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Takeaways from the NYC-DSA convention

Hakan Yilmaz reports on the 2021 Convention for the NYC Chapter of Democratic Socialists of America.
Image: NYC DSA

The NYC-DSA Convention took place on Saturday, September 25. The convention was hybrid and could be attended virtually, but the majority of the delegates gathered in person on the Upper West Side. The delegate and chapter leadership elections were not very competitive. NYC Convention delegate elections tended to have lower turnout in comparison to the national convention. While this might have been a consequence of convention fatigue (the convention took place a month after the national DSA convention and NYC conventions are held annually), it also might have been a result of the general political lull we have been experiencing under the Biden administration.

Unlike the national DSA convention, this convention did not take up many major political questions and, instead, mostly focused on branch structure and how the organization should allocate its limited resources. NYC-DSA is split into seven geographic branches (North, Central, and South Brooklyn, Queens, Lower Manhattan, Bronx/Upper Manhattan, Staten Island) and a Labor branch that function as intermediate decision making bodies in between annual conventions. For this piece, I will not summarize every decision that was made, but some of the decisions that stood out to me as the most consequential for the trajectory of the NYC Chapter.

  1. The Branch Question

Perhaps the biggest questions taken up at the convention were regarding how to mobilize inactive members and how to restructure branches to serve this goal. Based on the national membership survey results, only about ten percent of DSA members are active. That number is similar to the voter participation in the two most recent delegate elections in the NYC Chapter. This is a testament to the fact that branch structure in the city has not been very effective at sustaining member activity. Although branches are supposed to be the intermediate decision-making body in between conventions, branch meetings have very little political discussion, as they only happen once a month and largely consist of short updates by branch members who are active in a variety of different working groups. Hence, branches struggle to transition new members into new work in part because it is hard to understand what a working group is doing based on two-minute updates at monthly branch meetings or how that work fits into the broader socialist project—especially since there is even less discussion about what the socialist project is in the post-Bernie era.

  • Mobilizer

This year, a citywide mobilizer resolution was passed as part of the consent agenda. This resolution would create a citywide membership committee led by the elected membership coordinator and facilitate one-on-one conversations with the broader membership. While this will certainly help increase member participation in the organization, it will also largely benefit the priorities of the factions that currently hold leadership positions in branches, working groups, or priority campaigns.

There is very little space for strategic discussion within the organization outside caucuses and leadership of branches and working groups. Without creating more space for discussion of strategic questions, the main purpose of this resolution will be to get more volunteers for the projects chapter leaders are already involved in. While this is not inherently bad, the low level of participation within the organization and the lack of critical assessment of the current political situation will make it harder to recruit or activate new and current members, as it will be hard for them to understand why Tax the Rich, or Healthcare, or Labor have become priority campaigns; and why the strategy of lobbying and electing progressive legislators at various levels of local government has become the primary tactic in pursuing these priorities.

  • Sections

The more ambitious proposal to restructure branches was the branch sections resolution, which was put forward by DSA Emerge, the communist caucus within the NYC Chapter. This proposal would break up branches into a variety of sections based on geography. It also states that “additional sections can be formed on other bases, including workplace/industry, language, social activity, etc.”

The rationale for this proposal was building more closely-knit groupings within a given geographic location that would meet more frequently—monthly—while making branch meetings less regular—quarterly. The sections would still be accountable to the branches, however, they would have autonomy to set alternative priorities based on the politics in a given neighborhood.

While having more tightly-knit groupings that are more connected to their localities would certainly help the organization to be more rooted in communities, it is unclear that this would be the outcome of this resolution. It is not clear that the main reason why DSA has such a low level of participation is because the branches are too big to be relevant or accessible in all neighborhoods within their regions. The bigger question this resolution fails to address is the lack of strategic assessment in the aftermath of Bernie 2020 and last summer’s uprisings. In effect, what this resolution would do is further divide up the small number of active members in the chapter and create more administrative work for them. This resolution was not supported by many delegates other than DSA Emerge and its allies, and it failed on the convention floor.

