In my union organizer days, I learned some sage advice from the legendary 1199 SEIU, that “the union is not a fee for services, it is the collective experience of workers in struggle. Don’t be afraid to ask workers to build their own union.”
That’s how we operate in DSA: Our power comes from our work, which can only be driven by you, our members. We are not a labor union, but we are building a rooted, long-term institution that brings you in and then pushes you to learn how to analyze the world, run the organization, and win concrete victories. Not only do we train ourselves to do the work, we fund ourselves. This means we must constantly recruit new members, which builds our power. And it means we don’t have to orient our work to please a rich donor or foundation.
This is a fundamentally different model from most other organizations. It means we are building our own collective confidence and skills in a world that tells working-class people we are alone and helpless. It also means we are collectively applying and learning what strategies work to build power, and that when opportunities or needs arise, we have the ability to mobilize.
One example is in formal politics. This November, after all votes were counted, an astounding 67% of our candidates and initiatives had won. Our electoral strategy depends on conversations at the door and on the phone, and we can field so many volunteers only because we organize between elections, too. Unfortunately, the ruling class has noticed this and will no longer be taken by surprise. After her upset Democratic primary win in Buffalo, our member India Walton lost the mayor’s race to a neoliberal Democrat who teamed up with wealthy interests and the Republican Party—the same party that is locking in new laws across the country to enact permanent minority rule in its favor and that celebrates vigilante violence. In this context, our otherwise strong electoral showing takes on new meaning. We are building a deep bench of experienced democratic socialist elected officials with a strong, organized base in their communities. This is what it will take to protect what is left of our democracy.
Another example of how our organizing work gives us a well of strength from which to mobilize is in the economic realm. You can read about our Nabisco strike solidarity in this issue, but DSA chapters are also giving or have given support to striking United Auto Workers (UAW) members at John Deere and the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE), who took a strike vote during their contract bargaining. As this issue of Democratic Left went to press, we learned that the John Deere workers beat back a two-tiered contract, won an immediate 10% raise, and made other major gains, while in Houston 14,000 United Food and Commercial Workers at the Kroger grocery store chain took a strike vote. But we’re not just reacting to these kinds of developments by mobilizing in the moment—we’re looking ahead to think strategically and organize in preparation for things like the Teamsters contract with UPS, which expires in 2023. The fact that a reform slate won the Teamsters election means we can expect escalating strike preparation alongside the union’s campaign to organize Amazon.
Hard times are coming, but with comrades we can fight back. Here’s one more hopeful story about the next generation of socialist organizers. In November, the Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter at Howard University won a major victory in a campaign to improve learning and living conditions on campus. A chapter at Oakland University in Michigan helped elect a city councilor, and it and chapters at the University of California Berkeley, New York University, Alma College, Harvard University, and others have mobilized in strike solidarity.
As we head into 2022, DSA’s 40th anniversary year, let’s resolve to be strategic, long distance runners for socialism.