“A Crisis in DSA” Railroad Strike Vote Spurs Debate

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled quoted sources’ names and wrongly misattributed a quote to an individual. The errors have since been fixed.

With a nationwide railroad strike looming, President Biden and the Democratic Party worked quickly to neutralize the threat. Four rail unions rejected the agreement made by the Biden administration earlier in the year and called for a mass boycott unless their demands were met. Utilizing the 1926 Railway Labor Act, Biden and congressional Democrats crafted a tentative agreement to impose on the striking rail unions, separating out a bill for, and ultimately crushing the attempt for, seven days of paid sick leave. But Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Cori Bush (D-M.O.), and Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), all of whom are currently, or were formerly, endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, supported Biden’s anti-worker agreement. This realization shocked and dismayed leftists nationwide, and national DSA’s lack of response—after issuing a statement decrying anyone who votes for the agreement as “siding with billionaires and forcing a contract on rail workers,” exacerbated tensions. 

Seattle DSA called on the National Political Committee to “organize a town hall to make clear that DSA stands 100% with railroad workers and against the government’s ban of their strike,” in a statement released on December 1. Several DSA chapters signed on, including in Madison, Wisconsin, Pittsburgh, and others.  Some YDSA chapters made similar proclamations, such as the University of Minnesota-Duluth chapter on December 5, saying that “DSA cannot endorse or tolerate strike breakers,” and nothing less than “the credibility of our organization and of socialism in the United States.” is at stake. Though a strong letter, YDSA Minnesota-Duluth member Tom Julstrom was reticent to “characterize our statement as coming out against DSA’s behavior.” 

Julstrom “broadly agreed with what has been released by the NPC and the Seattle chapter,”  but still believes it’s vital to distance DSA “more decisively.” Julstrom argued it is “insufficient to merely say that they don’t speak for us, so long as they continue to hold membership in the organization and to have the organization’s endorsement.”  “It’s difficult, after all,” Julstrom continued, “to construe the continued endorsement of an elected official as anything other than an endorsement of their actions in office.” 

Reed College YDSA co-chair Spencer Mann echoed Julstrom’s sentiment. Speaking of the statement, Mann said, “I have signed onto it as an individual, the steering committee of my DSA chapter (Portland DSA) has voted to sign onto it, and my YDSA chapter (Reed YDSA) has voted to sign onto it as well.” 

Though the contents of Seattle DSA’s statement might be controversial, the chapter’s co-chair, Philip Locker, felt it was necessary. “There has been a significant lack of transparency between rank and file DSA members and the NPC around these sorts of issues in the past. This type of open meeting would serve to engage the membership of the organization in a discussion around the nature of the votes and what our response should be,” said Locker. The town hall proposition was suggested, according to Locker, because “we [in Seattle DSA leadership] think this is a serious crisis in DSA, [and it’s] really important to clarify and make unambiguous DSA’s stance with rail workers present.” Instead of a rigid Q&A, Locker imagines the call will cultivate an “organized debate within DSA,” giving “activists, union heads, and rank and file members,” an opportunity to speak. 

Others felt more drastic measures were warranted. In a statement titled “Expel Class Enemies from the Democratic Socialists of America,” DSA’s Class Unity caucus called for the expulsion of AOC, Cori Bush, and Jamaal Bowman, saying they have “turned their backs on the movement that brought them to office.” The statement continues, saying “The black mark they have left on the name of socialism will be a liability for American socialists well into the future.”  

“We’re in favor of expelling AOC, Cori Bush, and Jamaal Bowman from the DSA,” replied Providence DSA‘s communications coordinator, when asked if his chapter agreed with this plan. The Winter Caucus made comparable arguments in a blog post, calling for a “moratorium on new congressional endorsements for 2024 and lasting until such time as our organization is capable of demanding and maintaining socialist discipline of its endorsed representatives.” Though acknowledging such actions aren’t currently possible in DSA, the post also advocates for overturning DSA’s leadership structure, asking the reader, and DSA members generally,  to “organize the rank and file membership to take ownership of the organization.” 

Nikhil Ananda claims these ideas stem from a sense of outrage on behalf of railroad workers, since Winter Caucus has collaborated alongside Railroad Workers United to “coordinate solidarity efforts.” 

But, he argues, such decisions cannot be made in DSA as it is currently designed. It’s “very difficult for DSA to hold Congresspeople accountable.”

