Hiring staff could jeopardize what makes NYC-DSA radically democratic

By Jennifer L

I sincerely appreciate this ambitious and thoughtful proposal for catalyzing and laying the foundation for an important and necessary conversation about how to use our chapter’s funds, and how to expand our capacity and organizing, as well as the many other organizational and political questions entailed in hiring staff.

I’m very sympathetic to, and take very seriously, the personal and organizational costs of administrative burdens placed on members, which in many cases are considerable. I want us to mitigate these costs as best we can, but in a way that also strengthens our organization. The concerns I have with hiring staff, as follow, range from pragmatic to political; some are addressable and some are more or less inherent/unavoidable. Although I’m not categorically opposed to the idea of ever hiring staff, taken together, I do not believe, at least at this time, that the potential benefits of doing so outweigh the costs and risks.

Is this the best way to spend our money?

it’s important to keep in mind that we do not actually have sufficient funds to hire either a part-time or full-time staffer yet. Before immediately spending this substantial amount of money, I think we should thoroughly review and discuss other potential uses for it (e.g., renting a central meeting space, subsidizing organizing work, sharing national dues with smaller chapters, sharing chapter dues with branches and working groups, solidarity funds, supporting citywide campaigns, etc.). Each of these other potential uses has its own merits and risks, which should be outlined, elaborated, and debated about, before moving forward with this particular proposal.

How can we ensure democratic and transparent use of staffer’s time?

As of now, our chapter has very few centralized resources at the citywide leadership’s disposal (besides the funds in question, which to my knowledge are not frequently deployed, as is indicated by their accumulation). This proposal would dramatically change that, and, to the extent that decisions around the staffer’s work are left to the discretion of the Administrative Committee (AC), this would make leadership (at the AC level) much more powerful. I’m not going to argue about whether this is intrinsically good or bad, but we need to ask how these resources would be used in a “democratic and transparent” way. Would there be differential access to this staffer across branches, working groups, campaigns, caucuses, tendencies? Although the proposal states that the staffer would only work on chapter-wide work, and the DSA contract specifies that work cannot be used for partisan functions, I am skeptical that these issues, given how blurry some of these lines are, wouldn’t still arise, especially in the absence of a clear outline of how the staffer’s work would be selected and managed. We should be very transparent about these parameters, we should strive to set them together, and we should create democratic mechanisms of accountability.

Questions around these parameters include: What is the job description? What work would be assigned to the staffer? How would this person report and relate to the AC? How would we select this person? Who would have hiring and firing power? Are AC officers prepared to be managers, to enforce a union contract? Are we prepared to have someone’s livelihood depend on our ability to maintain an annual budget? Are we prepared for the legal responsibilities and liabilities? In terms of the hiring process, we would also want to make sure that it doesn’t operate like a spoils system in which leaders hire members of their caucus or faction. Miriam B in her comment on the proposal raises another good point about hiring: one can imagine a wide range of informal relationships between the staffer and the AC, all with different implications and consequences, depending on the particular person hired and the prerogative of the AC: a staffer could be treated by the AC strictly as an employee given directives to follow or they could be treated more or less as an equal (effectively another non-voting member of the AC) or even as a leader among the AC. The latter two situations could easily arise without any ulterior motives or bad faith on the part of the AC: it’s reasonable to hire someone you trust and work well with, but if that person also voices political opinions and has self-direction in their work, the position becomes akin to that of an unelected leader. How do we navigate this?

Further, has there been an inventory of the administrative work that the staffer would be assigned? Should that assessment not be the *starting* point? The job description as it stands in the proposal is vague and left entirely to the discretion of the AC, which I am uncomfortable with (not because I am uncomfortable with our current AC officers, but because I am uncomfortable with that much concentrated, unchecked power).

Will the staffer even make a significant impact? Are there alternative solutions?

