Organizing for the Long Haul

Organizing for the Long Haul

The major question facing DSA in the next few years is whether the organization can build deeper roots in the working class, particularly the labor movement.

NYC-DSA members and Starbucks workers at the Chelsea Reserve Roastery in New York City (DSA Labor/Twitter)

This is a response to Sam Adler-Bell’s article “Can DSA Go the Distance?” You can read his reply here.

In “Can DSA Go the Distance?” comrade Sam Adler-Bell begins a welcome discussion about how far the Democratic Socialists of America have come and raises strategic questions about where we go next. In his survey of DSA organizing, he suggests that DSA is perhaps best suited to become primarily an electoral apparatus, which also trains organizers to engage in other mass work elsewhere. Adler-Bell argues this is the case because other organizing work, like labor and tenant organizing, has been less visibly successful than our big electoral wins.

While we wholeheartedly support DSA’s electoral work, have participated deeply in it ourselves, and look forward to its continued growth in the years to come, we respectfully beg to differ on this framing of our most urgent tasks as an organization. We think the major question facing DSA in the next few years is whether we can build deeper roots in the working class, particularly among the most conscious and organized layer of our class: the labor movement. We argue that a rank-and-file orientation to labor solidarity, union reform, and new organizing efforts have already begun to move us in this direction, but that DSA must double down on its commitment to deep labor organizing. Recommitting ourselves to prioritizing labor organizing in this moment of political turmoil and labor upsurge is how we will build the organizational vehicle we will need to go the distance. 

Why Labor Matters

Workers have a unique place in capitalist society because they have both the common interest and the structural power to transform it. They can readily see that the boss depends on their labor to generate profits. If workers want a greater share of the profits that they create, then they are able to coerce these demands from capitalists by collectively withholding their labor. The workers best positioned to take such collective action in the United States are the 14 million union workers who are members of organizations that democratically cohere their interests and coordinate struggles against their bosses. The more rooted socialists are in the labor movement, the more our long-term vision for political change will become unified with the economic struggle of workers, who have the power to affect such change, thereby benefiting both labor and the socialist movement.

Indeed, when socialists and communists were leading the labor movement in the early twentieth century, workers could envision radical possibilities through struggle, and many committed themselves to ambitious projects that went beyond increasing wages and improving working conditions.

But as the left was purged from the labor movement during the Red Scare, and the labor movement went on the defensive during the neoliberal period, business unionism became dominant. Without the left, the labor movement lost many of its rank-and-file leaders, and much of its long-term vision for change. Without the labor movement, the left lost its base of power and was marginalized in small circles of activists with little structural leverage. These developments have created obstacles to passing the progressive legislation socialists champion today, such as a Green New Deal, universal healthcare, and even basic labor demands like the PRO Act. If the labor movement and the left are to rise once again, socialists must dedicate themselves to help rebuild the labor movement.

Therefore, our immediate tasks have been to build a rank-and-file socialist movement from the bottom up, to lead labor solidarity efforts whenever militant worker self-activity presents itself, and to lay the groundwork for more ambitious projects when we have created “a sea of class struggle for socialists to swim in.”

Adler-Bell is right that labor work is often less visible than other types of organizing, so we’d like to highlight some of the successful efforts that DSA has carried out in the last few years, before elaborating on the steps we need to take to raise this organizing to the next level. We believe that DSA’s labor work across the country provides a glimpse of what is possible if we meaningfully commit to building power with the organized working class in the labor movement.

Labor Solidarity

As labor activity has picked up in recent years, with several large strikes reverberating across the country, DSA chapters have been there on the picket lines supporting workers and providing significant resources to help them achieve victory.

In Portland, Oregon, when Nabisco workers went on strike, Portland DSA played a crucial role bolstering the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM) picket line and helped raise over $90,000 for striking workers. BCTGM leader and DSA member Mike Burlingham has stated flatly that “if it wasn’t for the presence of DSA on the strike line we wouldn’t have ended that strike after forty days.” During the Teamsters Local 202 Hunts Point Market strike in the Bronx, NYC-DSA turned out hundreds of members in support, along with politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and provided $10,000 of food and supplies to striking workers. When United Auto Workers members at John Deere went on strike in 2021, several chapters coordinated support and forged relationships with burgeoning leaders in the Unite All Workers for Democracy reform movement. In Alabama, where members of the United Mine Workers of America have been on strike for over a year, DSA has provided ongoing support, raising over $18,000 for striking workers and helping organize fundraisers and other solidarity events. In the words of striking miner Braxton Wright, when both the Republican and Democratic parties abandoned them, DSA came through: “We’ve had a lot of support from local and state DSA chapters. They support workers. It doesn’t matter the industry. To them, we’re still a worker.” When teachers in Oakland went on strike in 2019, East Bay DSA raised over $170,000 to support striking workers and their students, going on to help coordinate a student lunch and child-care program for the duration of the strike to create student-worker solidarity. The list goes on and on, but the point is clear: DSA labor solidarity has been crucial in many recent labor struggles in tipping the scale toward workers.

