Hall is right in his article on many counts: DSA labor strategy for activating the rank and file within unions is in its infancy. Most members don’t know where to start when it comes to labor organizing, and many view themselves as American voters first and as workers second. This distinction is important, because it determines how DSA chooses to fight against what is now a more complex form of the caste-based, financialized wage slavery that we’ve lived under for a hundred years or more.
An attempt at engaging members under a very specific political orientation, the workers’ circle or “fraction” that the author is referring to, already exists in DSA (under the umbrella of the rank and file strategy). In the NYC Chapter, Labor Branch leaders have looked to the past actions of the Communist Party (CPUSA) and their worker fractions for inspiration. What is often overlooked is that some of the conversations that organizers in fractions are having require a level of confidentiality to ensure their effectiveness. This on its own becomes an obstacle to more open organizing. In other cases, those conversations require a certain level of familiarity with a particular union’s politics or the needs of an industry. Also, an oft-ignored need for sustaining an effective and consistent meeting schedule is the need for a compelling campaign that makes it worthwhile for participants. With all three, a level of onboarding, training, and shared understanding is required to make an effective fraction, or “industry breakout” as they’re called in NYC-DSA.
Clearly, we can’t ask people to join industry breakouts right as they receive their membership card. I say this despite my own support for industry breakouts: There needs to be an acknowledgment that most people are just now learning about their own union, let alone the intricacies of the labor movement. We shouldn’t baby people, but it can be both jarring and dangerous to ask someone to participate in a politically pivotal campaign without a real understanding of what they’re getting into, within labor or otherwise. The same thing goes for communicating with external stakeholders: Fouling up our political relationships is a possibility we should take seriously if we want long-term allies.
Union stewards prepare their members for critical meetings, going over the main talking points, and, in some cases doing more thorough training. Any high stakes political work, including that of worker fractions, would benefit from a similar approach. A dominion of experts over members isn’t what I’d advocate, but an overlooked factor of DSA membership is that there are virtually no barriers to entry, not a single mandated training. Many of those who attain positions of leadership do not seek out opportunities to improve their skill set either, outside of supposedly “doing the work.” As a political organization, we cannot rest on our laurels if our members are pitching strategies that require a disciplined approach when working within our unions or in collaboration with the broader labor movement.
Aside from NYC-DSA members not being primed for the work they are undertaking, there are no clear paths for new members to get involved after joining the organization. We need to apply the principle of organizing based on people’s own interests to how we talk to DSA members. In NYC, there have been consistent efforts by membership coordinators to onboard new members. The missing piece at the end of every meeting is finding a place to send these members. This is not the fault of the coordinators, because they shouldn’t be exclusively responsible for holding members’ hands through their first year in the organization. DSA’s person-to-person connections are where the rubber meets the road, and the importance of relational organizing is something not lost on those in DSA leadership, but leaders in the organization cannot be expected to run the regular meetings and communications while also finding compelling work for each member.
Being able to decide where it’s most worthwhile to invest one’s energy isn’t clear to most members. I’ve heard as much from long-time DSA members as well who were active in another chapter, only to move to New York and realize the difficulty in navigating the many different groups that exist here. Without personal connections to leaders who can advise them on how to engage with DSA, many rank and file members will have difficulty participating in the organization.
The political debates at the highest levels in the organization, among DSA leadership cadre, don’t resonate with regular members, which exacerbates the problem of new members not feeling a sense of belonging in their chapter. For example, there seems to be a divide between DSA leaders who are interested in supporting sporadic labor action, and those who want to be in the trenches themselves. This is an unhelpful dichotomy: Hall hints at such a problem, even if he writes about something else when he mentions members talking “past each other, focusing on tactics removed from material organizational conditions, with little regard to how to tie them together and implement them in a unified actionable strategy.” Whichever resolutions leaders hope to put forward to steer our labor strategy, be they for picket line solidarity or for organizing worker fractions, seldom have any relevance to the average member. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how “right” the organization is in its political position if we can’t get people to do the work.
