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DSLC: Isn’t democracy power?

A Tempest editorial

The changes to the DSA’s Democratic Socialist Labor Commission reflects a further retreat of basic democratic norms within DSA. Equally concerning, and relatedly, it is another step away from a labor perspective based on the integration, mobilization, and empowerment of rank and file workers, inside and outside of DSA. Paul KD and Natalia Tylim explain the untenable dynamic.

What Happened with the DSLC

This week, the Democratic Socialist Labor Commission (DSLC), the labor grouping of the largest socialist organization in the United States, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), is choosing a new steering committee. This is the third election since the commission was founded in 2017, and for the first time, the leadership will not be directly chosen by the membership of the body.

On January 2, the current DSLC announced that this new leadership would be chosen, based on a new process established by DSA’s National Political Committee (NPC). The NPC decided that it will dictate the majority of the representation on the body. Of fifteen Steering Committee spots, only five will be elected by DSLC members, four will be selected from the national leadership of DSA and its youth branch, YDSA, and six will be appointed by the NPC from the pool of candidates not elected by the membership. A full two-thirds of the steering committee will be appointed.

We think this is at odds with building a membership-driven, accountable, and participatory labor commission in the largest socialist organization in the country, and many of DSA’s labor activists think so too. When this new election process was announced, an independent comrade (not aligned to any caucus) in the NYC-DSA Labor branch immediately drafted and circulated a petition demanding: a) a democratic election and a “one person, one vote” process for voting; b)  that eleven of the fifteen positions be directly elected; c) that the election be postponed to allow for greater participation; and that d) these issues be brought in for discussion at the information session organized by the DSLC for January 11. As it turned out, the information session featured representatives from the NPC presenting the new plan as a fait accompli and lacked any assessment or explanation of the previous DSLC experience, or why this change was made.

Two weeks later, the NPC has not responded to any of those demands, and the process is going forward as planned by the NPC despite 213 signatories —mostly from DSLC activists—registering their objection. The signatories of the petition requested a candidate forum, which the DSLC agreed to. Yet the election itself is proceeding in an unaccountable and undemocratic fashion, exemplified by the “candidate’s forum,” the night of Sunday, January 24. This was organized as a webinar, questions had to be submitted 24 hours ahead of the event, and the chat function was disabled in the meeting to ensure no discussion amongst the membership, and no unwanted questions interrupted the showcase. This was not a genuine forum for members to engage with candidates, ask questions, and seek clarification on the strategic questions facing DSA labor activists.

Why it’s a problem

Since this pandemic began, we’ve seen an uptick in working-class struggle. In 2020 we witnessed the largest protest wave in United States history as millions revolted in the George Floyd Uprising. While counterrevolutionary forces momentarily silenced those protests, we saw a definite rise in strike activity in 2021, from miners in Alabama to workers at John Deere across the Midwest. Though the percentage of unionized workers continues to shrink, we have seen impressive organizing drives continue in healthcare, the service industry, and the nonprofit sector. Teachers have continued to revolt against the destruction of public schools, with the recent battle CTU waged for safe schools being an important highlight.

While socialists have been involved in all of these struggles, there has unfortunately been no nationwide network of rank-and-file activists to bring this all together. Instead, we have a jumble of Facebook groups, intra-industrial groups, caucuses, and organizations. The attempt to help overcome some of the fragmentations and lack of cohesiveness in the labor movement is an important contribution the DSLC could potentially make.

It was not always like this. In 2019, the wave of teacher strikes pointed to a different approach. DSA provided resources and national coordination during the strike wave. Teachers across DSA were put into communication, and important relationships, solidarity, and initiatives were taken in many chapters like strike funds and community support for striking teachers. The DSLC also created a pamphlet alongside YDSA on Why Socialists Should become Teachers as a way of trying to strengthen the ongoing battles in public education. The DSLC could be an important platform for national networks of workers and national coordination between struggles in different locales. In the last two weeks, Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC) held a meeting called Flattening the Curve from the Bottom Up that highlighted worm’s-eye accounts and analyses about why it’s so important to organize around preventing the spread of COVID-19 among teacher and nurse union militants and socialists. Restaurant Organizing Project (ROP) organized a meeting with baristas from Starbucks to take stock of what is happening in the world of coffee organizing and spread the lessons from successful union drives. Both of these events drew out more than 150 people each and were unique DSA labor spaces for strategizing around some of the most important struggles today. These are the kinds of meetings and the type of orientation a DSLC could take to build up a membership and contribute to the moment.