Increasingly, DSA and YDSA members feel the organization cannot move forward without a change in leadership on the National Political Committee. Kaya Colakoglu, a member of YDSA’s National Coordinating Committee, was unflinching in his criticism. To him, the NPC’s handling of the Bowman affair was “catastrophic to the foundations of our organization,” and their attitude toward electoral politics has “chained us to underdevelopment as the junior partner in a broad center-progressive coalition, stifling our future as a working-class pre-party formation.” When asked if a change in leadership was necessary, Colakoglu replied “Yes. Doubtless.” 

While backlash has been swift, not everyone shares such punitive sentiments. Trey Cook, founder of University of Vermont YDSA and member of Champlain  DSA, disagreed with the arguments for expulsion, and inaction. “I don’t find any of these arguments compelling,” Cook said, feeling “None of them really address the factors that led to the situation and overinflate DSA’s role here.” Cook reminded that “Union leadership asked for this,” saying  “They had a strategy of Democrats intervening to impose a contract from the beginning.”  “The discussion on how to organize a militant union from the rank and file is far more nuanced,” Cook said, “but that is the one we should be having.”

St. Louis DSA endorsed Cori Bush twice, canvassed for her, and supported the Congresswoman’s career at every turn. When Bush voted in favor of the tentative agreement, the chapter reached out to her staff. 

“We wanted to approach her office about those concerns in the spirit of “calling in” rather than “calling out,” wrote St. Louis DSA corresponding secretary Katie Davis. “We’ve since been in ongoing communications with Representative Bush’s team,” said Davis, “and have appreciated the multiple frank conversations we have had with her staff since last week, learning more about the context and strategy around her vote and their specific conversations with the union members who wanted them to vote this way.” Instead of laying the blame on DSA-endorsed electeds, Davis pointed to Republicans and Senator Manchin, who ultimately defeated the effort for paid sick leave. 

Likewise, Jonathan Kissam—a member of the Socialist Majority Caucus and Communications Director for United Electrical Workers—thinks “going after progressive members of Congress is a waste of time.” Rail workers “didn’t seem to have a plan other than relying on Biden to get a deal,” Kissam said, lamenting their ‘lack of strategy,” and unwillingness to “run a political campaign.” Rather than “trying to score political points,” Kissam urged, DSA members should wage campaigns to “actually achieve something.” 

Emma Caterine is a member of NYC-DSA, who began her activism career with the Bernie Sanders and Julia Salazar campaigns. While she disagreed with the votes AOC, Bowman, and Bush casted, she wasn’t surprised, and stressed these Congresspeople decided to vote this way “after meeting with unions.” Catherine implied union organizers have a better understanding of such negotiations, saying, “if you’re a local union leader, you know how this stuff works.” Caterine blames the outcome of the vote on “Joe Manchin and the Republicans” and calls on socialists to “educate ourselves on legislative possibilities” and “coordinate with elected officials.” She also disagrees with Seattle DSA’s call for a town hall. “I thought that petition was very disingenuous,” Caterine said, arguing such an event negates concrete solutions in favor of “putting on a trial where we all yell at AOC and Cori Bush for a bit.” Catherine attributes the fire and fury surrounding the congressional vote to “aesthetic politics,” which has directed socialists towards  “creating a “socialist identity,” rather than “advancing actual socialism.” “Leftists tend to attack each other, rather than to attack the systems of power that oppress us.” With a sigh, Caterine summarized her view:  “I’m tired of DSA being conducted through Twitter.” 

Eventually, DSA issued an additional statement on December 4. Emphasizing that they “disagree and are disappointed with the decision of DSA members Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Cori Bush to needlessly vote to enforce the TA,” leadership promised to “hold a mass call on the subject with our membership.” No details were given, and no one from the National Political Committee responded to requests for comment as of December 27th, 2022. Seattle DSA later disseminated another letter, saying while they “appreciate your commitment to hold a mass call on the subject with our membership,” the NPC’s plan for said call was too opaque. “We believe the agenda needs to include a discussion on what kind of disciplinary action is needed for the 3 DSA Congressmembers,” the statement read. In Seattle DSA’s view, this meeting should “begin a structured discussion in DSA on how we can make sure that, going forward, DSA electeds will be held accountable to represent the policies of DSA.” 

Multiple chapters and grassroots organizers staked their positions on this issue, and divisions have only grown. Another wave of condemnation came after several DSA endorsees voted for Hakeem Jefferies to be House Speaker, fueling arguments about the role of these elected officials once again. And on January 8th of 2023, Class Unity announced it would be separating from DSA entirely. Most likely, the railroad strike vote’s fallout will continue to spread, and seep onto the convention floor this summer.