The solution I’m convinced of is to disseminate a feeling of ownership in the organization among the majority, rather than a cadre, of members: Scaffolded (low to high) tiers of engagement—with member activation as the priority—will do that. A discussion on the national’s role in this would be better taken up with paid staff at the national office, who are directly impacted by decisions made at national conventions. I can only speak to what has been happening in NYC-DSA, having been active in my chapter since about 2018, but I hope this piece offers insight into what leftists can do to improve their institutions—not just in DSA world, but in our workplaces, in our communities, and ultimately in the halls of power.
This article is not an indictment of any particular part of the organization, nor does it point to an individual failing of any DSA members. The problem lies in the difficulty of organizing members across each DSA Chapter, and not just in how DSA applies its labor strategy. My aim here is to point to the disjointed nature of our organization, and its difficulties coordinating across campaigns because of unresolved structural problems. By this, I don’t mean people should pass a bunch of reforms through resolutions at internal conventions. Resolutions, much like bureaucracies, inform but are not closely related to what is happening on the ground unless there is a connection between a resolution and a strategy actively undertaken by the membership. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t debate a political strategy through resolutions, but we often spend an inordinate amount of time and emotional energy on things that don’t ask whether a campaign might actually bring us in coalition with working class communities. Ideally, our current demographic composition should be subsumed by a majority of working class people, and that won’t come from passing resolutions.
The point is to shatter DSA’s mundane annual cycle, by making conventions and elections less important than the day to day participation in the organization. Having served in leadership for three years, followed by a return to being a rank and file member, I feel that my experience has given me the confidence to write out this addendum to the author’s piece. I would also like to say that what I’m proposing is far from a new set of ideas, and some form of it has either been discussed or attempted. The issue is sustaining such ideas of broad-based member engagement projects that don’t need constant reinventing.
Consensus taken for granted
The natural star child of DSA is its electoral group, which has a well-deserved reputation as an army of canvassers who believe in a more democratic and just society through electoralism—and they are making progress based on that very specific strategic outlook. Within that large group is a smaller set of operators who manage field work, figure out campaign finance regulations, assist in developing a platform, find graphic designers and printers, etc. This is where they derive their success: They can disseminate the work that they do among various leaders and volunteers.
To the chagrin of some, an influx of new bright-eyed members are brought into the electoral work of the organization based on their own interest in participating in legislative races. This is the most basic level of organizing that DSA undertakes, and where it gains the most members: When there is an active, straightforward public campaign that gives people work to do, DSA sees the highest level of engagement from its volunteers. Electoral campaigns even beat out “issue based” legislative lobbying campaigns because of more clear targets, a beginning and end, a victory-or-loss drama, turf to cut—but most importantly, the lowest tiers of engagement (canvassing or phone-banking) require little to no training or experience and have a big payoff.
Out of all the different places to put their energy, elections are the very obvious winner for the attention of DSA members because of the ease with which volunteers can get involved. The electoral bent of DSA may stem from the political orientation of the majority of new members, but its true success derives from the multitude of opportunities to get involved in such campaigns, sometimes culminating in employment with DSA electeds’ offices. Until we create accessible ways of engaging with our labor work in a long-term capacity, DSA will continue to forward the singular strategy of winning seats under the Democratic ballot line.
We can’t ask people to become labor activists in the most grueling and painful ways if we want our volunteers to stick around and learn to work with others. We also can’t ask workers to simply “self-organize” based on their craft, industry, or union—that’s the antithesis of organizing. Unlike the author and myself, the electoralists don’t need to write articles arguing for their program, or do much in the way of organizing members. It’s unlikely that our writing will affect the day-to-day running of the organization.
The real factor that creates a successful strategic campaign in DSA is how much interest it generates from volunteers, and those campaign wins then reinforce member interest in said strategy. The electoral campaigns have that in the bag. We shouldn’t forget that DSA wouldn’t be relevant to most people without Bernie’s influential speeches in favor of “democratic socialism,” and the progressive electoral challengers who have followed in his path.
To fight financial capital, the state must be part of our strategy—I have no doubt about that—but it cannot be the only avenue through which we attempt to exert power. As things stand, whatever “theory of change” dominates the imagination of most people is what we’ll see play out. Many political thinkers figured as much when they wrote about the hegemonic ideologies woven into our society: We are content to hand power over to some elected representative so they can manage our affairs, while we all try to survive the profit motive’s relentless assault.
