The political winds in the country are shifting. There are new and growing struggles in the streets for abortion rights. And organizing fights at Starbucks and Amazon are inspiring a new generation of activists to organize at work and help rebuild the labor movement.
DSA can play a big role in this new moment. But only if we get serious about deep organizing and building a member-run, democratic organization.
That’s why this past Sunday, the Democratic Socialist Labor Commission’s Steering Committee unanimously voted to put forward a proposal to the National Political Committee asking for the list of local DSA chapter leaders’ contact information. The DSLC needs access to that list to help chapters build out strike support and continue to build our rank-and-file organizing programs. In other words, to turn our democratically-chosen national labor priority campaigns into action.
Unfortunately, to date, the DSLC has been denied access to this crucial list. For months members of the DSLC SC have asked DSA’s national staff for access but to no avail.
While staff’s desire to moderate access to the list is understandable, nothing could be more urgent at this moment than the national labor priority campaigns which DSA members and leaders have voted to pursue. In a moment of increased labor organizing momentum from workers at Starbucks, to Amazon, to Trader Joe’s, it’s imperative that the DSLC SC has the resources it needs to organize.
What’s at stake here goes beyond access to a single list.
What makes DSA unique is that we want to be a democratic, member-driven mass organization. We don’t want to be another NGO. But when staff denies elected officers the right to access a contact list of local leaders, it is acting more like staff for a staff-driven NGO than a democratic membership organization. In democratic membership organizations, national elected leaders should be empowered to lead the group in accordance with the will of the membership, and staff should be there to help them carry out the members’ will. If leaders make mistakes, members can vote them out of office.
An NGO structure is particularly ill suited for DSA’s tasks. An NGO structure would not merely hamper the ability of elected leaders to effectively carry out democratically decided on priority campaigns. It would also tilt the politics of the organization towards projects that are more compatible with an NGO-style organization. Mobilizing campaigns, where a central office blasts out appeals to a membership to show up to canvassing events, donate money, or go to grassroots lobbying days, are the kind of projects that an NGO-style organization is best suited to support.
Deep organizing projects are much less compatible with this model. It takes sustained organizing to convince people to change jobs to strategically carry out a new labor organizing project, for example, or to develop local leaders who can effectively organize tenant unions. To make projects like this a reality, we need many organizers building deep relationships with each other. And for that to happen we need staff to be bought into and support building those relationships — as the DSLC wants to do with chapter leaders.
Canvassing, fundraising, and grassroots lobbying are important of course, but they should coexist with deeper organizing projects which have been democratically decided upon by the members. Deep organizing projects should also be carried out by staff designated for the purpose, such as the labor organizer we as DSA have voted to hire at three conventions over six years — who has still not been hired (yet in the meantime we have hired many administrative staffers).
We need a DSA built around a democratic-membership model — now more than ever. That’s why the DSLC’s request to get access to the chapter leadership list is so important. And it’s why following through on our democratically-chosen campaigns and priorities is so key. If DSA members see that the projects they repeatedly vote for are not carried out, and instead other projects are pushed to the fore, we risk people feeling disempowered and drifting away. If we really wish to get members to recommit to the organization, we must actually carry out the decisions that members make.
Such changes begin with empowering elected leaders of the organization. And we can make more strides towards building a democratic membership model at future conventions by making our top elected leadership full-time staff positions and making our national director elected. These changes would help create a culture in DSA where the will of the membership really matters, and democratically-made decisions are actually carried out.
This moment is too big for us to waste it. Let’s get organized. Let’s get to work. And as a first step, let’s give the DSLC the resources it needs to succeed.