California DSA, One Year On

California DSA, One Year On
Issue 2 of our journal, Zenith. Published March, 2023.

Sam H-L.

Over the course of 2021, DSA chapters across the state ratified bylaws to form a statewide organization, California DSA. Chapters elected delegates, who held their first statewide meeting on February 18 and elected leadership for the year (I was elected and am currently serving as the Secretary). One year on, the experience in forming California DSA has shown the promises and pitfalls of state and regional organizing work: slow going punctuated by positive developments.

Squaring the circle: creating a statewide deliberative body

DSA bylaws state that Locals can form State and Regional organizations and petition the National Political Committee for creation with a majority of included chapters signing on. For a relatively nascent socialist organization like DSA, how these bodies are formed remains an open question. Creating state and regional bodies “from above” with specified criteria and initial proposals made by national leadership can ensure standardized processes and legibility for the national organization, but can reinforce the biases and orientations of those doing the creating. Creating them “from below” may ensure that what gets created better reflects the will of the members organizing it, but can lead to a lack of standardization and create a phenomenon where the organizers who make initial decisions have an outsized influence on the direction the formation takes.

In 2020, a small group of DSA organizers in California formed the scaffolding for a broader Exploratory Committee with representation based on delegate counts from the 2019 convention. This Exploratory Committee drafted bylaws over the course of 2021 that went out to chapters to approve. After a majority of chapters approved the bylaws, the NPC voted to approve California DSA.

The decisions made in this exploratory committee process reflect some of the tensions at play in DSA’s organizing structures, with organizers trying to square the circle between local autonomy and the desire for a stronger regional organization. California DSA’s bylaws state that locals won’t be required to affirmatively participate in any campaigns it runs, a nod to a streak of independence that some chapters push for. At the same time, California DSA’s governing delegation, the State Council, reflects a more majoritarian orientation - rather than being an assembly of locals, chapters elect delegates proportional to their membership, with smaller chapters guaranteed at least one delegate. This structure is similar to that used for the national convention.

What should Higher Bodies do?

There are essentially three schools of thought for what the primary purpose of a higher body like California DSA or the National organization should be: collaboration and information sharing, Local development, and organizing campaigns. Of course, any functioning higher body should be doing a bit of everything, and most organizational forms will synthesize these three approaches, but different organizers will have different opinions about where the principal focus should be.

Collaboration/information sharing refers to ad-hoc and informal opportunities for connection between different Local organizations. Rather than developing a formal deliberative process with a collective decision on a particular course of action, this model of regional and national work allows for organizers to find commonalities in their work and collaborate on their own terms. For example, group meetings where chapters discuss a particular arena of struggle, and can get each other's contact information to follow up as needed.

Local development refers to a higher body taking steps to actively develop the work of lower bodies in a particular direction. This generally requires a bidirectional relationship on the part of a higher-body: first a process of understanding local conditions to ensure that they know what will be helpful, followed by targeted interventions calculated to the needs of those locals. This can take the form of listening sessions and reports, regular meetings with locals to hear their issues and provide direct feedback, or training sessions on particular topics of concern.

Organizing campaigns refer to specific time-bound operations, often within a particular arena of struggle, intended to achieve a goal. Depending on the campaign, this may be a particular piece of legislation, a victory in a labor, tenant or other class struggle, or simply a plan of work for organizational growth, mutual aid, etc. Depending on the campaign’s contents there may be varying levels of connection back to the lower body - for example, the campaign may involve advocacy for particular national legislation which means less direct local work (DSA’s PRO Act Campaign), or it may be focused on supporting individual local fights (electoral campaigns, Emergency Worker/Tenant Organizing Committees) or local instantiations of a broader fight (Solidarity is Brewing, recent California DSA organizing for the UC Strike). It may also be a primarily organizationally-oriented campaign (DSA 100K or the Recommitment Drive).

National DSA’s approach generally follows the organizing campaign model, with different campaigns incorporating the collaboration and local development approaches to varying degrees. DSA’s national campaigns have oriented more towards local work in recent years; for example, the Green New Deal Campaign Commission’s new Build For Power phase involves support for legislative campaigns at the local and state level.