Working people will stay disorganized, whether they be self-described socialists, conservatives, or liberals, if there isn’t an effort to change the way people think about the power that they have in changing their own material conditions. We are missing the opportunity to engage with existing union workers that are itching to move beyond business unionism and toward a more expansive socialist labor orientation if we do not support industry breakouts. We should be happy that DSA electees are true champions of labor. However, there is little in the way of a discussion of long-term strategy for DSA, and because any debates are held far from the ears of most members, then only a handful of people will have anything to say about it.
How to reach a participatory democracy
An active membership means a healthy internal democracy, no matter how small the organization. There is a very obvious group of leaders in NYC-DSA beyond just those that hold elected positions. They have differing political perspectives and run for seats within the organization to inform its direction every year. These leaders will then look for members to run for their seats. Often, who they select is what I’d call a “self-starter,” or someone who joined DSA and easily found their role in a campaign. Leaders will ask them if they’d like to take on more work after they’ve proven their abilities, and will later try to pass the baton of elected leadership. This is a higher tier of organizing people than simply giving them work they want to do, because you’re asking them to hold more responsibility within an existing structure.
This seems like the norm for leadership “development” in NYC-DSA, but there are still thousands of members who are looking for a way to plug in but don’t want to be (or don’t feel prepared to be) in DSA leadership. Our current tiers of engagement are poorly defined, and as a result don’t lead to people taking action through DSA unless they themselves fit the aforementioned “self-starters” profile and subsequent leadership development model.
Members need a place where they can take on work with low barriers to entry first; otherwise leadership will have to keep juggling campaign volunteers and administrative tasks all by themselves. While they manage the day to day running of the organization and have political power through a democratic mandate—much like the role of union officers—the administrative leaders of DSA leadership become burdened with too many tasks to actively manage campaigns.
Further, if there isn’t a committed, tight-knit group of people who can forward a compelling project that generates a base of active volunteers and fosters a new generation of leaders, then the campaign they are forwarding is bound to fail from burnout. Akin to the service union model, when DSA leadership loses its connection to the rank and file, the membership’s alienation will eventually lead to a weak organization and waning relevance with the working class.
The Labor Branch folks in NYC-DSA tend to rely on self-starters just as every other portion of the chapter does, but not every industry or union that is represented has self-starters in it. So, the fractions or industry breakouts that Hall recommends only form for people who are in a union, industry, or craft with DSA leadership representation. So how do we prevent this and build more and more leaders to foster a vibrant internal life in DSA Labor and beyond?
Stewarding the organization
There are very basic tenets that one must subscribe to as a Democratic Socialist, as well as a very obvious code of conduct in NYC-DSA—two things that don’t preclude working-class engagement with the organization, but might take some patience if there’s culture shock. The real problem in DSA is that the average member doesn’t even know where to get started, despite the many opportunities for “political education” throughout our chapter. Similarly, there is no chapter-wide program for internal organizing in NYC-DSA. This affects who continues to participate in the organization and subsequently its demographic composition.
A way to circumvent this could be to bring campaign work to the membership meetings, or focus on planning social events where members could meet like-minded activists they might want to work with. However, we first need to figure out what this low barrier to entry work looks like for each campaign. Transitioning people from working on an electoral campaign to a less cyclical campaign like “labor work” (vague) is something that is frequently brought up in DSA, but we rarely come away with clear solutions. Outside of the DSA Labor realm, the natural first place to send members are the “working groups,” where they can participate in conversations around the legislative cycle, big labor’s priorities, coalition building, campaign finance, and politicians’ committee seats.
Of the many different working groups in NYC-DSA, most are dormant until an issue on the national or local stage allows them to become a rallying point. Often, these groups within the organization don’t work together to form a coherent strategy and only hold as much power as they can gather based on their appeal with the membership. At best, an overarching strategy is predicated on how DSA’s current or future elected officials can implement such plans.
