor is the source of wealth and profit, workers and capitalists have opposing interests, and worker power resides in collective organization in a class struggle against the bosses.23, 24

Marx identified divisions in the working class as “the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power.”25 Workplace solidarity is a hard lesson that requires understanding divisive employer tactics, forgiving ‘betrayals,’ and developing mutual trust and respect over time. Socialists appeal to justice, reason, and self-interest to combat divisiveness. Working class consciousness in turn is born out of collective struggle, awareness of labor history, and an understanding of themselves as a social class opposed to capitalists.

“During the 1934 Waterfront Strike, experienced socialist longshoremen convinced co-workers that victory depends on solidarity between Black and white workers, between ILA locals, and with the various trades in each region. This truth was manifest in their 1916 loss, a lesson that was applied to good effect in the 1934 strike. Communists made effective use of political education, democratic strategizing, militant rank-and-file job actions, and defiance of ‘authority.’ This countered the workers’ sense of resignation and fear, fostered a class-struggle spirit, and helped build the knowledge, skills, and organization needed to transform society.26 An injury to one is an injury to all, and every fight is for the entire working class.

“This ends the Presentation and brings us to the Discussion Period....”

(Next Slide — 13)

Discussion period (55 minutes, minus any delay in the start time)

If there are no more than ~15 in the class, one discussion session can be held.

If holding breakout sessions: “We will break into smaller discussion groups at this point. The larger group will reconvene in about one hour.”

If on Zoom: “The zoom host is sending each of you a link to join your session. The zoom host will give each breakout facilitator a 5-minute warning before the time is up.”

Facilitators: wait no longer than 2 min. for the transition.

Discussion of the talk and presentation (~25 min.)

Experienced facilitators can start the discussion in their preferred way. Don’t spend over 5 min. on general feedback if the conversation wanders off topic or is dull. Move on to the questions below.

FACILITATOR: (Unless you were the moderator, briefly introduce yourself.)

“First, we’ll discuss the talk and after that, the recommended reading materials. To begin, I’d like to hear some general impressions of the talk and presentation. . . ”

Suggested Questions

  1. “The ILA was a ‘business union’ that worked with employers to sabotage the 1934 strike. But CP-influenced rank-and-file workers were still able to operate a class-struggle strike within ILA. How is this relevant for today’s mainstream business unions?”

  2. “Existing labor laws, including the right to organize, are being violated almost with impunity. Why? What might be done about it?” [NOTE: Amazon, Starbucks, Trader Joes’ workers...]

  3. “The PRO Act could make it far easier for workers to organize, yet it hasn’t passed. What do the Depression era labor experiences tell us about how to get progressive legislation adopted?”

  4. “Although 71% of Americans approve of labor unions; 57% approved Biden’s plan to force rail workers to settle and go back to work in 2022 (including 73% of Democrats). How might American socialists contribute to improving public perceptions of unions and strikes? To ‘inoculate’ the public against anti-union propaganda?” [NOTE: unorganized workers and the “middle-class” are taught to think of union workers as unduly “privileged.” Many feel resentment towards unions and strikes, not solidarity.]

  5. “In what ways did CP activists contribute to longshoremen’s organization and victory? In what ways might DSA increase its participation in rank and file labor disputes?”

  6. “How might involvement in labor organizing change DSA demographics or impact our electoral work?” [NOTE: demographics include class, race, ethnicity. More clout? Shifted priorities? . . . ]

(Next Slide — 14)

ONLY IF facilitators have Internet Access and can show VIDEOS

  1. “Here’s a short clip from the documentary Strikestory: on the 1934 Waterfront Strike by the ILWU in 1988.” [Show 19:20-22:50 only] Strikestory - 1934 Strike - ILWU Documentary - 1988 - VHS 4-5 min total.

“Our recommended reading is a recent article by Eric Blanc, ‘Liberals Get the New Deal Wrong: Why Voting is Not Enough.’ I will read a paraphrased excerpt to facilitate the discussion, for those who did not find time to read this article.

EXCERPT: “For decades, efforts to revive the labor movement have focused overwhelmingly on electoral politics. But during the depression it took a combination of workplace militancy and government-level political initiatives to bring about labor’s unprecedented wins. Both were essential — and neither were simply an effect of the other. Like the labor movement today, the craft union heads of the AFL in 1933-34 were risk-averse and sought to win unionization without work stoppages, relying instead on employer good will and newly set up mediation apparatuses. But strikes proved to be necessary for big advances. This lesson was clear in the victorious radical-led mass strike of 1934 in San Francisco. The unions that made substantial gains in membership were those which depended upon the strike instead of government mediation. Labor strife gave birth to the forthrightly pro-union Wagner Act in 1935. The single most important unionization breakthrough of the 1930s—the Flint sit-down strike—was won a month before the Wagner Act was ratified by the Supreme Court.”

