DSA structures and processes can be opaque and bewildering at times. This has often been true at local, regional, and national levels. The National Political Committee is no different. As three new NPC members and members of the Bread & Roses caucus, it took us some time to get our bearings, but now, about five months into our term, we feel that we can start to give some useful perspective on the national organization and its leadership structures. In this report, we will recap the last two NPC meetings, some of the issues we’ve identified in the national organization, and our proposals for addressing them.
Recapping the Last Two Meetings and Our Proposed Labor Plan
So far, we have had two big meetings as an NPC. The first was the regularly scheduled quarterly meeting in mid-October. There, we elected a Steering Committee, a five member body currently consisting of Kristian Hernandez, Matt Miller, Jen McKinny, Justin Charles and Gustavo Gordillo, which meets and votes on items between sessions of the full NPC and prepares the agenda for NPC meetings. At this meeting we also set national priorities: the NPC committed to the outward-facing priorities of labor, electoral, and ecosocialist work. We also got reports from internal committees and discussed creating national committee work plans.
The second full NPC meeting was an in-person strategy retreat in mid-November, where we began to plan work for national priorities and national working groups. The retreat was focused on charting major events DSA can expect in the next two years (world, national, local), power mapping DSA leadership, and presenting work plan proposals for national working groups and bodies. As a caucus, we focused on a national Labor Priority work plan, as well as the Matching Funds work plan and a Reparations work plan. The retreat ran long, and we only had time to get to the Labor and Electoral priority work plans. We took up all other work plans as a body in early December.
The Labor Work Plan that we proposed drew from the Labor Resolution passed at national convention and condensed the work into three buckets:
- Building the capacity for DSA to do labor work.
- Organizing in the labor movement.
- Agitating for labor legislation.
To build the capacity for DSA to do labor work, the work plan calls for: designing and running a campaign around a key sector, creating a national labor curriculum, jointly running EWOC with the NPC, and hiring a full-time labor staffer. The labor staffer would be responsible for tracking strikes and labor actions, alerting chapters, and providing strike solidarity training. Their tasks would center around mentoring chapters identified as strategic in our labor campaigns.
To organize in the labor movement, the work plan outlines a potential “Organize Logistics” campaign that’s two-pronged:
- Directly organize at Amazon, partnering with the Teamsters and Amazonians United. Encourage members to salt and partner with YDSA, which already has an established logistics committee.
- Encourage DSAers to work for UPS and join the Teamsters, and organize at work and within the union. Members would work to build up a contract campaign with an eye towards the end of their nationwide contract in 2023.
To agitate for labor legislation, the work plan calls for making what interventions we can to pass the PRO Act, and continuing as a partner in the Worker Power Coalition. It also calls for exploring another legislative campaign — a Public Sector Right to Strike campaign.
Coming out of the retreat, it seemed there was general support for the politics of our proposal (we’ll know for sure when it’s voted on this week), but we did get pushback from our National Director, Maria Svart, who has argued that the responsibilities of a potential labor staffer should be carried out by the DSLC Steering Committee instead.
Problem 1: We Must Invest More in Organizing Staff
While DSA still has not hired a labor staffer (despite that’s being mandated at our previous three conventions), we have already hired two new administrative staffers since our term began in August. This reflects a larger issue of staffing in our organization that is often invisible to members. The organization has 31 staff, of which only 9 are dedicated to organizing chapters and campaigns, while the rest are administrative. While administrative staff are necessary to any serious socialist project, we believe the over-investment in administrative staff relative to organizing staff is a serious problem.
The clear pattern established over the last few years has been that organizing staff hires are more difficult to get approved than administrative staff. We think this stems from and reinforces the incorrect view that administrative staff are not themselves political, and therefore safer in a multi-tendency organization like DSA. The truth is that all staff of a political organization play a political role. The decisions about what kind of staff to hire and what their areas of responsibility will be are in fact some of the most important and politically consequential decisions a political organization will make. Broadly speaking, the current national staffing strategy, intentionally or not, has deprioritized building DSA’s capacity to be an independent actor on the political stage, yet this question of overall staffing priorities has never been subject to substantive debate in the organization.
Problem 2: Working Groups Must be Reflective of the Organization as a Whole
We have been glad to see progress on the reform of national working groups. Based on the recommendation of the previous NPC, in mid-October the current NPC developed and passed a “National Committee Criteria and Accountability Plan for 2022.” Broadly, this plan aims to ensure that national working groups are accessible to the average member, are working on outward-facing campaigns with concrete goals, and are working towards the goals set by the membership at convention. The plan includes steps to help national committees establish formal structures by writing bylaws and having leadership that is regularly elected or appointed, submit regular budgets for campaign work around winnable working-class demands, and create trainings to ensure more members can get involved in the work of national committees.
For some time now we’ve felt that the present national working group structure was dysfunctional and, among other issues, made it harder to have a clear public message that reflected the will of the membership. The current system is undemocratic: working groups, unelected by the full membership or national convention, are allowed to use the DSA name and therefore appear to be speaking for all DSA members on a given topic.
To some DSA members the autonomous working group model is a good example of democracy. In theory anyone can join and they don’t have to ask permission from the national organization to do or say anything. We disagree with this view. Most people don’t have time to join the national working groups, much less guide their priorities and activities. As a result the working groups tend to become politically unrepresentative of DSA members. That’s why we elect leaders to represent our politics and have oversight over the activity of the organization.
