Dues Kickbacks: We Need Solidarity, not Local Fragmentation

By Jeremy Gong

Sean’s proposed monthly dues amendment and his proposal about how exactly the next NPC should implement this has received a lot of positive and negative feedback. Recently, Sean also proposed a resolution, to be voted on separately from the amendment, to incorporate some of the feedback while clarifying some confusion around the proposal itself.

One key response to Sean’s amendment, which has now taken the form of a separate amendment calling for a 50% kickback of national dues money to chapters, has gotten a lot of attention as well. In response to comrades who argue for this 50/50 dues split, I wanted to explain why I support a lower kickback percentage such as Sean’s suggested 80/20 split. While I will not try here to address some other questions why dues are important in the first place, I hope that by answering this question–why should we give most of the dues money to DSA National while the chapters do most of the organizing work?–I can also shed some light on my general support for Sean’s amendment and resolution.

(Note: In this post, I use “chapter” instead of “local” so as not to confuse with the generic adjective “local”, as in “local autonomy”.)

In particular a lot of these questions revolve around the oft-invoked but rarely explained concept of “local autonomy.” Here I offer one angle on the question of dues, which is connected to questions about the relationship between national and chapters, that I believe is essential to grasp while we figure out how to build this large organization into a powerful, coherent political force on the Left.

I’m definitely not opposed to all forms of autonomous local action. I do, however, think it’s important for DSA to find the right balance between national and regional coordination on the one hand, and local autonomy on the other.

And when it comes to dues, I believe solidarity is more important than local fragmentation.

East Bay DSA (EBDSA) has been able to launch an awesome single payer canvassing campaign in California, with no staff and some thousands of dollars raised from members to pay for space and materials over six months. Our chapter also has almost 700 members, a core of more than a few experienced labor and community organizers and political operatives, and a lot of fantastically committed and brilliant underemployed/unemployed young people. California Nurses Union/National Nurses United is leading a statewide legislative fight for a viable single payer bill, and this has allowed EBDSA to piggyback on their campaign and absorb an amazing amount of enthusiasm that we could never have generated without the statewide legislative process or mainstream visibility.

In light of this, our success in building a strong chapter, training hundreds of canvassers and scores of single payer organizers and socialist cadres makes sense. Other large, well organized, urban chapters, with stables of experienced organizers and socialists, have and will continue to pull off impressive organizing and political feats.

A lot of the calls for a 50% or higher kickback to chapters is coming from chapters with over 500 members. However, there will soon be close to 200 chapters in 50 states. How many of them have at their core experienced and committed organizers, hundreds of eager members, rational and well thought out bylaws and democratic structures overseeing leadership and finances, and a major progressive union driving exciting and viable legislation in their state? Very few! Maybe 10 or 20, at most.

What’s more, if chapters end up getting a significant amount of monthly dues (more than 20%), I think it will be squandered. This is not because chapters aren’t to be trusted. But most chapters are small, don’t have bank accounts or strong democratic and bureaucratic structures to oversee those sums of money and hiring staff. More importantly, the amount of money that national would be kicking out to chapters would, in each case, be relatively small and not all that helpful.

With dues split 50/50 between national and all chapters, EBDSA could get tens of thousands of dollars a year, and with that hire staff and rent space. But the scores of chapters with 100 or less members would be receiving only tiny fractions–even with a 50/50 split, less than a couple thousand dollars per year, which could at best pay for one-off space rentals and sign materials, but not hire staff or secure an office.

Without having access to accurate and up to date numbers, I’m guessing there might be at least 100 chapters with less than 100 members. If all or most (80%) of that money went to national, national could hire a dozen or more regional organizers to support all these small chapters in all sorts of useful ways. In fact, in my opinion, no national campaign priority for single payer, mobilizers, political education, or anything else can be carried out to great effect anywhere except the few large chapters without sending out regional organizers to small, rural, or inexperienced chapters to train them in skills like canvassing, political education, internal organizing, or conflict resolution. And regional organizers can do what no one-off training session can: stick with the chapters over the months and years that it takes to learn to organize, and help them to develop all the capacities needed to fight for socialism at the local level and beyond.

On the other hand, if this money was mostly kicked back to the chapters in the form of a 50/50 split or higher, we would be dividing up an otherwise useful sum of money (potentially up to $1 million) into hundreds of tiny fragments. In other words, from the perspective of a small chapter, the difference between a 20% kickback and a 50% kickback is merely more or less supportive funds for materials and space; but only with a 20% kickback or less can the national hire regional organizers to put real staff on the ground supporting small chapters.

This is why, if we are to kickback money to chapters, I advocate for a 20% kickback, enough to support chapters in reserving spaces, printing materials, and buying swag. In fact, 20% will allow chapters decent financial sustainability, but won’t drain the National of resources needed to create durable structures of institutional support that help chapters coordinate. And 20% won’t exacerbate inequalities between large and small chapters like 50% would.

In the spirit of solidarity big, well organized chapters like NYC and EBDSA might consider their role in part to be subsidizing the development of other chapters. I’d much rather national gave resources and staff to organize the small chapters throughout the unorganized and mostly conservative parts of California with numerous fledgling DSA chapters – for starters, this would go a long way to actually winning single payer in this state, as these are the districts we need to be applying the most pressure on, not the East Bay where Oakland, Berkeley and Richmond representatives have come out in support of the bill. Regional organizers could likewise fan out across conservative states with smaller or less developed DSA chapters and cadres, especially in the South.

Finally, the much invoked concept of local autonomy overlooks a huge barrier to development: if each chapter has to reinvent the wheel (often unsuccessfully) for its own campaign plan, organizer skills trainings, or internal structure, that’s an enormous amount of energy wasted on something that could be supported by well thought out resources, materials, trainings, and strategy from national. With our single payer canvassing program, our Socialist Summer School, and our new internal structure and bylaws, I can speak from personal experience that making this stuff up from scratch is very challenging and time-intensive, and we were lucky enough to have the personnel to pull all of that off.

That being said, there’s sometimes a relative pedagogical benefit to making new organizers learn how to do all this on their own. But this potential benefit has to be weighed against the risk of burning activists out as they try to figure everything out on their own or without meaningful guidance, and/or alienating newer members who are tired of taking part in failed projects.

I completely share the hesitance of empowering a potentially undemocratic and stifling national staff-driven bureaucracy. However, relying so heavily on the concept of local autonomy is, in my opinion, a way of avoiding addressing the real problems every organization encounters while growing quickly and trying to become more effective and cohesive. When it comes to the challenges of building a vibrant, inclusive, and effective democratic organization, we cannot go over, under or around these problems. Of course national leaders and national resources need to be democratically controlled by the members, transparent and accountable. But we need to be very thoughtful and creative about how we actually achieve this, instead of just giving up on the national organization all together. The Spring Platform was written with these goals in mind, and we hope you will support our proposals at the Convention and beyond.

If we are going to be a truly mass organization, active in 50 states, and ultimately with real political power, we need to turn the 150 mostly small, isolated, and/or developing chapters into powerful and well organized centers of working class militancy. That can only happen if the national organization has the resources to send skilled socialist organizers to small chapters from Alaska to Alabama.