In the coming weeks, the Democratic Socialist Labor Commission (DSLC) will hold elections for its Steering Committee (SC), the second election since the body’s founding (disclosure: I am intending to run). The DSLC was formed after a priority resolution at the 2017 Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) Convention passed, which stated:
“As a critical component to a sustainable long-term rank and file strategy, the DSLC will be a formal structure through which to provide informational resources and support to developing DSA labor groups and socialist industry alliances, current union members, individuals aiming to salt or democratize workplaces, and all DSA members, especially new ones.”
Nine (9) members were elected to the first DSLC in February 2018, guided by the 2017 resolution. The tasks laid out in the document specified that the DSLC should[i]:
· Guide and foster birth of new labor groups in chapters
· Develop an ongoing mentorship structure
· Collect and document lessons learned from current groups
· Keep record of labor groups and organizing committees
· Perform an advisory role to the NPC on matters of labor
· Hold regular meetings open to all DSA members
· Keep minutes for monthly meetings that are accessible to DSA members
· Be prepared to assist in coordinating national campaigns with consenting labor groups and activists
· Encourage the revival of YDSA-led Campus Labor Institutes
· Support development of labor groups subcommittees reflecting the goals of the DSLC
The DSLC at-large currently exists on an email list (firstname.lastname@example.org) created in 2017 with 615 members and a Facebook group (DSA Labor Activists) with 550+ members; neither list are particularly active but mostly serve to pass on news articles.
DSLC Since 2017
Like many things that came out of the 2017 Convention, the formation of the DSLC marked an important departure from DSA’s previous positions and practices and set out a new course. However the DSLC, like DSA as a whole, had a problem of mismatched levels of expectation and capacity; the excitement over DSA’s 2017 Convention meant many counted on these tasks to be fulfilled promptly but the DSLC did not have a good sense of the existing membership or who they could draw on in terms of volunteers. What has the DSLC accomplished?
1. Created materials
a. Labor 101
b. “Why Socialists Should Become Teachers” pamphlet (with YDSA)
c. Assisted on labor coverage for Democratic Left
2. Organized members to attend the 2018 Labor Notes Conference in Chicago, with a packed in-person meeting of DSA Labor Activists and evening party.
3. Arranged national Zoom calls on AFSCME vs Janus, the Rank and File Strategy, 2019 Strikes with Teachers & Autoworkers and more
4. Had a retreat for the DSLC SC, attended regional trainings and statewide conferences.
5. Responded to labor events to:
a. Collaborate on strike support
b. Assemble an ad hoc network of federal government workers, who created solidarity materials
6. Raised funds to send DSA members to strikes in West Virginia, Los Angeles, and East Bay
7. Put on workshops for Socialism 2019 and the National Convention
2019 Convention Resolutions
Three resolutions were passed at the 2019 DSA Convention in Atlanta, #3 “Towards a Clear Multifaceted Strategy for Labor”, #32 “Labor Strategy and the DSLC” and #67 “Organizing the Unorganized”. Were these conflicting proposals? I’ve abridged the original documents to look at what each proposal resolved.
#3 Towards a Clear, Multifaceted Strategy for Labor
· Develop chapter-level labor formations
· Hire a staff labor organizer to support the DSLC and chapter-level labor formations
· Develop programming for regional workplace organizing schools to:
o educate about the labor movement,
o hold workplace organizer trainings for organized and unorganized workers
o proactively include workers from traditionally marginalized backgrounds
o subsidize the costs of access and participation for low-wage workers
· Revive YDSA’s Campus Labor Institutes
· The overall strategy of the DSLC shall be informed by strategic assessments of local conditions focused on:
o organizing within unions where they exist to build militant and democratic unions prepared to stage disruptive action when necessary,
o supporting members to lead workplace struggles to advance their issues and interests as workers, in organized and unorganized work settings alike,
o supporting DSA members to get jobs in strategic workplaces
o leading efforts to organize workers in key unorganized sectors.
· Focus on pursuing the rank and file strategy
· Create general educational materials for DSA
· Create materials explaining the rank and file strategy and how members can participate
· Create a Speakers Bureau to educate DSA members
· Create committees or discussion groups based on people’s jobs
· The national organization will help the DSLC with labor mapping
· Encourage chapters to support strikes and will produce a pamphlet about best practices for doing so
· Make use of Labor Notes’ organizing training
· Will help chapters create Jobs Programs where members are mentored and supported
· Have a permanent staff person to aid in its work
· organizing the unorganized is a crucial and immediate part of any labor strategy to rebuild a militant labor movement
· organize within their labor unions to commit significant resources to new organizing
· undertake a census of members relating to their current industry of employment, the approximate size of their employer
· build chapter-level capacity for self-sustaining organizing work
· develop skills-training for members in unorganized and organized workplaces
· on-going staff time and organizational resources will be made available to provide skills-training for workers, particularly unorganized workers, to organize their workplaces
Two things should be apparent when you look at this list: first, no language in any proposal appears to directly contradict any other proposal’s; second, these three resolutions mirror the language that was passed in 2017. The original proposal establishing the DSLC specifically cites the body is necessary for “a sustainable long-term rank and file strategy”, then goes on to list objectives such as creating chapter labor formations, mapping labor groups in DSA, reviving the YDSA Campus Labor Institute, and generally supporting the membership’s labor activity. The 2019 resolutions added mandates about greater member education and the addition of a staff person to support the DSLC’s work.
