Five DSA members have applied to fill a vacancy on the National Political Committee, to serve from now till the convention. One is Bread & Roses leader Laura Wadlin of Portland DSA. Laura’s application reveals a vision for DSA that is strongly rooted in labor and in a relationship to electoral work that sees candidates first as mass organizers.
Here’s what the current NPC asked and what Laura Wadlin had to say.
Why are you interested in serving on the NPC?
Imagine an NPC that played an enthusiastic role in gearing up all of DSA for a potential Teamster strike at UPS this summer — one of the most important labor events in years. Imagine NPC members alongside endorsed DSA candidates appearing at the picket lines, on the news, and writing op-eds to talk about the strike and the power of workplace organizing.
While many NPC members have similar electoral experience as I do, few are as rooted in workplace struggle. I can make unique contributions about how to merge our electoral work with shop floor power.
But currently-serving NPC members say they regularly face unnecessary roadblocks to fulfilling our political commitments. I will help make sure that we are not mimicking the mistakes of bureaucratic NGOs where members are out of the loop, decision-making powers are unclear, and projects are misguidedly “de-politicized.”
DSA faces a crisis of waning spirit, bureaucratic confusion, and political inaction. I will bring fresh energy and ambitious ideas about how to recommit ourselves to membership democracy and go forward as the most important socialist organization in the US in generations.
Provide a brief biographical statement.
I’m a Marxist and a member of the Bread & Roses Caucus with a strong record of leadership in DSA. I was Co-chair of Portland DSA and made it a national model for strike support, earning us a reputation locally among unions for our transformative solidarity. I teach ESL at Portland Community College, and I’m a Lead Steward in my union, AFT Local 2277, where I built a growing reform caucus and am preparing my coworkers for a strike this year. I’ve organized several DSA electoral campaigns for candidates and ballot measures such as Bernie 2020.
Please describe your experience in DSA so far: how long you’ve been a member, what kind of organizing and campaigns you’ve worked on, any leadership positions you’ve held, and any highlights or challenges you’ve encountered. What positions have you served on in your local DSA chapter? In National leadership?
I joined DSA in 2017 and have served in many local and national leadership roles, including: Portland DSA Labor Working Group Outreach Lead in 2018, Portland DSA Labor Working Group Co-chair in 2019, Portland DSA Steering Committee Member At-Large in 2019-2020, Portland DSA for Bernie Communications Lead in 2019-2020, Portland DSA Washington County Branch Chair in 2020, Portland DSA Recruitment Captain in 2020, Portland DSA Co-chair in 2021-2022, National DSA for Bernie Communications Team in 2019-2020, EWOC in 2020-2021, and the national BCTGM solidarity sub-committee of the NLC during the Nabisco strike in 2021.
The highlight of my organizing has been in the Portland DSA Labor Working Group where I’ve developed the chapter’s relationship with dozens of union organizers across industries and helped cement our reputation in the labor movement as the go-to solidarity organization. I led support efforts for the BCTGM strike at Nabisco, a healthcare workers’ near-strike at Kaiser, a cross-union near-strike at the City of Portland, a nurses near-strike at Providence, the Laborers 483 strike at the City of Portland, multiple Starbucks strikes, and others.
I have worked on several electoral campaigns in my chapter. I gathered signatures, knocked doors, and hosted GOTV phone-banks for Universal Preschool for All (a.k.a. UPNOW), a tax-the-rich ballot measure in Multnomah County that won in 2020. For the Portland DSA for Bernie campaign, I coordinated communications and led numerous canvassing events and debate watch parties that attracted dozens of new members. I organized two “Bernie Journey” trips, bringing DSA members to doorknock in Iowa and then to the Las Vegas Strip to do guerrilla canvassing of union housekeepers.
What is your most important organizing accomplishment?
