DSA National Convention 2019 Report Back

The Washington Socialist <> Labor Day 2019

By Kaiser F

On August 2-4, DSA members from across the organization gathered in Atlanta for the 2019 national convention. We debated resolutions and bylaws, elected a new National Political Committee, and had countless interactions between people, delegations, and groups, as we sought to figure out where DSA will go in the coming years.

The convention was physically and emotionally draining. There were twelve hours of debate and many more hours of discussion beforehand. Votes moved faster than many delegates could keep up, yet half the resolutions did not make it onto the agenda. Debates involved critical questions about where we go from here as an organization, with different visions for DSA that were not always reconcilable, yet all had strong adherents.

This will be a basic report back, and I’m refraining from extended commentary. Still, I want to emphasize that what we discussed, passed, did not pass, and otherwise did at the convention mattered, and affect things very personal to many people across and outside of DSA. So, I encourage comrades to read other reports and reflections as well.

OVERVIEW BY THE NUMBERS

The convention brought together over 1000 delegates representing 140 chapters and at-large members (Metro DC had the fifth-largest delegation with 41 members). Also in attendance were DSA national staff, journalists, hundreds of volunteers, and speakers including Khalid Kamau (city councilman for South Fulton, GA), Sara Nelson (international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA), Linda Sarsour (Palestinian- and Muslim-American civil rights activist, and DSA member), and several international guests.

We had two main tasks: elect the new National Political Committee (NPC), and vote on constitution/bylaw changes and resolutions.

The NPC is the 16-person body that serves as DSA’s political leadership and guides the implementation of DSA’s goals. On the first day, delegates voted to change the system for electing the new NPC from a modified Borda Count[1] to a single transferable vote (STV)[2]. Note that the elections working group recommended either STV or a Borda Count method where delegates would be asked to rank-order all candidates, which differed from the modified system initially selected. Metro DC comrade Aaron M spoke on this issue, and explained that the working group had recommended STV and against the modified Borda Count because of the latter’s greater susceptibility to gaming, and STV’s higher likelihood of resulting in proportional representation in a multi-tendency organization.

Thirty-two candidates ran for NPC. The 16 elected to the new NPC represent a broad spectrum of DSA. They come from 14 separate chapters: 2 from New York, 2 from Chicago, and the rest spread across both large and small chapters (no members of Metro DC DSA were among the NPC candidates). Regarding caucus and organizational affiliation, the NPC includes: four members in Socialist Majority, three in Bread and Roses, four in Build, two in LSC, one in CPN, one in Red Star, and two who are unaffiliated. The NPC is also over two-thirds women, one-eighth trans and nonbinary, and one-third people of color.

Next, there were 33 constitution/bylaw changes that would affect DSA’s structure itself, and 86 resolutions that would affect what DSA could or would work on, potentially up for debate. These covered several topics, including: regional structures, internal governance and conduct, dues-sharing, training, electoral work, labor, housing, race, immigration, internationalism and decolonization, prisons and decarceration, ecosocialism, socialist feminism, and anti-fascism.

Based partially on polling delegates before the convention, 12 resolutions with the strongest backing were bundled with the consent agenda, 48 constitution/bylaw changes and resolutions were scheduled for debate, and 59 were left off the schedule. At the convention itself, only 47 out of all 119 items altogether were debated and voted on, including the consent agenda and other resolutions that were bundled together.

RESOLUTIONS AND THEIR EFFECTS

Many resolutions passed easily and represent areas of broad, though not universal, agreement across DSA. Still other votes were close and indicate areas where there are significant differences in priorities, strategies, or visions of what DSA can or should be doing.

DSA has the full text of all resolutions proposed for the 2019 convention available at dsausa.org. I have also put together a spreadsheet of the amendments, resolutions, and NPC election results.

Broadly, the resolutions that passed show a commitment to several key principles:

  • sex work decriminalization (R53);
  • unrestricted abortion access (R38);
  • decarceration (R54) and ending cash bail (R28);
  • open borders (R73) and defense of immigrants and refugees (R5);
  • housing as a human right (R40), tenant organizing (R57), and decommodification of housing in local campaigns (R64);
  • backing Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign (R15), while pushing on areas of foreign policy (R39), reparations (R59), and housing (R74);
  • greater international solidarity (R4), including commitments to BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) and Palestine solidarity (R35), Cuba solidarity and ending the embargo (R62), and full decolonization of US-occupied lands (R50);
  • ecosocialism and the Green New Deal (R34 and R56), including backing specific campaigns for public ownership of fossil fuel companies (R41) and endorsing the Great Lakes Authority campaign (R42);

Beyond principles, many resolutions also commit the DSA to specific actions:

  • create a working group dedicated to anti-fascist organizing (R9);
  • assist locals, particularly small chapters, with grassroots fundraising (R55);
  • orient towards Latinx communities and create a Spanish-language site (R6);
  • implement a plan to grow the organization to 100,000 members by 2021 (R2);
  • create a secure list of members who have been expelled by locals or chapters (R30);
  • support paid parental leave campaigns and expand childcare at DSA meetings (R25);
  • create a nation-wide security and marshalling program, namely by creating a national version of the Red Rabbits team (R80);
  • create a candidate pipeline for DSA members and class-struggle candidates (R31), and align electoral decisions with the broader working class and socialist goals (R82);
  • build a political education program, including training materials and a podcast (R33), and continue the current socialist organizer and chapter development trainings (R84);
  • develop chapter-level labor formations with multiple strategies for advancing labor rights (R3), pursue the rank-and-file strategy of getting employment in and organizing in strategic sectors (R32), and pursue the organizing the unorganized strategy of training workers to organize within their current workplaces (R67).