The unfortunate side effect to the “fight for anything and everything you care about” nature of DSA is that there are few formal structures in place to educate the average member on just how much power they hold to invigorate these working groups. Giving people too many options for how to get involved is a problem that often goes unacknowledged, and too often members will show up to a meeting only to be told to go to another meeting where decisions are actually being made. This could, understandably, turn people off. Also, working on such campaigns doesn’t always translate to members gaining organizing skills, or even an assessment of our organization’s strategic capabilities.
To be confident organizers, members want the tools to confront abuse of power wherever they see it. That points to the role of DSA leaders in holding frequent member training on organizing skills that translate to workplace organizing, and subsequently any other form of organizing. This is something that used to happen in the NYC-DSA Labor Branch, but was discontinued due to COVID. At best, the training resulted in successful union elections. At worst, it taught people the need to organize strategically.
Here I totally agree with Hall’s point that “being organized around and anchored in work, DSA can better take steps to fix its lack of diversity within the working class.” Existing and potential DSA members of all stripes would see clear value in attending a workplace organizing training if they knew it would help them become stronger fighters for the issues they care about—and not just labor issues. We need people to think about going back to their neighborhood, their workplace, and organizing among the people they have relationships with if we truly want a multi-racial, multi-generational working class composition.
In addition, we should look to developing members’ organizing skills as a more immersive form of political education. Training would lead to better outcomes for our campaigns, and could bolster the ranks of leadership, but it also makes people grapple with the question of whether all of the theory they read can (or how it can) actually be put into practice. There can be a bit of a leap between attending trainings and putting their new skills to work, so people need places where they can debate strategy to sharpen their political acumen.
Tools for measuring power
Leaders in DSA often create inviting meetings that don’t stick to a strict ideology, which means anyone can jump right in and say what’s on their mind—and that is a strength that many other organizations don’t have. While it may mean the organization doesn’t adopt a strong central program, it also means DSA is not a democratic centralist or an authoritarian organization. This informs the welcoming tone of meetings, where you don’t need to be sworn in on allegiance to a “party line.” We should always tap into this when hearing that there are newer members present, in order to not draw an unnecessary divide between what might be perceived as “seasoned socialists” and “newcomers.” The organization is often described as a “big tent” by active members, but this has led to others calling it reformist. Oddly enough, the same people saying DSA should be more radical are the same people saying it isn’t welcoming for working people.
My view is that you can’t get people to show up to meetings where they feel like they’re wasting their time, no matter how radical your rhetoric is. Similarly, you can’t spend all your time talking about internal DSA process and governance to breed a culture of participation; sometimes the organization can’t even get its longstanding activists to come to meetings that don’t feel relevant to them. Hall and I seem to be on the same page about the need to organize DSA members as workers, but it can be hard to put that idea forward to membership without political education being used as an organizing tool. We need a reworking of how people think of it, with political education that is centered around the interests of attendees.
Long-form presentations, panels, speaking events, and reading groups are all fine, but members need to engage with the substance of the issues discussed without being voyeuristic. We should be hosting more engaging political education like debates on the merits of voting up or voting down a contract, or conversations that point to the missed opportunities of the labor movement today. NYC-DSA Labor’s most well-attended and most engaging meetings have been ones where we ask any and all members to grapple with the content without the typical lecture and Q&A format.
We should be channeling our political education energy (that is usually expended on panels and lectures that could easily be co-sponsored by us and led by any other Left organization) into a much more expansive view of member education. Using open debates on complex political questions would be a vehicle for internal organizing, which ideally would culminate in opportunities for new members to be a part of the existing work of the chapter—something attempted at our new-member orientations, actually. If member leaders committed to holding more chapter-wide debates on political strategy, every part of the organization would benefit, and campaigns would be able to draw in new volunteers, who by then would have some context on the challenges of the campaigns they’re joining.
A deliberative forum that explores the political terrain we are bringing people into would be beneficial political education for all members, new and old, and would inform our strategic perspective. Our strategic vision should be crafted and committed to by debating the strategic merits of campaigns, instead of the language of internal resolutions. Unfortunately, the more online DSA members go, the less time they will actually take to have meaningful organizing conversations, especially if they are proposing a different strategy for DSA to undertake. We need to ensure that those participating in debates truly invest time in thinking about their strategic position, and go beyond polemical speeches on Twitter or in person.