Our solidarity efforts in the Labor Working Group inspired one healthcare workers’ union to make a political donation of $10,000 to Portland DSA — two years in a row. They said this money would have otherwise gone to the Democratic Party, but they wanted to give it to an organization that would “actually help them.” We then used this money to fund over a dozen DSA members, including union members we met on picket lines in the course of our solidarity work, to attend the 2022 Labor Notes conference.
This accomplishment is less about the money and more about what it symbolizes — that we are beginning to bridge the gap between the socialist movement and the labor movement.
What have you done to grow your DSA chapter or any other DSA or socialist formation?
I have personally recruited to DSA many rank-and-file leaders that we met through solidarity work, including several from my own union. It is from among this network of socialist unionists that we are recruiting candidates to run for local office in 2024. We brought in dozens of Bernie supporters to DSA as a result of our 2020 independent expenditure campaign in Portland, many of whom are now leaders in the chapter or their unions.
Have you ever been in leadership of a campaign that won? (Yes/No) If so, what was it, and what did you do?
Yes, several in my union. During COVID, I led two organizing campaigns that resulted in 14 extra paid sick leave days and a work-from-home stipend for all Portland Community College employees. Recently I led a year-long campaign in my department to get an abusive manager fired, and we finally won our demand this month. Last year, I ran for President of my union and lost (by just 4 points!), but in the process I created a reform caucus that now holds a majority of officer seats and has transformed the culture of our union into being more militant and member-driven.
What is the role of political conflict, particularly in DSA?
Political debate and disagreement is a necessary part of any democratic organization. With a culture of vibrant discourse and a healthy tolerance for conflict, disputes are productive instead of personalized, decision-making is more strategic and transparent, members develop leadership skills and are less dependent on the layer of paid “expert” staff, and we insulate ourselves from the most flawed approaches of sects and liberal activism. This makes DSA more powerful.
Have you ever played a leadership role in a contract campaign, union drive, strike, rank and file caucus, or other labor effort? If so, what was it, and what did you do?
I led two unsuccessful unionization campaigns, first among non-credit Portland Community College instructors in 2016, and then at a non-profit community center in 2017. I organized a reform caucus (uniteforafuture.com) in my current union, AFT Local 2277. I am a Lead Steward and am coordinating the Contract Action Team, actively preparing the local for a strike this year through education and escalating actions.
How do you think DSA can best merge the socialist and labor movements? How would you move a wider swath of the organization into meaningful labor work?
As many socialists as possible should embed themselves in the labor movement, primarily as rank-and-file organizers, and aim to become shop floor leaders. In the process we will work to democratize and energize unions while also bringing the most capable leaders from our workplaces into the socialist movement. This two-way infusion of leadership will allow both socialists and not-yet-socialist unionists to develop their mastery of democracy, power, and class struggle at the point of production.
For socialist activists who aren’t in a position to take a union job or unionize their workplace, there are plenty of solidarity projects to coordinate. DSA members should be actively researching and following labor movement struggles in their area and preparing themselves to provide support at key moments of consciousness, such as the UPS strike this summer. Our electoral projects should also work in concert with our labor strategy — candidates and ballot measure campaigns should seek out leadership from union organizers as Portland’s Universal Preschool campaign did with educators’ unions.
What should DSA’s relationship to the Democratic Party look like? How should DSA relate to the broader left, progressives, and liberals?
Socialists must build a party independent of the capitalist class. Until we are well positioned to do so, DSA should act as a “proto party” or “party surrogate” organization. In the immediate term, we should pursue non-partisan elections and Democratic primaries (and the Democratic ballot line in general elections) to maximize the propagandistic and movement-building impact of our electoral campaigns. In general, we should not organize internally within the Democratic Party or prioritize relationships between our organization or our candidates and the Democratic Party apparatus — our only engagement should be in service of working class independence.