Suggested Questions

  1. “In 1934 workers had no legal right to unionize, collectively bargain, or strike. Suppression was brutal. Yet workers still won major concessions, and legislative reform followed. How is this relevant to today’s legal environment?” [NOTE: Union officials cooperated with Federal Government “mediation” to prevent a 2022 railroad workers’ strike. Workers have no power without a credible strike threat.]

  2. “Back in 1935, a conservative Supreme Court began striking down New Deal legislation (more than at any other time in our history).27 But in 1937 there was a nationwide wave of hundreds of militant sit-down strikes and a threat from Roosevelt to pack the Court, which compelled the Justices to leave “second” New Deal legislation in place. What can socialists today learn from that experience?” [NOTE: Two swing justices joined the moderate block to uphold the Wagner Labor Relations Act, Social Security, and minimum wage legislation; and Roosevelt’s opponents convinced reactionary Justice Van Devanterís to retire.]

  3. Studies show that majority support alone is insufficient to move government policy in directions opposed by economic elites. A Green New Deal is favored by 59% of the American public, free higher education by 63%, and public health insurance by 70%. Yet these policies remain out of reach. In light of Blanc’s arguments, what should DSA’s strategy be?”

  4. “What should DSA’s approach to working with today’s unions be? Which are conservative business unions? Are there any “class-struggle” unions?” [NOTE: refer to recent labor actions in the news.]

  5. “How should socialists balance electoral work with labor organizing? Do these ever come into conflict? How might they complement each other?”

“Our second recommended reading is a 2021 article by Paul Prescod, “To Fight Racism, Organize with Your Coworkers.” I will read a paraphrased excerpt to facilitate the discussion”:

EXCERPT: “Historically, US socialists have employed specifically anti-racist and anti-discriminatory work in the workplace and the wider community. This collective struggle, anchored in shared interests, has been the most effective means of combating racial inequality. Paul Prescod’s article discusses the Socialist-led United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA).

“Many packinghouses employed black workers, native-born whites, and white ethnic immigrants. To counter divisive company practices, socialists in the UPWA successfully appealed to common interests to fight for improved conditions and fair labor practices for all workers and against discrimination in the wider community. The union’s political-education program made it clear that racism hurts all workers. The wage differential between workers in the North and South shows that “discrimination lowers the wages, not only of all Negro and all women workers, but it robs all white men, too.” In the 1950s the Chicago UPWA organized members to canvas white communities to convince them to accept black residents, picketed the Housing Authority to accept black tenants, and supported MLK’s 1966 open housing campaign. In Ohio, UPWA played an important role desegregating the Waterloo police department and YMCA and integrating restaurants and bars. These experiences significantly improved many white members racial attitudes. Black workers were able to exercise real power in the union and saw it as a central vehicle for advancing racial justice, superseding even the NAACP and Urban League, locally.

“Given the long decline in labor and socialist movements, however, society has taken on an increasingly individualistic conception of how to address racial inequality. To make progress today, we need once again to revive a vision of fighting for racial justice as a collective, multiracial project rooted in shared material interests.”

Suggested Questions

  1. “What were some of the obstacles to unionization that workers in Chicago’s meatpacking industry faced? How did the meatpacking companies use race to divide the workers? Can you think of ways that bosses do this today?” 

  2. “How did the union overcome these obstacles? What were some of the strategic choices they made? How did participation in the union change the workers? Can you think of contemporary examples of unions successfully building multiracial solidarity through struggles rooted in shared interest?”

  3. “How did the Communist Party in Chicago (and the Socialist Party in Kansas City) help lay the groundwork for the union? How can socialists today play a similar role in building the labor movement?”

For classes holding breakout sessions:
Moderator or Zoom Host: Provide 5 min. end of session warning to facilitators
Facilitators: Wrap up the discussion.
Moderator or Zoom host: End breakout sessions, back to main call/room.]

Section V. Concluding Discussion and Remarks (15 min.)

The moderator should reserve the last 2 min. for concluding remarks. If the class is running late, shorten the discussion time.

Discussion: (13 min.)

Moderator: “Does anyone have any final questions or observations about the historic connection between socialism and the labor movement, the significance of that connection for socialists today, and what that means for DSA?”

[Optional for breakout sessions: “Do any breakout sessions wish to share their thoughts?”]

Moderator’s Concluding Remarks (2 min.)