Rather than conflicting, I would suggest there this is significant overlap in the proposals, and collectively they restate the tasks from the 2017 document. This suggests that the main objectives of 2017 were considered unfulfilled by the recent Convention.
Tasks For The Next DSLC
Clearly, there are numerous objectives that have been mandated by the 2019 Convention that the next DSLC will have to take up, but we should take seriously the challenges that the outgoing DSLC faced if we want to be as successful as we can. Below I present some critical commentary, but I’d like to appreciate the dedicated work of the outgoing Steering Committee — no part of this is meant to be disparaging or dismissive towards the comrades who have served on the SC for this difficult project.
Concept & Plan
The 2017 resolution identified important tasks facing labor in the United States, but it’s mandates effectively boiled down to “do everything”: create a national body, create local bodies, develop schools and materials, mentor and place DSA members, advise and report, etc. The 2019 resolutions have inherited this same problem; the new tasks repeat the old ones and add even onto it.[ii]
Further, there is somewhat of a conceptual issue about what is the goal of the DSLC? Beyond trying to do good work, what is it that distinguishes DSA’s labor work from, say, Labor Notes, Teamsters for a Democratic Union or organizing campaigns headed by unions? The combination of a very broad set of tasks and a fuzzy conception make it more difficult for the DSLC to chart a course.
Given the amount of work there is to be done, the SC will inevitably have to make some decisions about priorities and how to accomplish the tasks laid out by the Convention. These might generally be grouped as:
· Education — There is a tremendous amount of intellectual production being demanded for materials on: the Rank and File Strategy, how to organize unorganized workplaces, strike support, general labor education, socialism for the labor movement, and targeted documents on resolution or bylaw language that can be used by democratic socialist labor activists.
· Events — We already know a large part of the calendar for 2020: Labor Notes in April, Socialism 2020 in July, the Democratic Primaries (including important votes from unions). Couple this with developing regional schools and a YDSA Campus Labor Institute and there’s a full plate.
· Organization/network building — A central plank of the labor plan is developing labor groups in as many chapters as possible; the DSLC will have to guide these new formations to help them get off the ground and suggest activities and structure for them to be successful. Similarly, establishing networks by industry or by union to unify our members in shared work is increasingly necessary for teachers, autoworkers, and those organizing the unorganized.
· Support & mentorship — This to me seems the most elusive. Most organizers learn through informal conversations: asking questions and hearing stories to be “mentored”. But this is a hard thing to put together as a formal resource. Depending on what we mean by mentorship, matching people together requires a lot of attention and care. UNITE-HERE’s model of “workshopping” among salts, collectively discussing issues they encounter while organizing, could be a useful model but if support means conferring with members in their efforts this will be largely an issue of responsiveness.
Though the SC is being expanded from nine (9) to twelve (12) members, the Steering Committee alone cannot achieve all these tasks and will of course need to expand its capacity and recruit a larger pool of volunteers to contribute to this national work; easier said than done — for all DSA members want more national resources, most members prefer to spend time on local endeavors. The addition of a dedicated staff person to help with the DSLC is a must, and should be one of the first tasks that the SC undertakes to facilitate the group’s work more effectively — given the timeline, I wouldn’t expect this person to begin until Spring 2020 at the earliest.
As stated above, the DSLC membership doesn’t have a central meeting ground: there are two lists (email and Facebook) that are not well advertised, and two websites[iii]: labor.dsausa.org and dsausa.org/working-groups/labor. The foundation of building up a working national body is going to be crucial — a strategy is no good if we have no way of enacting it. This is probably going to be a lot of unfun things like developing communications, revival of regular membership calls, drafting bylaws for the DSLC (there are none currently) and figuring out the most effective way to manage ongoing member discussions without them devolving into article sharing or swamping lists.
While there is the ongoing need to have information about the membership, I would argue that the SC would have to treat this information more like an organizer building a list rather than a census, which will as a matter of course be incomplete in a voluntary organization. Lastly, to maintain confidence in the body the SC will have to issue regular reports and updates about what it’s doing to be transparent to the membership — without that, the confidence in the organization fades.
Socialist Labor Activism
The last two years have been a beacon for announcing labor’s return in the United States. The work that DSA members have done in organizing and supporting the teachers’ strikes, walking picket lines for the Stop & Shop and UAW strikes, organizing new unions and pushing for democracy and militancy in our unions has been remarkable. It should be clear the importance of DSA’s labor work both for the labor movement and for building an organization of workers to fight for socialism.
The tasks for the DSLC remains the same because of how much work there is to do, and if we are to build an organization that builds together and can recruit workers to our organization, we need a team of dedicated activists who can coordinate the DSLC and make it a natural extension of our labor work. The effect of a strong DSLC can be to encourage and enable more activity for our chapters and create stronger connections in our communities and recognition of what socialists bring to the table.
I encourage everyone to get involved with the DSLC to make it the most successful it can be and consider running for the Democratic Socialist Labor Commission’s Steering Committee.
Many thanks to everyone who helped inform this article: Marsha Niemeijer, Anabel Vera, JP Kaderbek, Toni Gilpin, and the DSA Labor List.
[i] Excerpted from the original document: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Y236-pwK-mleMDBqa46VzuhYm5_A83ZWlvX9zv5nU_0/edit?usp=sharing
[ii] In this sense it was too bad that the labor policies were not put against each other — it gives no clearer direction about what the DSLC should do.
[iii] I credit Toni G (CDSA) for this observation and some other thoughts on the tasks ahead.