DSA should have a prominent role in progressive discourse to raise our arguments as open socialists and aim to convince people over time. We should also work alongside leftists, liberals, and other fellow travelers where our political goals overlap. But we should not view already-politicized liberals as the primary audience for our propaganda and mobilization. Instead we should differentiate ourselves from both the right-wing and liberals in order to reach the not-yet-politicized layer of the working class.
How should DSA hold candidates and DSA-endorsed elected officials accountable to the organization? What does that look like, and what’s a plan for enacting that?
I support a model of accountability along the lines of the 1-2-3-4 Plan as proposed in NYC DSA. DSA should expect candidates to publicly identify as socialists, bloc together, and take direction from our membership. Candidates that fulfill those expectations will benefit from the full weight of DSA’s support: field volunteers, fundraising, think-tank research, union and community connections, and the ability to defend them against any attacks that get thrown their way. Candidates that renege on their commitment should expect withdrawal of support. For socialist electeds who have been endorsed without those expectations being laid out, we should proactively cultivate a relationship with them to gradually implement those expectations and be prepared to tactically withdraw support if they decline or act counter to working class interests.
How can DSA use electoral politics to build power to make good on our demands? What would it look like for us to use our electoral strategy to advance the labor movement, social movements, and anti-imperialism?
Socialists as candidates or in office should aim to be “organizers in chief,” as Bernie put it. Only an active movement of masses of people is capable of wielding the power necessary to enact nearly any of our demands, and socialists must use the special platforms of electoral races and offices to build that movement. We can’t rely on appeasing establishment leaders for committee assignments or blocking with liberals to pass legislation. We need our elected officials coordinating a community presence on picket lines, directing people to join DSA and other mass organizations, and appearing regularly in mainstream media to raise class consciousness and put forward an alternative to neoliberalism.
There is a general sense that in order to have a viable socialist movement we need our movement to be rooted in the multiracial working class. How can we assure that DSA develops more connections and deeper roots within working class communities of color? What specific things do you propose?
Socialists should be where working class people of color are already organized: the labor movement. Leftist organizations usually orient towards a middle class audience, which contributes to our mostly self-selected activist base and our unrepresentative racial demographic breakdown. Over time, DSA can help correct that tendency by organizing as rank-and-file leaders in jobs in industries with more diverse workforces, and then inviting those workers into shared political projects.
What have you done to recruit a multiracial base to DSA?
The very first DSA meeting I ever went to was a Labor Working Group meeting where I brought my coworker, an indigenous Mexican-American woman who was leading a campaign against our employer for union-busting and gender-based harassment. All of our coworkers were working class young Latinos. We asked for help, but the chapter Steering Committee was nervous about publicly supporting our criticism of the employer since our managers were also Latino. With more enthusiastic support from DSA, I could have brought more of my coworkers into the chapter, but instead they got the message that even socialists didn’t want to go out on a limb for us. I stuck around in DSA, but the coworker I had brought to that meeting never came back.
Fortunately, Portland DSA’s approach has changed a lot since then. Through our strike solidarity work, we have built relationships with rank-and-file leaders of color in local unions, such as Nabisco workers, teachers, baristas, Teamsters, and healthcare workers.
What experience have you had serving in leadership roles outside of DSA? (other social justice or radical organizations, in a labor or tenant union, etc)? Please indicate whether they are national in scope.
Since 2021, I have been an officer in my union, AFT Local 2277, the Portland Community College Federation of Faculty and Academic Professionals.
For less than 6 months in 2018, I was an officer in the Washington County Democrats. I took on that role as part of a group of socialists making a half-baked attempt at realignment entryism. As we faced up against mostly cynical careerists and upper-middle-class retirees with endless time to defeat us, it didn’t take me long to learn that our time was better spent elsewhere.
In the short term, if appointed to the NPC, you will serve approximately five months in national leadership from March to August 2023. What is your diagnosis of the broader political scenario DSA will face during your term? What will be the most urgent challenges, and what will be the greatest opportunities for socialists?