To further bolster such labor solidarity nationally, the National Labor Commission (DSA Labor) recently launched a national labor solidarity fund, which has already raised over $20,000, with another $40,000 in annual recurring donations. This fund will be used to help chapters around the country support striking workers, new organizing drives, and other labor-related struggles.

The Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC), a DSA partnership with the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE) formed as a response to a wave of new interest in organizing during the COVID-19 pandemic, is another much-needed project for building working-class power. Responding to a need many traditional unions cannot fill, EWOC supports workplace organizing in hot shops and new unionization campaigns in any workplace. Since its founding two years ago, over 4,000 workers have been supported by over 1,600 volunteers. Many of these workers went on to successfully organize unions and job actions with the help of EWOC. There are currently hundreds of active EWOC campaigns underway.

DSA Labor has also made important strides in building community support for new organizing. One of the major obstacles we face is a lack of direct experience in labor fights or organizing. The national Solidarity is Brewing campaign has created solidarity trainings that have reached more than 1,000 DSA members on national calls. These members have taken ideas back to their chapters, creating a robust network of community support for people with limited experience in the labor movement. Over 180 DSA chapters have participated in this campaign, with over eighty chapters directly supporting one or more local Starbucks stores that are organizing. DSA chapters have also supported other new organizing drives at Amazon and other major corporations, turning members out to rallies, fundraising, and hosting events with workers to build public support. DSA Labor continues to cultivate connections with new organizing campaigns on the local, state, and national levels.

In conjunction with the launch of our national labor solidarity fund, DSA Labor has also started to build out the DSA Labor Corps, a body of experienced labor organizers that both democratically administer the solidarity fund and assist DSA chapters with labor solidarity work. We have been connecting with DSA members who have cut their teeth on their own picket lines, worked closely on campaigns like Solidarity is Brewing, or supported worker struggles in other ways to engage a broad swath of our membership in order to power solidarity efforts to be as effective as possible—whether through fundraising, creating picket materials, or coordinating support logistics.

Rank-and-File Organizing

DSA Labor has also begun to build infrastructure to help members get organized along industry lines and get rank-and-file jobs that are strategic for organizing, for a combination of economic and political reasons. Because of the highly sensitive nature of this work, we cannot discuss details in this article, but we can provide an overview. There are two main components: first, mapping where our members already work and inviting them to coordinate with other members in the same industry, and second, helping members who are looking for work to get strategically placed jobs—which might be union or non-union, depending on the economic landscape of their locale and their chapter’s labor strategy.

To carry out this industry organizing, we’ve pursued a few different tactics. We sent out a survey to every DSA member inquiring where they work and whether they were interested in getting a strategic job. Approximately 10,000 members have filled out this survey so far, one-fifth of whom were interested in getting a job to organize. We have already followed up one-on-one with over 800 of these interested members in just three months, plugging people into local new organizing drives or union jobs. We hope to incorporate this survey into the DSA new member questionnaire so this data will be gathered on an ongoing basis. We are also developing a way to share locally relevant survey data with local chapters’ leadership, enabling more comprehensive member onboarding and developing local labor organizing infrastructure.

We have also contributed to a national committee of activists in the logistics industry (warehousing and trucking) as part of our Organize Logistics priority campaign. This summer, we hosted a national Organize Logistics call with over eighty DSA chapter leaders representing dozens of chapters. Since then, the Logistics Committee has been setting up educational presentations with every chapter in the country to engage members in our campaign. Similar presentations were given to over fifty Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) chapters around the country. These presentations have allowed us to engage hundreds of members in our work and helped dozens of people get strategic jobs in a coordinated manner. We hope members in other industries will take steps to build similar national industry sections, though our ability to do so will depend on volunteer capacity.

Several local DSA chapters also have robust labor strategies and jobs pipelines, including Chicago, the Bay Area, Portland, Austin, Philadelphia, and NYC. Taking into account these local and national efforts, we have found that at least several hundred DSA members have been involved in the recent organizing drives at major employers such as Starbucks, Amazon, Chipotle, and several other smaller chains. Dozens of DSA members have also been leaders in successful reform movements, from the Teamsters United movement that swept the International Teamsters election last year and is now preparing to lead 350,000 UPS workers on strike, to the UAWD reform movement that just won UAW members the right to elect their international leadership.

YDSA members have also been spearheading a wave of student worker organizing. YDSA chapters led successful undergraduate worker union drives at Wesleyan and Dartmouth, while YDSA leaders have launched KSWOC at Kenyon and CURA at Columbia, two undergrad worker collectives that will hopefully win formal recognition this year. University of Michigan YDSA led a campaign that won a $15 minimum wage for workers on campus, and YDSA members at Columbia and the University of Oregon launched public union drives this fall.

While some of these numbers may sound meager in comparison to the thousands of members electoral campaigns often mobilize, the efforts of hundreds of members have directly helped organize tens of thousands of workers through their union activity and brought many new worker leaders into DSA as well. They engage in this work every day on the job, building deep relationships with organic worker leaders who can move dense networks of workers into action. Just a few salts can make or break the organization of a shop of thousands of workers; a few hundred reformers can help catalyze change in a union of millions, directly leading to more militant strikes and organizing practices. This is not just an abstract theory—it is a model that has been proven in practice in some of the most crucial new organizing drives and reform movements occurring today.