“Working class uprisings in the early 1930’s (many socialist-led) won the passage of progressive labor laws and increased public benefits, which led in turn to the explosive growth of worker organization and militant actions, followed by additional legislative victories. As the labor movement began to express the broader social needs of the working class, a ‘New Deal Order’ developed.

“But many popular New Deal gains were rolled back in the 1940s and later.28 And without a socialist analysis, the connection between making the world a better place and negotiating better conditions for union members was lost.29

“Today, socialists must contribute to the rebuilding of labor unions, which is the “indispensable organization” of the working class under capitalism. Labor historian Toni Gilpin reminds us that a sense of mutual purpose, working class solidarity, and collective strength is what makes great leaps forward possible. So, whenever you are frustrated, keep hold of that long view and it can energize you to carry on.30

“This ends the DSA NPEC course on Labor History and the Role of the Left. Thank you for participating! If you have questions or comments on the course, we welcome them at [email protected].” OPTIONAL: “You’re invited to stay longer for a Q&A session!”


  1. René Rojas, “Chile’s Resurgent Left,” Catalyst, Vol. 6, No.1, Spring 2022.

  2. This is the acknowledged socialist legacy. But individual, organizational, and periodic failures can easily be found.

  3. Charlie Post, “The Forgotten Militants,”Jacobin, August 8, 2016. “Labor-law reform . . . has followed working-class upsurges, not preceded them.”

  4. Kim Moody, “The Rank-and-File Strategy: the labor movement is the critical institution for the Left,” Jacobin, 2000.

  5. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Marx to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt In New York,” Selected Correspondence (1870)(Progress Publishers, 1975), 220-224.

  6. Joe Burns, “What Is Class-Struggle Unionism?,” Jacobin, April 29, 2022.

  7. Bob Master, “Why the Labor Movement Needs the Left,” Jacobin, August 12, 2019.

  8. 15M unemployed. Christopher Klein, “Why Labor Unions Declined in the 1920s: Stripped of wartime protections and branded as anti-American, labor unions languished in the Roaring Twenties,”, February 18, 2021; and Jeremy Brecher, Strike! (1972)(PM Press 50th anniversary edition, 2020) September 6, 2022, and John E. Hansan, PhD, “Origins of the State and Federal Public Welfare Programs (1932–1935),” Social Welfare History Project, Virginia Commonwealth University.

  9. Jeremy Brecher, Strike! (1972)(PM Press 50th anniversary edition, 2020), 150.

  10. ibid, 154. Short excerpt.

  11. ibid, 156 plus “National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933,” Social Welfare History Project, 2011.

  12. ibid, 157.

  13. Eric Blanc, “Liberals Get the New Deal Wrong,” July 5, 2022.

  14. Joe Burns, “What Is Class-Struggle Unionism?,” Jacobin, April 29, 2022. [This is an excerpt from Burns’s book, Class Struggle Unionism.]

  15. The slogan of the IWW, a revolutionary industrial union associated with syndicalism and anarchism.

  16. Ramaa Vasudevan, “The Global Class War,” Catalyst, VOL 3 • No. 1, March 2019.

  17. Reds or Rackets? The Making of Radical and Conservative Unions on the Waterfront, Howard Kimeldorf (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 87.

  18. Actions undertaken by unionized workers without union leadership's authorisation, ibid, 88.

  19. ibid, 89-90.

  20. Brecher, Strike!, 157-165.

  21. Barry Eidlin, “To Pass the PRO Act, We Need to Examine Past Labor Law Reform Failures,” Jacobin, June 15, 2021.

  22. Barry Eidlin, “Why Unions Are Good — But Not Good Enough,” January 6, 2020.

  23. Socialist consciousness is further awareness of the revolutionary potential of the working class: Workers must fight for and build another economic and political system to have control over their own labor and products.

  24. Joe Burns, “What Is Class-Struggle Unionism?,” Jacobin, April 29, 2022.

  25. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Letter of Marx to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt In New York, Selected correspondence (Progress Publishers, 1975), 220-224.

  26. Barry Eidlin, “What is the Rank-and-File Strategy, and Why Does It Matter?,” Jacobin, March 26, 2019.

  27. William E. Leuchtenburg, “When Franklin Roosevelt Clashed with the Supreme Court—and Lost,” May 2005.

  28. Charles Post, “The New Deal and the Popular Front: Models for contemporary socialists?” International Socialist Review (ISR), Issue #108, 09-01-2021. Most significantly, the Taft Hartley Act of 1947.

  29. Bob Master, “Why the Labor Movement Needs the Left,” Jacobin, August 12, 2019.

  30. Why Union Members Should Study Labor History,” Gilpin.

Header image: Striking longshoremen in Portland, 1934. Via Oregon Historical Society.

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