As the National Political Committee (NPC) is making big decisions about the budget and the future of DSA, Bread & Roses members on the NPC recently submitted a proposal to ask for volunteers among staff and directors who would be willing to have their positions eliminated and receive severance. We know this suggestion is difficult to talk about, especially because staff work extremely hard to make our projects successful. We want to explain why we believe this is a necessary but hopefully temporary measure to keep DSA afloat until we can find our political footing again.
DSA Should Be Thriving
Given the big deficit we’re facing, there’s a lot of talk about what to cut. But how did this decline in revenue, membership, and overall excitement happen in the first place? This should actually be a really favorable time for DSA. We’re living in a moment when revived labor struggles and the fight for a free Palestine are galvanizing so many Americans, particularly young people. Biden’s disastrous policy of fueling Israel’s genocide in Gaza has created the kind of space for an independent alternative from the Democratic Party that has not existed since Bernie.
Despite all this possibility, DSA has still been treading water, and things are going to get more challenging before they get better. This is not just a natural ebb in the socialist movement or technical issues in our recruitment or fundraising. We have not had strong figures at the top of the organization to lead with a political vision that inspires people to become committed socialists. Working people are inspired to transform the world, but they are doing it elsewhere.
We would ideally be scaling up our operations to meet this moment, hiring fellow capable comrades who are excited to be paid to spend every working day thinking about how to get us closer to socialism. But top directors mismanaged our dues by withholding essential information from elected leaders for years and imposed their own political objectives that would keep DSA in the model of a progressive non-profit rather than a mass party that is capable of getting us closer to a rupture with capitalism. As a result, we are now left holding the bag and tasked with cutting expenses just to keep the organization afloat. It’s our responsibility now to learn from our mistakes: not reckoning soon enough with a downturn in enthusiasm, and failing to understand that as a sign that we were not serving our role to champion independent politics as a socialist organization in a time of great crisis for capital.
No one would be considering layoffs if the deficit weren’t so extreme. But now that we are in this crisis, we can’t fix it by hollowing out the organization. If we don’t reduce staff costs, DSA won’t be a place where anyone wants to work — or organize.
Can’t We Just Fundraise?
We should absolutely fundraise as much as we can to buy us time and breathing room. Early on in our NPC term, we B&R members were overly optimistic about this prospect and overly skeptical that the budget was truly as dire as had been forewarned. That’s why we introduced the Open Budgeting proposal to allow members to view the actual budget by the numbers and make proposals of their own. (That’s right: the budget had never been shared with regular members or even NPC members before our proposal passed in October of last year, and the information we have now is still incomplete.) When we finally saw the numbers, it was much worse than we anticipated — probably too big to fundraise our way out of, and mostly driven by the unstrategic hiring practices over the last few years. This is an example of the dysfunction and distrust created by a lack of transparency between directors and members.
Fundraising money on the seven-figure scale takes a great deal of time and effort. We have enthusiastically participated in recruiting our chapter and caucus comrades to pay solidarity dues, and we would like to see more creative fundraising ideas that are integrated into our external political work. (That’s one reason why we opposed the proposal that the NPC just approved to restrict earmarked fundraising.) In order to raise the necessary funds to avoid major cuts, we would need to have a plan that doesn’t only rely on our current pool of donors, but rather massively expands our base by raising class consciousness and recruiting new members. We are skeptical that there is enough volunteer capacity on the NPC or other national committees to do this in the timeframe we need it. Fundraising drives help, but they can’t be relied on as the only or primary solution.
What Could We Cut to Make Up the Deficit?
For 2024, DSA is projecting $5 million in income and $7 million in expenses. That means we eventually need to come up with $2 million to break even. Treasurer John L. (Red Star) suggested the goal of maintaining a deficit of $821,000-$921,000 which would buy us another year to solve the problem. (That has serious risks, however, as that may use up so much savings that we will not be able to afford a convention in 2025.) With that goal in mind, the NPC should make at least $1.1 million in cuts during this budget cycle.
Like most organizations, the majority of the national DSA budget goes to staff: $3.65 million, which is 72% of our projected income. Over 50% of our current draft budget is devoted to staff. Without asking volunteers to take severance and be laid off, we would have to give up other expenses that members are counting on. This potentially could mean cutting dues share to chapters, slashing the YDSA budget, foregoing in-person events, slashing committee budgets, slashing NEC grants, slashing publications and literature — nearly everything that gives DSA meaning would be on the chopping block.
No caucus or individual NPC member has presented a comprehensive plan to address this issue. B&R has proposed making several significant non-personnel cuts: reducing software costs by $140,000, closing the national office to save $120,000, and economizing travel (such as with room-sharing) or freezing it completely which would save $64,000. Multiple other NPC members have said they want to “try everything” before discussing layoffs, but no one has yet put forward a concrete explanation of how we would do that. We are open to other proposals, but we ultimately believe resources that allow members to lead organizing internally and reach more working class people externally must be protected. Those things are what make DSA special.
What About Dues Share?
