Report: April 2022 NPC Meeting
NPC debates how to focus National priorities amidst declining engagement at the grassroots.
The NPC met on April 30 and May 1, 2022, in their first full meeting since the decision to de-charter the BDS & Palestine Solidarity Working Group. They convened with a smaller body than when they last met in February, with three NPC members having resigned in the interim, including one member of the NPC Steering Committee. They began with a discussion of the current political context, ranging from issues like the challenges of an ineffective corporatist Democratic Party in the White House and Congress, an ever-growing climate threat, rising poverty, an active war zone, but also growing labor militancy. How DSA reconciles the political situation with its pre-established priorities, especially in the context of an escalating trend toward disengagement at the grassroots, was a consistent theme of the weekend.
A throughline of the meeting was the goal of building the organization’s engaged membership base, as well as assessing the extent of that issue. DSA National held their virtual launch event for the 2022 Recommitment Drive just the weekend prior, which will focus on asking lapsed and expired members to rejoin the organization, as well as a call for current members to increase their dues.
DSA structures its membership under three categories:
Members-in-good standing, who have paid dues to the organization within the past 12 months;
Expired members, who have paid dues within the past 24 months; and
Lapsed members, members who have not paid dues in over 24 months.
Any publicly reported figures of DSA’s membership includes those first two categories–collectively referred to as “constitutional members,” as the DSA constitution is what defines these groups–while the third group are not considered members.
Currently, DSA stands at 67,000 Members-in-Good-Standing, with 25,000 expired members. This means DSA’s total membership is down by two-thousand from the 94,000 announced prior to the 2021 National Convention. The Drive is aiming to re-sign five-thousand expired and lapsed members to return to dues-paying status. If these expired members return with monthly dues, National has estimated this would bring in an estimated $50,000 in income to the organization monthly. The NPC has tied this goal to a number of incentives to encourage chapters to participate, as well as the potential of making good on long-standing objectives such as the hiring of a national labor staffer, and renting offices for chapters, which the top performing chapters will be placed on the shortlist to receive.
In her report, however, National Director Maria Svart presented a less exuberant picture of the situation from the vantage point of the National Office. Burnout and demoralization among staff are high, with three staff-members resigning in a single day this past quarter. Part of the problem, she explained, is external–the pandemic, the political climate, and generally the same conditions that have led to widespread burnout. But a compounding factor, she stressed, has been the general lack of clarity, unified vision, and respect from the political leadership of the organization. Maria outlined a number of specific requests to the NPC, including spending more time with organizing staff and chapters themselves to better understand their work, developing a more unified national strategy, honing in on the national priorities and prioritizing them, and showing greater respect for the staff, specifically in refraining from publicly attacking them and discourage members from doing so.
Glenn, the National Organizing Director, shared some similar observations to Maria’s regarding staff burnout and demotivation, whose department was hit particularly hard by the staff resignations. His report also included bright spots, however, including the recent YDSA Winter Conference which was the first in-person National DSA event in over two years. Glenn encouraged the NPC to help in outreach, especially to struggling chapters, and also to develop clearer priorities which can help “cut through the noise." Glenn highlighted some specific wins, including direct organizing support that helped the Connecticut chapters merge into a larger statewide chapter, as well as helping a dormant chapter in the Midwest come back to life, joining two national calls and planning to participate in the Recommitment Drive.
The discussion around the Recommitment Drive during the staff reports, however, sparked debate among the NPC and national staff as to the relationship of the Drive to the previously outlined national priorities. Writing on behalf of the NPC in a recent issue of Democratic Left, NPC Chair Kristian Hernandez underscored those priorities which the NPC set earlier in their term, including three external priorities–Labor, Electoral, and Green New Deal–and three internal–the Growth and Development Committee, Multiracial Organizing Committee, and Staffing and Fundraising planning. In the meeting, Maria stressed the importance of the Drive and for a focus on retaining members, due to the large number of expired members–over a quarter of the entire membership.