Many DSA members already volunteer around 20 hours of labor a week. How can we be sure that one more person working 30 hours a week (or, in the case of a full-time staffer, 40 hours a week) would make a substantive impact, enough to warrant the associated costs and risks? In any case, the staffer would likely not help alleviate the burdens of Branch and Working Group Organizing Committees, but would only help leaders at the highest level of the organization. However, fostering an organizing culture among our active members, one of broader and deeper member engagement and constant leadership development, and perhaps even setting up infrastructure to help divide and keep track of administrative tasks, would help everyone, from top to bottom. And the organizational dividends would be huge.

As an example, I feel confident that we could organize a volunteer-led dues drive in which members call other members to ask them to renew their dues and/or sign up for chapter/monthly dues. This scenario would be better, organizationally, than having a staffer make these calls, because it would engage more members in meaningful work and give them the opportunity to have organizing conversations and build relationships with other members. We should always think about how to engage and activate more members and how to develop their organizing skills through direct, hands-on experience. Making active recruitment an organizational priority would also help raise dues (and, in my opinion, should be a priority anyway). A better solution than hiring a staffer would be to identify and engage inactive members of the organization to do a couple of hours of administrative work a week -- better because it would be a part of a larger commitment to membership engagement and leadership development. In this context, hiring a staffer in some ways seems like a tempting shortcut. Having a dependable staffer at your disposal might even discourage leadership development, which is more likely to happen when it is urgently and materially needed and feels *necessary* than when it’s merely desired on an abstract level of principle.

What path might hiring staff put us on?

Apart from these more immediate, pragmatic concerns, I also want to make sure we discuss some of the potential political risks of hiring a staffer, even if they're not immediately relevant or apparent (as risks, especially long-term risks, rarely are). To me, these risks are insidious and significant, and should be taken seriously. How do we feel about the possibility of relying on staffers for the maintenance, management, and reproduction of our organization, as is the case for most labor unions and community-based organizations? The question of creating bureaucracy to sustain organization is one that has been written about extensively, and I’m not suggesting that we can completely circumvent answering this perhaps inevitable dilemma -- just that we should openly discuss and debate it.

Creating a layer of professional staffers, even if innocuous and strategically sound in its origin, *can* over time lead to a more top-down, staff-based model of organizing that I think is antithetical to many of DSA’s currently stated organizational and political principles, and would undermine our collective ownership of and responsibility for the organization, as well as our collective power. This professional layer could also in the long run take on a different, independent set of material concerns and a different orientation toward members, toward leadership, and toward the organization. Even though community-based organizations and labor unions nominally (and, in some cases, very genuinely) want members as opposed to staffers to make important strategic and political decisions (with staffers simply carrying out and implementing these decisions), that is often not the dynamic we see crystalize within these organizations. And, in most cases, it’s a structural, not personal, reason why.

It’s difficult to completely separate administrative work from political work: Bureaucracy is never strictly neutral. I'm not saying that hiring a part-time staffer will automatically bureaucratize our chapter, but I am saying that it would be the first step in creating bureaucracy (especially in light of the proposal’s stated goal of eventually hiring 2-3 staffers). Once we have created bureaucracy, the short-term, material imperative of maintaining that bureaucracy can undermine, contradict, and eventually supplant longer-term political goals of building working class power and winning socialism. This is arguably one of the most serious structural problems of unions. What currently separates us from many existing non-profit organizations, besides our politics, is that we are radically democratic and volunteer-run and that we're not subject to the conservatizing material influences of having to secure funding streams and annual budgets in order to maintain bureaucracy. I.e., it’s not just our politics that separate us, it’s also the material and structural influences on our politics. These are not foregone conclusions, but inherent risks.

In the end, however, I’m not convinced that administrative burden -- of the sort that can be solved by this proposal -- is the main limiting factor on our organizing and capacity-building, nor the best use of our money at this time. There is still a lot more we can and should strive to do with our volunteer labor, including strengthening our internal democracy and building more leaders, without the costs and risks of hiring staff. I would also like us to debate this proposed use of chapter funds in direct comparison to other possible uses.