Part of why the worker perspective takes a back seat in political discussions is because many people speak about the labor movement as if it’s still the 20th century. This is hardly compelling to anyone hoping to face the forces of capital today. We should celebrate our forebears in the labor movement, but the best way to honor them would be to learn from their history and think hard about why things are different today. As people learn more about socialism’s heroes and they themselves apply those lessons to organizing work, there are still many questions about how to get to where we want to be—especially when it comes to taking power. DSA should use in-person debates to test out questions of strategy, ultimately with the goal of engaging the membership and translating that engagement to action in a campaign.
The simple fact that we talk about the majority of dues-paying DSA people as “paper members” should signal to our leadership that these people need to be organized. Unfortunately many such people have been nominal members for years despite the growing appeal of socialism. Monthly meetings should not be a place where one sits patiently to be told about what the organization is doing. We have new-member meetings for that. An hour-long panel of experts followed by a 10 minute Q&A with the usual suspects, is hardly engaging either—nor is it educational. People join DSA because they want something to change for the better, and to meet people who are there for the same reason.
What is to be done about labor?
Since the NYC-DSA chapter exploded with Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential race (with the help of Jacobin reading groups, I should say), meetings have always been attended and often run by union organizers and staffers. Early on this led to rank and file union members getting activated as well, because they found a place where their demands for a just society were echoed by a multiracial group of workers.
As the organization grew, however, there was a need to steward the organization into its new form. The labor branch was formed alongside the general membership branch, in an attempt to bring worker organizers closer together. The NYC chapter was further divided into geographic branches, leaving labor to be an outlier in a majority legislation-focused chapter. DSA became more homogenous in terms of class and race, which changed the working class connection that once had stronger footing in the chapter. Nowadays the labor perspective within DSA continues to be one that members and leaders support in theory, but in practice don’t know how to get involved with—through no fault of their own.
While solidaristic labor mobilizations are an opportunity for DSA to have a geographic presence for more than legislative and electoral work, they aren’t enough for people to understand the labor movement and thus develop a strategic perspective on how to engage with it. Both union and non-union DSA members are motivated by picket lines and other solidarity work but are as disconnected as anyone else from what is happening on a higher level in the labor movement (the desires of members over those of staff, new union-backed worker legislation, what worker leaders care about most, the challenges of union organizing today, etc.). As unions are popularized and people educate themselves on how the NLRB union election process works, they come up against more complex questions of what a union is. Still, this doesn’t translate to direct involvement in the labor movement and can reflect a volunteer rather than a working-class mentality for those not engaged in new organizing. It’s also important to draw the distinction between the workers who are organizing for their livelihood, and those who are doing it for political reasons. DSA should bridge that gap.
If DSA continues to view labor as just another “issue” rather than the vehicle through which we challenge capitalism, workers will be fighting a losing battle. If we continue to rely solely on the goodwill of our members rather than on a true organizing program, we will not be honest about how our strategy fails to make the changes we seek.
This is an obvious reason to have a membership body tasked with taking up explicitly political questions related to the labor movement, namely the NYC-DSA Labor Branch. Just as is the case when determining policy talking points, or dealing with political questions around electoral districts, the labor branch must take up questions that go beyond simply showing up to picket lines. However, these questions can’t only be discussed among the leaders of the chapter: If the membership isn’t in those conversations, then labor will continue to be irrelevant compared to the much more appealing electoral strategy—which will ultimately fail without the support of the working class. Rather than receiving a pre-packaged lecture on the subject from people such as myself, these questions should be debated and then acted on through an organizational mandate. There is nothing keeping from DSA going down that path aside from our own incompetence.
DSA has labor resolutions out the wazoo, from the national level to the local level. We can tell ourselves we’re committing to X or Y strategy, but this means nothing to the person who has no clue that these resolutions exist or what they mean to them. The organization has untapped potential that will never be unlocked unless the average member knows where they can get involved, and it is ultimately up to everyone, not just Labor people, to make a case for clear points of engagement for what is a deceptively heterogenous pool of potential activists. We should be thinking about the types of actions that appeal to different types of members, and joining a picket line, or organizing training, is a great introduction to the labor movement for anyone as it makes people feel good about what they’re doing, and brings them into conversation with others.