The role of DSA is purposefully hidden from sight in most of these cases, as it doesn’t often help an ongoing organizing drive to identify it with a socialist organization, but we think DSA’s model of engaging deeply in labor work has been sufficiently demonstrated in practice to warrant further funding and commitment to raise it to the next level.

Next Steps

While our local and national DSA Labor work has demonstrated a viable model for carrying out labor solidarity, new organizing, strategic job recruitment, and industry coordination, there are a few significant challenges we face in scaling up this work. We do not think that there is a lack of political will among DSA members to prioritize rank-and-file oriented labor organizing. Instead, we think there are certain organizational structures that need to be changed to bring this work to the next level—namely, the way we fund labor and projects in DSA.

Electoral projects benefit from the inbuilt feature that they offer for independent fundraising and staffing opportunities. (The total funds raised and spent on campaign staff in DSA electoral campaigns numbers in the millions of dollars.) Most socialist labor organizing lacks such opportunities for public fundraising and independent staffing. This means that left organizations must bear larger staff and organizational costs if such projects are to be scaled effectively. This is no doubt why left organizations that historically punched above their weight with labor organizing had a high proportion of organizing staff. For example, approximately 10 percent of the 50,000 members of the U.S. Communist Party in the 1930s—when party cadres played key roles in organizing auto, longshore, textile, steel, and meatpacking industrial unions—were part- or full-time staff organizers for the party. DSA cannot and should not become a centralized cadre organization, but if we want to expand our labor work we will need to devote more of our considerable resources to labor.

DSA staff are dedicated, skilled organizers. They are also severely overworked and pulled in too many directions by competing initiatives passed down from above. At the same time, the political leaders in DSA, elected by members with the mandate to carry out a platform, are also often stretched thin themselves, as they work other full-time jobs and often have additional union responsibilities outside of work. This exacerbates our understaffing problem, because the volunteer organizers with the political mandate to lead projects have little time to coordinate and plan with the organizing staff.

We propose one step that could help alleviate these problems drastically: make the top leadership positions in DSA full-time jobs for the duration of their terms. This is how most union officer positions work; union leaders are elected by their members to carry out a certain program, and they then often leave the shop on “lost time” for the duration of their term in office, being paid by the union to organize instead. Many left political parties around the world similarly put their internally elected leaders full time on the payroll for the duration of their terms, so they have capacity to carry out the political platform they run on. DSA should adopt this practice to help alleviate the serious capacity shortage in our organization, beginning with the National Political Committee Steering Committee and the National Labor Commission Steering Committee chairs. YDSA National Coordinating Committee leaders should be given part-time stipends as well. This would give political leaders in DSA far greater capacity to carry out deep organizing projects. Staff would be less overworked, and coordination among priority campaigns across the organization would function more smoothly. It would also allow workers from more diverse industries the opportunity to pursue leadership positions in DSA, rather than the current volunteer model, which privileges workers who have flexible schedules, less direct supervision at work, and more continual access to technology commonly used in DSA throughout the day.

Seeing how successful our labor solidarity fund was upon launch, we think a fundraising drive to provide stipends for leaders could quickly raise the requisite funds. Members want to see socialist labor organizing work expanded. Such a step will be necessary to raise our labor work to the scale of our electoral work.

We Need Broad and Deep Organizing to Go the Distance

The fight for democratic socialism will be a long one. We will need to bring millions more workers into our movement through the breadth of electoral campaigns and the immense opportunity they provide for propagandizing about our cause. We will also need to pass non-reformist legislative reforms to demonstrate our program in practice and increase workers’ capacity for future struggles. At the same time, we need to be organizing far more in the labor movement as DSA, both to build DSA’s base among the most organized and structurally powerful workers and to help revitalize the union movement itself. Such deep organizing will be crucial in transforming DSA into a more powerful, multiracial, working-class-rooted organization that can go the distance. Many recognize DSA’s great electoral successes, and our momentum there shows no signs of slowing. But our labor organizing also has proven models, which could achieve far more if they were better resourced. DSA should double down on labor organizing and make the organizational and financial changes that such a commitment requires.

Heather Hillenbrand is a cook in Akron Public Schools, a shop steward and bargaining team member for the Child Nutrition Bargaining Unit, and represents Akron, Ohio members on the Executive Board of SEIU Local 1. She is a co-chair of the DSA National Labor Commission.

Elliot Lewis is a UPS Driver, Teamsters Local 804 Alternate Shop Steward, and part-time Teamsters Organizer. He just finished a term as a NLC representative, and is a co-chair of NYC-DSA’s Union Power Campaign.

Honda Wang is a clerical worker for the City of New York and a rank-and-file member of AFSCME DC37. He currently sits on the Steering Committee of the DSA National Labor Commission and on the organizing committee of NYC-DSA’s Union Power Campaign.