Debate about the challenges and the opportunities of specifically legislative campaigns aside, one downside of putting so much energy into a campaign-oriented model is that many core challenges local organizers face fall by the wayside. Smaller chapters often report issues with basic work like managing finances and meeting logistics, with little support from higher bodies. And though larger chapters don’t often experience them as such, issues with general democratic process and chapter reproduction are not unique to smaller Locals - larger chapters often chug along due to the size of their representative areas, but with hidden political and organizational crises bubbling below the surface. Though campaigns are of course a logical way to structure organizational work, an overly campaign-focused approach misses these problems, replicating the “national chapter” issue. For example, the Growth And Development Committee could be a great opportunity for building a middle-layer of regional-level organizers who can support hired staff and act as synthesizing functions to help with regular operations of Local chapters. But because the Committee operates on a campaign model, the more basic work of checking in with chapters and identifying what is working and not working in their organizing often gets neglected.

California DSA: Promises and Pitfalls

One year after its inaugural meeting, California DSA has taken tentative steps towards organizing in all of the above categories, but still faces a general stall of its work.

Organizers in specific areas of work have held calls for looser information sharing and collaboration, acting as a conduit to communicate national work back down to locals and vice-versa. Ecosocialist organizers, operating as an ad-hoc body under the direction of the elected State Committee, have held a few chapter meetings focused on hearing about local campaigns and finding common connections between them (the State Committee recently voted to establish a Working Group to structure this work going forward). Similar meetings have been held for campaigns of DSA’s National Labor Commission. The State Committee has created regional cohorts for chapters to be split into, intended to be meeting occasionally for open connection between neighboring chapters at a smaller scale than the full delegation.

The California DSA leadership has also taken some tentative steps toward gathering information locally and applying it back down to chapters. Early on in the term, the State Committee held listening sessions, where chapters would share answers to a few shared questions; the State Committee wrote a brief analysis of these sessions and shared it with local chapters and up to the NPC.

Campaigns have also begun within California DSA, most notably providing structure to DSA chapters’ labor support campaign for the University of California academic workers’ strike late last year. A WhatsApp group and regular meetings organized by a special Working Group of California DSA’s Labor Committee provided a structure for collaboration across chapters, sharing information about how best to provide support and resources like logos and sign-up flows that chapters could repurpose to give a shared visual identity for DSA’s engagement with the strike.

Despite these positive steps, California DSA’s work is slow going. Though the elected State Council can act as a sort of “permanent convention,” the new nature of California DSA means there are few high-stakes political questions to hammer out using its quarterly meetings; delegates submitted only one resolution for the last two agendas. The State Committee made a bylaws interpretation decision that only elected State Council delegates are eligible to serve as elected leaders of California DSA bodies, which has further limited the talent pool for keeping these bodies operating at a healthy pace. (The State Committee has since discussed the impacts of this ruling and is in the process of considering overturning it.) The elected leadership therefore has taken on much of the responsibility for setting the cadence of work, and the pace of the delegate-elected leadership, the State Committee, has been relatively slow.

Leadership elected among delegates by a modified approval voting system rather than a proportional representation system like Single Transferable Vote means a selection process that trends towards candidates acceptable to a broader swath of the organization; candidates perceived as “outside the consensus” can have a more difficult time making it through. I believe the result tends to be a body with a higher degree of political alignment, but this can also mean a slower work style, as sizable minorities within the organization have less of a chance of putting their strong leaders forward.

Being a strange “middle ground” between national and local work also means that leaders and delegates have less time to commit to building the organization than may be necessary for its success;  at least three members of the State Committee serve on the steering committees of their respective chapters, and two of the nine served in major roles organizing last year’s University of California strike, in addition to members who have roles in national Committees and Working Groups. (I’m no exception, having taken a staff role in DSA San Francisco’s ballot measure slate campaign that took some of my personal capacity away.) For example, though the State Committee voted to hold meetings among the regional cohorts by the end of last year, that task stalled for months, and an opportunity for building cross-chapter collaboration and identifying shared challenges was delayed. We need to find a way to better elevate organizers from chapters and give them solid, concrete tasks to build California DSA’s capacity.

The future of California DSA

As the statewide formation enters its second year, it’s likely that many of the capacity issues that have plagued it this year will continue; at the last State Council meeting, delegates discussed opportunities for a statewide campaign that could be run to better build capacity, potentially including legislative support campaigns or labor support for upcoming UPS contract negotiations.

The instinct to find a strong state-wide campaign to bootstrap capacity is a reasonable and understandable one, and it’s exciting to see what lies on the horizon. But the next generation of leadership should not abandon the urgent need for a California DSA that fills in the biggest gap for our national organization: a layer of dedicated leaders who can understand the challenges faced by local organizers, identify shared principles for improving local work, and guide DSA chapters to find a stronger path forward. Doing this work in California DSA and advocating for it nationally can sometimes feel like fighting against the current, and it’s my hope that it can find a way to thrive as California DSA and other statewide organizations continue to develop.