Carrying out something much more involved, like the “worker fraction” strategy that Hall has detailed, is far from the lowest tier of engagement for DSA members. Asking people to quit their job and commit to serious organizing is a lot for anyone to stomach, especially if you don’t scaffold it. If member engagement is low, and DSA members don’t identify as workers, how can we expect them to take industrializing or “worker fractions” seriously? Anyone can see the value of keeping a rank and file worker orientation in an abstract way, but if we want that commitment to extend past a period of a couple of years they must first understand how to organize effectively and how to measure power. Before even taking a job as a rank and file member, they should know what they’re getting themselves into: a material and political analysis is required of every fraction or breakout group, and if members are simply thrown into a room together without knowing the nuances of the industry or union they are joining, I don’t imagine it will lead to a very productive project.
Working together with other people whose livelihood is tied up in their organizing requires much more than attending an organizing training together. How each member relates to DSA often has less to do with what their craft is than who they are in touch with—or rather if someone takes an interest in them. Again, relational organizing is the key in what is a very social organization. We need to develop the infrastructure to keep labor activists around, DSA and non-DSA alike, and the only way to sustain such an infrastructure is to develop a culture of strategic organizing through the tools described in the sections above. At the moment, there is too much of a focus on organizing in “strategic industries” where we don’t have member density and where we don’t have a coherent fraction operating.
To me, a better starting point is to bring members into a room with other workers who are in contract negotiations, or who just won a contract and want to share their lessons with others. The next tier of engagement could be to ask people who attended the conversation to gather for a training as a group of workers, based on their craft, industry, or union. This is what the Labor Branch has attempted to do: holding space for workers to meet regularly for an hour or more and discuss the issues facing them and how to fight collectively for what they care about in their shops—which goes far beyond wages and benefits.
That conversation would need to be facilitated by someone, which brings us back to the need for leadership development beyond NYC-DSA members who occupy its Organizing Committee (OC) seats. After all, sustaining an engaging, regular meeting at least once a month is not a simple task: ask any OC member. Running multiple meetings, with multiple agendas, is not something I’d wish on anyone, so it makes sense to share the workload.
Having a team dedicated to starting industry breakouts, with a commitment of at least six months to a year, would create a kind of mentorship program that would complement the organizing training and culture of debate necessary for their success. They would be tasked with organizing people who pay dues to DSA based on their craft, industry, or union—both union and non-union. The number of mentors would be decided based on an analysis of our membership lists, and the potential for fractions. Once those fractions within DSA grow legs and don’t need support from DSA leadership, then activists will have practiced good organizing, and can then move on to organize with a new set of workers if they so choose.
Every member of DSA must be involved in the organization to make it function at its best, and for it to truly be representative; if we continue down the current path, we will have missed opportunities to grow the socialist movement and subsequently be returned to the defensive position that the anti-capitalist working class has been beat into repeatedly. Without labor work that the average member can do, the strategic perspective of electoralism will always win out over the minority position of organizing members as workers rather than voters, or even as renters, students, parents, …you get the picture.
It’s much more difficult to remain organized in a constituency than it is to champion a time-limited electoral campaign. With the latter, you’re not asking people to stay involved for the long haul. This is the same reason why we have people advocating for a revival of the labor movement through sustained workplace militancy and a network of strong shop-floor union stewards, weighed against a culture of business unionism. We can start getting people to think of themselves as workers once they see that using workplace leverage against capitalism is in their interest, which I hope the post-work activists will reluctantly acknowledge is the reality we’re still living in. Many of the things we’re trying to win as socialists require building power—and the only way to build power is by developing worker power. I don’t say that to be polemical, but because even the best politicians can only do so much if they don’t have the backing of the people.
Featured Image credit: Photo by UFCW International Union; modified by Tempest.
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Zyad Hammad is a steward in his union, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, and a proponent of “nothing about us without us.”