To the extent that the reforms rationalize our working groups and make them accountable to the elected leadership of DSA, this is a step forward. That still leaves an obvious question, though: if working groups are being partially centralized under the NPC, to what extent is the NPC accountable to the membership? As we’ve said above, we think there is a need for more communication and democratic accountability to the membership, and absent changes, we will be trading one form of undemocratic organization for another.
Problem 3: National Convention Must Have Real Stakes
During our national conventions, we quickly debate and pass a long laundry list of resolutions, with little to no consideration of the organizational resources to carry them out, and no real analysis of DSA’s current capacity. Most of the resolutions we pass, individually, DSA could carry out. Taken as a whole, it’s much less realistic for where DSA is today.
It’s commonly known and acknowledged among staff and national leadership that carrying out all the resolutions passed at convention, to their full specifications, is an impossible task. Many convention proposals call for a body of work to be a “priority.” But when everything is a priority coming out of convention, nothing is truly prioritized, and the NPC and staff must then play a far greater role in actually setting the priorities of DSA.
This disempowers the membership and the national convention and is a major challenge for the organization. As the highest decision-making body of DSA, conventions must have real stakes and DSA members must be involved in the hard work of debating and deciding real priorities.
Problem 4: We Need Clear Lines of Communication to the Membership and Transparency on Debates and Votes
Our caucus has identified a need for more transparency at the national level. When we first joined the body, our national director immediately asked us to sign confidentiality agreements. We worked with NPC member Matt Miller to propose and pass changes to this document, which now makes personnel and budget matters public to our membership. We plan to find more ways to publicize this information to our members.
We understand that not all information can be made public. Matters such as internal grievances, workplace organizing, antifascist direct action, and more often must be kept confidential, and the NPC has to make decisions on behalf of the organization’s members from time to time. B&R has argued that this is a natural role for leadership and how any large organization must be run. The problem is that members often don’t find out what decisions are being made on their behalf, and how the NPC arrived at those decisions. The NPC is opaque to most DSA members.
Important votes are taken at official NPC meetings, at NPC Steering Committee meetings, and between meetings online. For many decisions, there’s clarifying debate beforehand. If these votes and lines of debate aren’t made available to the membership, DSA members have very little to go on in electing national leaders every two years beyond personal impressions and online reputations. At the NPC retreat in November, for example, no names were recorded in the notes, so there’s no way of telling who made what arguments. And the votes that were taken aren’t recorded: neither vote tallies nor who voted how. It is a baseline requirement of a democratic organization that members know how elected leaders are voting.
We would like to see a much more open culture between the NPC and the membership. Early last month when members began expressing anger about Jamaal Bowman’s position on BDS, we proposed to the NPC that we invite him to a town hall open for members to attend. We also argued against having an off-the-record meeting on this important issue that many members were paying attention to and would want the details on. While off-the-record meetings in and of themselves are not bad (in fact, elected leaders should be entrusted to have them from time to time), we felt that in the current climate, in which there was such a lack of communication and even distrust between us and the membership, this should not have happened.
While some discussion and future plans for town halls resulted, these arguments weren’t taken up and supported at that time. The biggest error by the NPC was to simply say nothing for so long. Whether it was the town hall idea or something else, the NPC should have intervened sooner to model a more substantial and productive debate.
Proposals and next steps
In the longer term, we think it’s extremely important that the next DSA Convention be different from the last three. We’ve seen that meaningful member decision-making is lost when so many proposals are put forward as organizational priorities. We don’t know for sure yet what we’d suggest, but it needs to include substantial debate and a real path to choosing meaningful priorities. At minimum this will require some new mechanism for reducing or consolidating the number of proposals put before the convention.
In the near term, in order to improve the problem of communication, we’ve shared the following proposals with the rest of the NPC and will be submitting them for a vote:
- Share votes and recordings of SC & NPC meetings within 3 days of the meeting (even if minutes are not yet available).
- Publish detailed notes of our meetings that include who said what and voted which way.
- In our newsletters, articulate the key debates and the majority and minority positions on those debates. This would be a great way to model political debate for our members and democratize strategy. Time should be reserved at the end of NPC meetings to work on this collectively so that we are all in agreement on what’s written.
- Hold regular town halls with DSA members. We propose that our first town hall be focused on the resolutions the NPC has decided to adopt from convention and why.
- Explore holding NPC sessions for political discussion and debate that are not business meetings, but are still recorded and shared with the membership, and that members may attend as non-speaking viewers.
We encourage members to ask their elected NPC leaders to vote in favor of these proposals, as we think this would be an important first step in cultivating an open political culture that’s needed for any large multi-tendency organization. Members should also encourage their NPC electeds to vote in favor of the labor and matching funds proposals which are up for a vote this week.
We will continue to focus on moving forward plans for the DSLC and national labor work, the matching funds proposal, the growth and development committee, and advocating for the types of changes on the NPC listed above. We’re very excited about building on some of the successes seen lately in DSA strike support and want to help all chapters learn how to do this kind of work. Whether it’s in labor, electoral, or any of our work, DSA benefits from clear structure, processes, and open debate.