NPC member Gustavo Gordillo raised concern about the timing of the recommitment drive, as members engaged around electoral work, who he argued are the most capable of mobilizing their chapters around an initiative like this, are all fully focused on the electoral primaries, meaning chapter capacity is low. NPC Steering member Sydney Ghazarian said she felt that while the Drive was intended to get members excited about the priorities themselves, she feels most of the National Priority Committees aren’t in a place to successfully onboard people directly into organizing work (though would like to see them get there). Many on the NPC echoed a sentiment that with the Drive coming so close on the heels of the Bowman issue, that the timing of it might be an obstacle, as well as the overall sense that DSA’s national priorities feel unfocused.
Discussion during the meeting seemed to reflect, on the one hand, a desire from many on the NPC for a more explicit focus on national campaigns, alongside a clear crisis of member engagement on the other, that requires dedicated attention to address. On the comms side the Communications Director reported open rates for mass email April fell by almost half, a significant drop, and registrations for the Recommitment Drive Launch Call on April 22nd were fewer than 100 based on email alone (they are typically closer to 250), before staff dropped their social media push and video to promote the drive. The organization is also facing something of a “fiscal cliff" with regards to membership, with over a quarter of our current members set to fall off the rolls by March 2023. If not corrected, in 2023 DSA will come together for their first convention in eight years with significantly less members than the one previous, rather than significantly more.
Despite the challenges facing DSA, there were plenty of positives to highlight nationally. The still-forming Multi-Racial Organizing Committee (MROC) is in the planning stages for an in-person convening of leaders throughout the organization in October. The Afro-Socialist & People of Color Caucus (AfroSoC) has onboarded more than 120 new members and is moving towards a section structure, similar to how YDSA is organized. The Medicare For All Committee held a 300-person-strong launch call for their newest organizing guide, and the Housing Justice Commission (HJC) recently launched the Emergency Tenant Organizing Committee, modeled after EWOC. DSA will also be co-sponsoring the 2022 Socialism Conference, which will be held in Chicago on Labor Day weekend.
The upsurge of labor activity has also had an effect on engagement, particularly in the Democratic Socialist Labor Commission (DSLC) and YDSA. Since electing a brand new Steering Committee in the fall, the Labor Commission has reported almost 70 chapters contacting them to support Starbucks worker organizing. The Commission is also standing up a new Logistics subcommittee, which will focus on preparing for a potential strike against UPS by the Teamsters in 2023.
YDSA has also seen higher engagement among members. Having just held a successful and well-attended Winter Conference, their national leadership is now planning a summer organizing school, alongside monthly leadership calls and their ongoing cohort program, which groups YDSA leaders together by local priority campaigns to share skills and experiences around common work. YDSA is also represented in the DSA delegation to Brazil, which includes NPC members and other DSA leaders, as their 2022 general election season formally began on May 1st.
Finally, the NPC laid out plans for DSA’s 2023 National Convention. Operations Director Kristina laid out three potential options:
In-Person Convention: 2019 Convention cost $1 million. In-person convention is good for morale and camaraderie.
Virtual Convention: 2021 Convention cost $129,000. This is the most cost-efficient option and is the most accessible for some.
Hybrid Convention: This will essentially combine the costs of both, since a full virtual platform must also be built and staffed in order to ensure accessibility, but it also includes the benefits of both.
A motion to hold the convention in-person passed unanimously. The NPC may decide to offer a hybrid option in the future, but there are no current plans to do so. Staff pressed the NPC for firm decisions on potential locations, citing that they felt National was behind schedule on planning. The NPC approved a short list of Phoenix, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Oakland as potential sites. The conversation turned to convention committees, but was cut short by the desire to allow new NPC members to be selected and onboarded before assigning these roles.
The three NPC vacancies, left in the aftermath of the Bowman issue, will be appointed by a majority vote of the sitting NPC. The application period for candidates began April 15th, and closes May 5th at midnight. The NPC will hold a candidate forum sometime in May, and will send members candidate packets via email by May 9th, with the plan that the new NPC members will assume their duties by May 27th.
Overall the April NPC meeting affirmed that the organization is in an ongoing crisis of political direction which is in turn driving down activity among the grassroots. And while the problems are palpable, its solutions are less so. While there’s no shortage of successful and invigorating work to point to, the reality of a sharp decline from where DSA was even a year ago, looms large over plans for the future.
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