Working group representation could undermine democratic decision-making on the CLC

By Sam L

Over the last two years, many of NYC-DSA’s most successful campaigns have been conducted through the various working groups. Working group projects have pushed forward important issue campaigns, provided the foundation for key coalition building efforts, and produced NYC-DSA’s notable election victories. Working groups that haven’t actively initiated campaigns have served key administrative functions in NYC-DSA, as sites of political education, or as social spaces for members united by a specific interest or concern. Overall, forming fifteen different working groups to perform a diverse array of functions has been a successful model for NYC-DSA that it is common sense we should continue to invest in.

As one of the founders of the Brooklyn Electoral Working Group, I know first hand how hard we have worked to ensure that we remained part the larger organization and accountable to NYC-DSA’s membership. The December 2016 founding resolution stated that the goal was to build “the electoral wing of a grassroots democratic socialist movement,” that “committee members should recognize that we are part of a national organization whose members embrace a diverse range of political strategies,” and that the working group was “not meant to set a particular political strategy for DSA or necessarily be the exclusive electoral work of the Brooklyn branch.” Although members voted overwhelmingly to form a body to initiate a particular organizing project, the understanding from the beginning was that it would be guided by a strategy democratically decided by the membership. We have generally stuck to this approach. While the working group makes recommendations, all endorsements must go through geographic branch votes as well as the Central Leadership Committee (CLC), which is DSA’s highest democratic body, elected proportionally by geographic branch. Both the CLC and Convention have also considered or passed resolutions to guide our electoral strategy as an organization.

The proposal to add voting representatives of the working groups to the CLC is well intentioned, because it seeks to bring the campaigns the organization undertakes and the democratic decision making structure closer together. But the result will substantially change the nature of the CLC, undermining its nature as a representative body without doing anything to enhance the ability of the working groups to conduct their campaigns and other functions. Instead of being a directly representative body where strategic decisions can be hashed out democratically, the CLC will transform into a body where working groups of dramatically varying sizes and functions (some purely administrative) all have a voice, not as individual members of the organization, but as mini-organizational constituencies.

It’s not hard to imagine how this could quickly become challenging in a volunteer organization. If a working group were to become so dysfunctional or mismanaged that only two or three people remained active in it, that small group would have a dramatically outsized influence compared to potentially hundreds of members in a well functioning one. We are blessed not to be facing that situation at the moment, but we should do our best to ensure that any dramatic changes to our structure make our elected bodies more accountable to the general membership.

The proposal will not guarantee that our internal decision making improves, and in fact it carries the risk of badly undermining the democratic nature of our most representative citywide body. Adding an additional 15 representatives who represent varied organizational constituencies without clearly defined memberships to the 30 directly, proportionally elected branch representatives on the CLC would dramatically change the character of the CLC, and shift it away from being a representative body accountable to the whole membership. Instead of a major structural change, we should focus on the hard work of building an organization that is unified, democratic, flexible and effective.

Over the last two years, NYC-DSA has made major strides in that direction, developing its capacities to consider, adopt, and execute political decisions as a cohesive organization. The organization recently approved its seventh geographic branch, and the formation of the CLC itself as a larger, directly elected, representative deliberative body has created a successful forum for citywide debate.

The campaigns that many working groups engage in ebb and flow with the news cycle and the social movement activity in NYC and across the world. We need to maintain working groups as flexible, effective bodies for connecting with allies and executing these campaigns. Our growing capacity for this type of strategic flexibility was on display with the recent organizing against Amazon. During a key period of social movement activity against one of the nation’s largest corporations, NYC-DSA was able to interject itself into the relevant coalitions on the left, form a committee of working group and branch representatives to coordinate across geographic and issue areas, and play a key role in the quick resolution of the campaign. This ability to flexibly form and dissolve campaigns based on new political developments is a sign of an increasingly robust democratic culture as well as the impressive degree to which our campaigns and working groups have rooted our organization in the broader ecosystem of progressive and working class organizing in NYC.  

Had the campaign continued, it would have been completely appropriate to have members of that Amazon committee presenting to the CLC regularly and proposing adjustments to the strategic direction of the campaign. But nothing about that process would have benefited from the creation of a new CLC rep just because a new area of work was being initiated. The individuals participating are already represented in DSA — through democratically elected representatives.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to meet the goal of bringing working group activity and DSA’s democratic structures even closer together. We should improve on many things that have already been working; the CLC should continue to consider proposals and invite presentations from members of working groups, members should consider strategic proposals at the convention, and we should build on the flexible approach on the Amazon campaign to intervene in working class struggles where they arise. We should continue the conversation about the role and function of DSA’s geographic branches, which will also come up at the convention. Most importantly, we should do the hard organizing work that has made NYC-DSA so successful — ensuring that any member can join the organization through a campaign or area of interest, quickly step into a leadership role, and have an equal voice in the organization’s democratic decision-making process.