“Dues share” is the 20% of monthly member dues that gets distributed back to chapters. We believe any reduction to dues share (or other boosts to chapters like matching funds) would not only be incredibly demoralizing to members around the country, it would also throw us into a downward spiral. Most of the exciting external work that actually recruits members (and therefore increases revenue) happens on the chapter level. As John from Red Star rightly noted, hamstringing chapters is a massive opportunity cost that we can’t afford if we want DSA to not just survive but actually grow and make an impact on the world. If dues share were to be cut, we also worry that staff would not spend a majority of their time helping chapters grow and organize but rather helping them scale down their projects due to the lack of revenue.
If We Have to Cut Personnel Expenses, Why Not Start With Positions Outside the Bargaining Unit?
B&R led the effort (twice!) to finally cut the largest single personnel expense of all: the exorbitant National Harassment Grievance Officer (NHGO) contract that cost us $360,000/year. The NHGO’s contract will be terminated at the end of March this year, which is strangely more than was even budgeted for, so unfortunately this doesn’t help us meet the deficit goal. The NLC co-chair pay is also not included in the budget, but it was also cut (which we strongly disagree with for reasons described below).
B&R’s volunteer layoffs proposal allows the Personnel Committee to choose which positions are eligible for “buy-out” (severance), which could include non-union director-level employees. After Maria Svart’s departure as National Director, we support delaying filling the position until we can review the role description now that we have national co-chairs. However, we are concerned that the departure of three or more directors at the same time could lead to dysfunction and workload problems for unit staff, so some amount of unit layoffs are probably necessary.
What About the Pay for Elected Roles Like the National Co-chairs, NPC Steering Committee, and YDSA National Coordinating Committee?
As B&R member Allan Frasheri wrote previously, “Mass membership workers’ parties around the world — like Sinn Fein in Ireland and Die Linke in Germany — elect an executive leader or leaders (often called the party ‘leader,’ ‘president,’ or ‘chair’) at their conventions. These political leaders are charged with representing the party externally to unions, other organizations, and the general public and help oversee the internal administration of the party. To be able to carry out these responsibilities, these positions are full-time and paid… The model of these parties around the world is a stark contrast with DSA’s structure. Because NPC and NPC Steering Committee members often have their own full-time jobs, they have less time to dedicate to either the internal direction of DSA or to external political leadership.”
There is simply no way for an all-volunteer board to truly spend the time necessary to be political leaders. These stipends allow NPC members and YDSA NCC members to free up their time for DSA — through reduced work hours, more money for childcare or meal delivery or car payments, or the extra mental capacity from more breathing room in their personal expenditures. Otherwise, unelected directors will be the only ones with the capacity to set the political direction of DSA. Leadership stipends are not a luxury; they’re an essential part of DSA’s democratic character and a mandate from convention delegates.
Don’t Socialists Support Unions? Shouldn’t Laying Off Union Staff Be a Total Last Resort?
In DSA, “the boss” is fellow working-class activists who contribute a portion of our salary to pay for staff’s, as well as our limited free time to build the organization side-by-side with them. DSA exists to be a vehicle for these members to advance the cause of socialism, and budgetary considerations should always make that the top priority.
It’s also important to understand that this is not a “class struggle union” situation. Most people work for an employer whose authority over them is undemocratic and based in class domination, and therefore as socialists we find it fundamentally illegitimate. (In other words, Howard Schultz has no right to control baristas.) This applies to public sector employers, too. Our governments are wildly undemocratic and typically tools of the ruling class. (In other words, Lori Lightfoot has no right to control Chicago teachers.)
However, the situation is more complicated for “movement staff” — that is, staff for democratic membership organizations like unions, grassroots NGOs, and parties. Their employer is the members they work for, and if we support member-driven movement organizations, then members’ authority over their staff does have legitimacy. DSA members and union members have the right to exercise control over how their dues money is spent. And not only do we have the right, but bottom-up leadership is actually essential for a vibrant socialist movement and labor movement.
That said, we are all still wage-earners vulnerable to exploitation. That’s why we support the right of union staff and DSA staff to have their own union and organize to protect themselves from over-work, low wages, and abusive management — all-too-common phenomena in movement jobs. Movement staff often enjoy a sense of purpose and fulfillment in their work that many others can only dream of, but they shouldn’t be expected to live on a sense of purpose alone; they deserve dignity and material security like anyone else.
However, there are trade-offs unique to movement jobs that can’t be avoided. Members sometimes pick new priorities that take precedence over projects that staff have been working on, or choose a new course that staff don’t agree with. When that happens, it might not always be possible to renew their contracts. Long-term job security can’t be a guarantee. But the alternative would be far worse: staff interests coming before members’.
What’s Next for DSA?
We envision a thriving organization where staff play a crucial role in carrying out the democratic mandates of members and use their expertise to help members become socialist leaders and help chapters become beacons of a better world. There will be many crises ahead of us that DSA needs to be prepared to leverage for the cause of the working class. If we can do that, we are hopeful that this change in staffing levels will be just a bump in the road on our way to future political victories.