The greatest upcoming opportunity for DSA is the potential Teamsters strike at UPS, which would begin on August 1. Dozens of our members working at UPS are well-positioned to become shop floor leaders, DSA will represent the largest and most effective solidarity organization, and workers across the world will see the power of withholding our labor to directly battle a megacorporation and get what we deserve.
The Supreme Court is scheduled to issue rulings on several cases, such as Glacier Northwest vs. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, that will threaten our movements. In doing so, they will undermine the legitimacy of the court and present an opportunity for socialists to respond in a way that politicizes working class people, raises class consciousness, grows DSA, and creates new mass organizations to fight for justice.
Presidential candidates will be making announcements soon. Because Bernie Sanders is unlikely to run again, we will not have our own candidate to draw a direct contrast between socialist politics and the neoliberal politics of everyone else. But presidential races are the time of highest political consciousness among working class Americans, so we nevertheless must seek out ways to make our message present in the popular discourse — such as by having DSA leaders appear on the news, or more effectively using the platforms of elected office — or else we will cede that ground to our opponents and risk more working class people becoming demoralized or turning to the right wing.
What is the role and purpose of a socialist organization in the US today?
The role of DSA is to be a “cadre” on-ramp where we create more socialist leaders — through political education, practical training, real-world campaigns, and direct experience with democracy and power — who will raise class consciousness and facilitate the self-organization of the working class. DSA should also adopt party-like practices to prepare us for launching a workers party in the future.
What do you think DSA’s top political priorities should be at this moment?
While we are in this period of ebb in membership growth, we should improve our internal democracy and political education and reflect on what we will need to be prepared for future crises and membership surges. Over the coming months and years, there will be many crises — crises of legitimacy in government, environmental crises, economic crises, and major impending labor strikes. We need to be prepared to make the most of each one and use them as an opportunity to educate our members and the public, to leverage power in the workplace and in communities, and to bring people into the socialist movement.
Programmatically, our political priorities should be to 1) embed as many socialists in the labor movement as possible to facilitate shop floor organizing, both as union members themselves and as solidarity committees, and to build relationships between DSA and the militant wing of union members; 2) lay the foundation for a future workers party by running class struggle campaigns to elect cadre candidates that act as “organizers in chief” rather than progressive insiders; and 3) participate in and bring a class struggle approach to mass social movements such as for reproductive justice or housing justice.
What does your capacity look like for this work? Relay how much time per week you can devote to this work, task turnaround, availability.
Depending on my schedule and the urgency of projects it could be more or less, but I can devote around 10-15 hours per week.
What leadership positions and major organizing commitments do you hold currently and which ones do you commit to resign or step back from if you’re appointed to the NPC?
I will step back from internal organizing in Portland DSA and step back from a local caucus leadership position. I will maintain involvement as a steward in my union.
If elected to NPC, you’ll be responsible for leading and carrying out committee work (such as on the electoral committee, international committee, Democratic Left committee, etc.) What particular strengths would you bring to the NPC and what committees might you focus on?
My strengths are in labor organizing, communications, political education, and electoral organizing. I would love to be the NPC liaison to the UPS committee to coordinate a high-impact campaign around the Teamsters strike. I would love to improve our organization’s internal publications and media presence, so I would take a leading role on the Communications committee or Democratic Left committee where possible. We should explore ways to cohere our labor and electoral work (rooted in party-building and rank-and-file organizing rather than just legislative lobbying), and for that I would be interested in serving as a liaison between the NEC and the NLC. Depending on what work is needed, I could also help carry out the work of NPEC to host debates and bolster the democratic relationship between the NPC and membership.
The DSA Constitution requires that among members of the NPC “no more than eight shall be men and at least five shall be racial or national minority members of DSA.” Indicate how you might (or might not) help to diversify the NPC.
I am a woman.
Note any jobs, political offices, publications or memberships that might be considered controversial by others in DSA. Have you ever held a position within or on behalf of law enforcement (such as a police union organizer)? (max 200 words).