  • Tasks for branches

The tasks for branches resolution was the least ambitious of the branch structure resolutions. It effectively codified what the branches already do—serve as geographic decision-making bodies that facilitate the connection between chapter leadership, priority campaigns, and the broader membership. Given that much of branch leadership consists of people who are primarily involved in electoral work, this skews branch work toward elections and, more specifically, an electoral orientation comfortably within the Democratic Party. Even if we assume this is the “correct” orientation, the underlying assumption is that the opening in the electoral arena will be the same as it was in the past five years during the Bernie wave. However, given the results of the New York City Council election, there are signs to the contrary. None of the branch restructuring resolutions seriously took up this dynamic.

2. Direction of the electoral project and the debate on voter registration

The one moment that really stuck with me from the convention was the debate and vote on the resolution, Mobilizing the Working Class through Voter Registration. Voter registration is necessary for the success of any socialist electoral project, given that working-class voters are less likely to be registered than middle-class or capitalist voters. However, in the context of NYC-DSA’s electoral strategy, this would imply registering working-class people as Democrats, since the main terrain DSA contests are the Democratic Primaries and New York State has closed primaries where registered independent voters are excluded. This was the basis of my opposition to this resolution, as I do not see how registering people as Democrats furthers the goal of building an independent workers’ party in the future.

Nevertheless, if I was reading the room correctly, it seemed as though the majority of the delegates were in favor of the resolution, as they tended to agree with the current strategic orientation of the chapter. This changed rapidly when State Assemblymember and delegate Zohran Mamdani got up to speak against the resolution. Mamdani argued that throughout his campaign, he had tried to register independents and third-party voters, and thought that these efforts had not significantly contributed to his electoral victory. He suggested that DSA should prioritize organizing the voters who are already registered as Democrats, instead of wasting time and resources on independents and third-party voters.

In the context of the current realignment of the Democratic Party base, away from union/working class voters towards more middle-class voters, what Mamdani argues would effectively imply that the chapter should not even attempt to reach the overwhelming majority of working-class people. This marks a shift from the initially stated goal of contesting Democratic primaries, which was to win over working class voters in the party to an independent workers party. In the end, NYC-DSA voted against a voter registration campaign, not because it would mean registering working-class people as democrats, but because it would be a waste of time and resources to even try to organize independent and third party, working class voters.

3. ND4CUNY and Latino Socialistas

The two other resolutions that were most consequential include the New Deal For CUNY (ND4CUNY) priority campaign resolution and Prioritizing and Funding Working-Class Latino Organizing in NYC-DSA resolution.

ND4CUNY is the current legislative campaign of my union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC). While PSC’s campaigns in the past few years have exclusively involved lobbying and symbolic rallies, DSA’s involvement in CUNY campuses could contribute to changing that dynamic. CUNY is a bastion of working-class education in the U.S. and there are a variety of student organizations that are already involved in the struggle for a more just CUNY. There have also been independent rank and file organizing within the PSC that I have been involved with, which has led to the 7K or Strike campaign. The unsafe working conditions due to COVID-19, the cuts CUNY has experienced since the pandemic, rising tuition costs, deprofessionalization of faculty, and blatant corruption of the administrators all make CUNY fertile for radical politics. The question is how will Young Democratic Socialists of America’s (YDSA) ND4CUNY campaign engage with all of these groups and dynamics. Is the goal to recruit volunteers for lobbying efforts, or can there be a more militant ND4CUNY campaign?

A similar question applies to Latino Socialistas (LatSoc), which is now one of the groups tasked with creating DSA’s bilingual materials, outreach, and onboarding. LatSoc defines itself as a working group—unlike Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color, which is a caucus. This distinction comes from their recognition that there is no unified interest of Latinos as a coherent group and one must acknowledge the political diversity of Latinos as an organizational principle. This does not, however, mean the group will not be forced to take political positions. The question for LatSoc will be: are they going to function primarily to support electoral efforts, or is their horizon broader than the hegemonic politics within the chapter right now?

Perhaps this is a question all socialists must ponder, as the electoral prospects do not look very bright in the immediate future and, for many DSAers, it is not very clear what else is to be done as we go through this period of lull.

Featured Image Credit: Photo by Gary Bembridge (CC 2.0). Modified by Tempest.

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Hakan Yilmaz View All

Hakan Yilmaz is a member of the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and the Professional Staff Congress.