Feature graphic for the ROP publication.

There have of course been many labor activists who have found each other through DSA, and some good organizing drives and union reform efforts have resulted. The work of EWOC and ROP should be commended. But as our comrade Avery Wear has written, “any big re-unionization of the U.S. working class will depend on a scale of activity possible only through a massive grassroots upsurge.” And it is hard to imagine such an upsurge without mass democratic organizations.

Currently, there is a broad and healthy interest in labor organizing across DSA, with a membership in many different unions and sectors organized in their locales. Unfortunately, the DSLC has provided no real avenues for participation, integration, or support for these members. There is a slack channel that is crickets. There were only two membership meetings in the last two years. By far the biggest campaign that purportedly centralized the DSLC’s organizing this last year was the PRO Act campaign. We helped make a whole lot of phone calls, but how, and in what way did that contribute to building a more active membership? To the strengthening of the most important labor struggles that erupted? To till the soil in order to create the conditions so that the PRO Act might have been viable?

One may ask if the outgoing DSLC largely failed even on its own terms, why does it matter if the current NPC is trying something new? This gets to the gist of the issue: the DSLC does not need a robust, rooted, militant membership, and democratically-chosen leadership to make phone calls about legislation. But if our labor commission is to become a hub of struggle, solidarity, strategizing, and spreading of rank and file resistance, however possible, then it must be a membership body. We have thousands of union members in DSA. We have hundreds of people concentrated in industries that have been important sights of struggle this last year. How can our labor work incorporate that experience, that capacity, that potential, towards laying the groundwork for a stronger labor movement?

This decision to move away from a democratic, membership-driven body was made as part of a centralizing reform of working groups within DSA. We think this is misguided and a reflection of real problems, both political and organizational, within DSA. Socialists should have a reference point for democracy in their own organizations to bring with us into our unions and workplaces that are generally run through top-down, transactional maneuvers. While we celebrate the victory of one member, one vote in the UAW, we must acknowledge the loss of it in our own labor commission. This shift will have an ongoing impact on what is prioritized, how members can interact with the body, and how labor activists can build new projects through DSA.

With the majority of leadership spots now directly chosen by the NPC, the membership has even less ability to impact the direction of the body than before, and those elected spots will have a permanent minority status if differences in orientation between the groups arise. The NPC has made itself solely responsible for the rebuilding of the commission at the very time when what is needed is to bring back the elements of the DSLC that involved more active participation from DSA members and chapters. If the goal is to build a stronger DSLC, this move towards appointments doesn’t add up.

Our position on the election

As we continued to oppose the imposition of a majority-appointed DSLC Steering Committee, the Tempest Collective has been asked for our position on the election of the minority grouping. Overall, this does not feel like a particularly meaningful election, which shows the organization’s current state of disarray. Unlike the hotly contested races of 2017 and 2019, only one slate is running this time, the Strike Wave Slate, primarily made up of members of the Bread and Roses Caucus. And the candidates themselves do not represent the diversity of DSA, let alone the diversity of the working class, with most being white men.

Nonetheless, there are some valuable candidates running in this election—Janette Corcelius is a Tempest member, Alexandra Bruns-Smith had some insightful things to say in her statement and at the forum, and Brian Murray and David Bradley Isenberg are both good representatives from hot industries for organizing.

Ultimately, our endorsement is for labor activists to organize in their workplaces, build networks of horizontal communication between workers, develop infrastructures of dissent, and not wait for anyone—or any questionably democratic body—to give you the go-ahead.

Featured Image Credit: Photo by John Reimann, modified by Tempest.

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Paul KD and Natalia Tylim View All

Paul KD is is an activist in Twin Cities DSA and a member of the DSA Restaurant Organizing Project. Natalia Tylim is active in the NYC-DSA labor branch. She’s a restaurant worker and a founding member of DSA’s Restaurant Organizing Project.