Lastly, during the convention, DSA members effectively established several new working groups:

  • BDS and Palestine Solidarity (R35);
  • Anti-Fascism and Direct Action (R9);
  • Decolonization and Self-Determination (R50);
  • Nationwide Red Rabbits (marshalling and security) teams (R80);
  • Socialist Housing, including working groups at more local levels (R40);
  • Disability (re-started by members independent of the resolutions and debates).

Lists of what passed do not give a full picture of what happened, though, so I want to offer a few highlights.

The first resolution after the consent agenda on the floor was on ecosocialism and the Green New Deal (R34 – Metro DC comrade Ashik S was also one of the authors). Supporters discussed the need for radical change to combat ecological destruction, and the dangers of ceding ground to fascists who have already begun to co-opt the language of climate change to justify oppression. Most debates were over the amendments, but the core goal and steps to the campaign were broadly popular, and it passed with strong support.

The resolution on childcare (R25) combined our advocacy for policies like guaranteed parental leave and public universal childcare, with modeling this in our own organization by committing us to building and expanding child watch programs at DSA meetings.

Taken together, the resolutions regarding labor organizing represent diverse strategies. Two with broad support were “organizing the unorganized” (R67) and a “multi-faceted strategy to labor” (R3 – authors include Metro DC comrades Benjamin D and Ryan M). Both incorporated approaches that focus on adapting to local conditions of where chapters are and how to best engage with labor.

As it became clear that we could not address every item on the agenda, authors behind the internationalism and decolonization resolutions (R35, R50, and R62) worked together to raise and pass them as a package. This also had the effect of connecting BDS and Palestine, opposing the embargo on Cuba, and clear opposition to US colonialism, into a wider internationalism strategy.

The same strategy also worked for the three housing and tenant-related resolutions (R40, R57, and R64). Resolution authors and delegates who had worked for years on housing and tenant rights met separately to build a consensus, work out differences, and ultimately combine and pass all three to near-unanimous support. This was an incredible process of drawing from local input and working together, so I encourage you to read more from Metro DC comrade Allison’s article that describes how it happened.

BEYOND THE DEBATES

Throughout the convention, there were many chances outside of debating resolutions and bylaws to connect with comrades across the organization, at hosted events and informal meetups. This was both a chance to learn from one another, and organize independently of the specific agenda of the convention.

The disability working group was restarted this way, by comrades who themselves recognized, personally, the need for better accessibility standards in DSA and a plan for achieving that. The bundling of resolutions on internationalism, housing, and decarceration, also involved separate meetings and consensus-building off the debate floor, between comrades with similar goals and different, but compatible, strategies. Also during the convention, delegates voted to revise the constitution and bylaw language to remove any remaining gendered language, independently of any bylaw amendments to be passed.

There were certainly still problems. Our community agreements included using ASL applause instead of clapping, but it took several reminders from comrades before this was actually adopted by the entire room (and on a personal note, as someone with auditory issues, I am definitely grateful that our chapter has kept this norm since I first joined). Delegates, including the chair, had to be reminded multiple times, often by Metro DC comrade Drew-Marie, about the exclusionary effect of gendered language (using “guys” instead of “comrades”, e.g.), but by the end of the convention even the closing speaker opened by addressing “ladies, gentlemen, and nonbinary comrades.” And while the convention tried to incorporate progressive stack, Robert’s Rules coupled with the convention hall layout meant that greater priority was given to those who could more quickly reach a microphone, and the pace of voting meant that many comrades who had to leave the room or had difficulty hearing or following the chair could not register their vote.

I do not want to dismiss the fact that the convention was difficult. Some debates were much more contentious, and many items did not pass or never even came up for a vote. There are remaining issues that comrades continue to fight for, such as around accessibility and sustaining small chapters. There are competing visions for DSA, the best role for national versus the local level, and where we should go as an organization. There are interpersonal conflicts. The convention was not going to answer all of these questions (if there even is a concrete answer for many of them), and there will continue to be difficult work in the years ahead.

I want to close out by thanking my comrades in Metro DC for sending me and 40 of our comrades to the convention. Solidarity always.

[Aug. 27, 2019]


[1] Borda Count assigns points based on where a voter ranks each candidate and the number of candidates ranked. The modified Borda Count that would have been used for the NPC election before the change would not have required voting for all 32 candidates, but it was unclear how this would affect voters who ranked a different number of candidates on their ballots.

[2] STV is a ranked-choice system that functions similar to a series of runoffs, where if a candidate receives sufficient votes to be on the NPC, then any extra votes for them are transferred to each voter’s next choice.

The Washington Socialist is the newsletter and editorial publication of Metro DC DSA. The views and opinions expressed here may not reflect those of the chapter, and publication of any information should not be considered an endorsement. For our chapter's official statements, please visit the Statements section of our main site.

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